From my new Dog World opinion column ‘Crossing the headlines’ (19th April 2013)

Christmas isn’t my most-favourite time of the year but one thing I do really look forward to over the festive break is the arrival and reading of my Dog World annual. I love seeing the beautifully photographed dogs and reading about the great kennels past and present.
This year, I particularly enjoyed the in-depth review of what was going on in the various dog scenes around the world and was particularly struck by the similar problems and challenges facing us all. The one thing that really seems to unite all dog breeders and kennel clubs, whether you live in Croatia, Finland, South Africa or Australia is the focus (as it should be) on health. The general feeling from all the views was one of positivity for the future; some were really quite upbeat. Progress was being made and the pedigree world was ready to accept and learn from its past mistakes and move on into the future.

I think many of us thought the deciding factor to that bright and shiny future would be Crufts 2013, for certainly nobody wanted a repeat of the gloating media headlines of 2012 when six dogs failed their Kennel Club veterinary checks. Thankfully there was to be no repeat of this and all the winning dogs passed their checks with flying colours – proof if proof were needed that breeders were moving in the right direction.
Hand in hand with this good news came an increase in the number of visitors to the show and viewing figures for the excellent coverage of Crufts by More4 and Channel 4 revealed an audience of 4.5 million over the four nights. Pedigree dogs were at long last being seen in the positive light they so richly deserved. Maybe the corner had been turned, I thought, maybe we could all now look towards a positive future, but it seemed I was being a little too optimistic.
For in the course of one week, my rosy view for the future was shattered. First, by the tragic events of 14-year-old Jade Anderson’s death in Manchester and the inevitable call for the ‘culling’ and banning of various breeds and, then, by the broadcasting of a segment on the The Alan Titchmarsh Show which seemed to prove that we haven’t really moved on from the dark days of Pedigree Dogs Exposed. Crufts’ extraordinary success had clearly rankled someone as Alan announced solemnly that “the health of dogs is being put at risk by breeders striving to produce the perfect pedigree” and “increasing numbers are suffering from genetic diseases which causes them pain and disability from generations of inbreeding”.
‘The AT vet’, Steve Leonard, was then introduced and (looking equally glum) sighed as Alan said, “You’d think when buying a pedigree dog you’d be getting the best of both worlds but that clearly isn’t the case, is it?”
“Unfortunately not,” replied Mr Leonard. “People think that if they have a long pedigree and can see right back to all the same breed of dog this guarantees health, but this isn’t the case. Your average Heinz-57 is statistically healthier.”
“Ah,” chipped in Alan. “We call it hybrid vigour in the plant world.”
“Yes,” agreed Steve, “The bigger the gene pool, the less likely you are to have problems popping up.”
“So, is it certain breeds or all breeds?” enquired Alan.
“Well, we have two different problems with pedigree dogs,” explained Steve. “Conformation problems and genetic problems, and most breeds will be affected. It’s how we’ve forced our breeds into extreme shapes that are causing them problems.”
Alan then introduced a rogue’s gallery of three breeds causing greatest concern.
First up was Bugsy, a Pug with ‘breathing problems’. His young owner, Lolly, lifted (a rather heavy looking) Bugsy up onto the veterinary table to be ‘examined’. We were informed by Steve that Bugsy had “breathing problems – very noisy breathing problems”. I’m sure, much to the chagrin of the programme makers, and, even under the hot studio lights, Bugsy sat impassively silent!
Lolly was then goaded into explaining the problem. It appeared that, when excited, “Bugsy made all sorts of strange snorting noises”.
Steve shook his head despairingly. “Sadly, this is all-too common, but this isn’t just a Pug problem; it’s in all the brachycephalic breeds like Boxers and Bulldogs and it does help when they aren’t carrying too much weight,” admitted Steve reluctantly. Bugsy was certainly well-padded.
“Does his breathing cause him any bother?” asked Alan.
Lolly shook her head, “No, not at all.”
“Yes, well, er, Pugs – big problem is that they can’t pant,” added Steve at which point – once again – right on cue, Bugsy looked up and did ‘the impossible!’
Lolly and Bugsy were quickly ushered off to make way for a blue Shar-Pei and his equally exotic owner (with her multi-coloured hair extensions) Roma. Alan informed the viewers that the Shar-Pei, Boris, had undergone eye surgery, suffered skin problems and had recently had a ‘facelift’. Roma said that she ran Shar-Pei Rescue UK and had rehomed over 400 dogs all suffering skin and eye problems.
“70 per cent will need their eyes operating on and 50 per cent carry the gene for swollen hock/Shar-Pei fever.”

Singular viewpoint

At this point Alan interjected. “At the risk of sounding controversial but, isn’t this a breed we should just allow to die out?”
Steve and Roma both nodded in agreement at the remark.
“The dogs are in such pain,” continued Roma. “If it meant they no longer suffered I’d be happy for them to die out.”
Finally, we came to George, a rather portly eight-year-old Cavalier King Charles. Gorgeous George was obviously well loved as his owner struggled to lift him up onto the table. When she finally managed it she informed us that George had a “recently diagnosed heart murmur”.
“Another very common complaint in the breed,” informed Steve. “The problem is the line-breeding – breeding mother to daughter.” Obviously this must have been a slip of the tongue as such a mating would not only be highly undesirable but also highly improbable!
“Well, then, the answer has got to be to go to a good breeder?” said Alan.
“But, we did that,” protested George’s owner.
“You did that,” repeated Alan, “and you still got all these problems?”
And so ended a further ‘hatchet job’ on pedigree dogs. As you may have noticed by the above exchange, there was no KC representative present to answer the criticisms – no opposing view was aired. As usual, it was a one-sided exchange and I felt the ‘health’ problems could probably have been partly or wholly rectified by weight loss or being put on a correct diet.
All the way through the piece, a new message was being hammered home: ‘Inbreeding is bad’, and this is the new line of attack. Inbreeding, it appears, is the spectre, the demon that needs to be fought. Inbreeding (it is averred by the anti’s) is the cause of all the immeasurable pain and suffering.
If this segment of a popular show was just an isolated event then maybe it could be dismissed as a ‘sensationalist filler’ but it wasn’t alone. My attention was recently drawn to an article in the Telegraph. On March 3, Jilly Cooper, ‘journalist, author and media superstar’ (her description, not mine), wrote a piece titled, Why our mongrels are a dying breed. Now, the first thing that caught my attention was the picture accompanying the piece. It didn’t, as one would have expected, depict a mongrel. Instead, it showed a line of ladies kneeling behind immaculately groomed Bichons Frisés at Crufts.
Most odd, I thought, but, sure enough, the reason for the picture was soon revealed. It wasn’t far into the article before the insults began to fly – all aimed directly at the pedigree dog world.
The problem according to Jilly is, “all those bossy lady breeders” and their dogs which are like “zombies because they’ve been overbred”. She continued: “Breeding is so incestuous: they are all bred for very specific attributes – a long nose, say…” (well, it certainly makes a change to be accused of breeding for a long nose for once, I suppose) “…or narrow hips. There are so many with hip problems,” continued Jilly, “and more breed dogs are afflicted than mongrels.”
I’d ask, exactly how many mongrels are hip scored?
Jilly then stated that, “Mongrels, and I mean real mongrels, are an endangered series. At least breed dogs get bred deliberately; mongrels have to do it themselves. The problem today is that all dogs are castrated, so mongrels are in grave danger of dying out.”
I’m sure a quick trip to any one of the many animal shelters up and down the country would quickly allay Ms Cooper’s fears.
Jilly then goes on to say that one of her mongrels did indeed come from a shelter – Battersea Dogs’ Home – and was described as a husky/Labrador/Alsatian mix. He arrived at her home in the Cotswolds and, in her own words, “became the village stud, impregnating three Labradors in about three months – it was hysterical”.

The finger of blame

So, it seems with the likes of Jilly Cooper around, the future of the mongrel is assured.
And this is the real problem with dogs in this country and the one everyone should be working together to tackle – the very reason why our animal shelters are filled to capacity and why thousands of healthy dogs are needlessly destroyed every year. In a very large part, it is down to the irresponsible dog owners – the ‘backstreet’ producers of rare-coloured dogs and the kind who recklessly allows an entire male to roam the neighbourhood impregnating bitches and siring large litters of unwanted puppies.
It is these people – and it doesn’t matter whether you are a successful, wealthy novelist living in the Cotswolds or a bin man living in Nottingham – that should be the ones having their collars felt. However, whenever a ‘stray dog problem’ story appears in the press, just have a guess who the finger of blame gets pointed at…
Suprisingly, it’s not the reckless, irresponsible owners I’ve just described that are blamed; no, it would appear our burgeoning stray dog population is yet another problem caused by the pedigree dog fraternity. A quick view of the comments page reveals opinions – one after the other – saying, “If these show breeders stopped producing puppies then mongrels would find a home…”
It is a very strange topsy-turvy kind of world we are living in today – one where the conscientious breeder who regularly health tests his stock and breeds the occasional litter is vilified and the irresponsible and reckless ‘puppy producer’ goes completely unchallenged.
I would like our KC to fully focus its attention upon the pedigree world and more rigorously defend the work and rights of the people that fund it. Currently it faces spreading itself far too thinly. Is it still the voice of the pedigree dog world or is it now for ‘all dogs’? The mongrels and crossbreeds certainly have their loud, championing voices and they would cope very well without the KC’s interest and umbrella. We however cannot. What we need is a far more robust challenging of the dubious data presented as ‘fact’ by the anti’s.
Articles in the national press are needed and appearances on TV showing and demonstrating the continuing improvements in the health of our pedigree breeds and the work British breeders are doing to solve our problems would be very much welcomed. I know that we have some engaging, colourful and amazingly knowledgeable people within our ranks who could easily present ‘our’ side for a more balanced ‘fairer’ view of what is going on.
Watching The Alan Titchmarsh Show was a timely reminder of the need for our KC to become far more media-savvy. We still face many attacks on our hobby but by far the most dangerous foe we have to face is apathy.