A feature article written for Dog World (14th April 2015) looking at how the media portrays dogs and dog ownership.

Years ago, when still at college, I briefly toyed with the idea of becoming a journalist. Then, in the autumn of 1991, by a series of strange coincidences, I met a lady that would completely turn that idea on its head.

She was an American soul singing megastar and we were to be friends for the next ten or so years. Whenever she came to the UK I would hang out with her, go backstage at her shows, go to dinner, to rehearsals and travel to swanky hotels in the shiniest of stretch limousines. A pretty fantastic experience for an impressionable youth and from the outside it did indeed look like the perfect lifestyle however one only had to dig not too very far beneath the beautiful veneer to uncover a world rife with paranoia and the irritant of constantly being watched, the bane of this woman’s life were journalists and the media – especially the British media who, back then, were notoriously brutal. 

Rarely did a story about her talent or the incredible voice that had catapulted her to stardom appear in the newspapers; no, they always fixed firmly upon the negative because very early in her career she had made the mistake of mentioning her distrust and dislike of the media… it was something they never forgot. Her charity work for good causes, her fight against the prejudice (then widely held) against those suffering from HIV and AIDS were all widely ignored in favour of some piece of salacious gossip or alleged diva-strop.

Although some of the bad press was deserved – because she certainly was no angel – the majority of it most certainly wasn’t and a surprisingly large proportion of it was completely fictitious; her way of dealing with it was to ignore it and hope it will eventually go away. As she said to me, “you have to be so careful of the press they are such terrible liars” and, 20-odd years later, her words sadly still ring true.

There are a few major landmarks in one’s life and being around her was one of mine; not only did it change my intended career path but it taught me to take everything I read in the newspapers or hear on the TV with a very large pinch of salt!

For it doesn’t matter what field they are reporting on; music, show business, sport or our world of show dogs – most journalists will always try and take the negative slant and rake up some dirt because, sadly, the public have an appetite to read it and because such stories sell newspapers and magazines, they always have and always will.

A bunch of snobs

The common perception of us is that we are all a bunch of snobs. This view was recently demonstrated on the extraordinarily popular show, Googlebox, where two of the participants, Stephen and Chris, were watching the Crufts coverage; ”Look at ‘em,” sneered one contemptuously, “it’s just all so snobby.”

Yes, we are all snobs because we don’t adopt a rescue dog like the more saintly members of Joe-Public? Why do we think we are so special?

And how dare we judge one dog against another cry the PC brigade… for aren’t all dogs equally beautiful?

In today’s world, ‘perfection’ or trying to attain it is a dirty word… and any one attempting it or even defending it is branded a eugenicist, as evidenced recently at Westminster where PETA members turned up in Klu Klux Klan garb!

These views were all neatly summed up in one article I read during the Crufts ‘silly season’ titled Dogs deserve better than to die for a beauty pageant. It didn’t appear in one of the tawdry tabloids; it was given space in none other than The Independent. Written by Mimi Bekhechi (PETA UK’s Associate Director), it spewed out all the same propaganda and complete inaccuracies that one can find on the RSPCA/PETA websites.

It started with: “After hours of being paraded, posed and prodded by judges, one dog will be declared, ‘Best in Show’ at Crufts next week. But make no mistake: there are no winners in the world of pedigree dog breeding and showing.”

And went on to say: “To increase the odds of passing on certain traits that are favoured by show judges, breeders resort to orchestrating canine incest, mating mothers with sons and fathers with daughters (proof Mimi please? Facts and figures?). This greatly increases the odds of passing on recessive genes which can result in offspring with debilitating afflictions such as hypothyroidism, epilepsy, cataracts, allergies, heart disease and hip dysplasia.”

Mimi obviously forgot to mention the RSPCA-funded study of Dr Dan O’Neill last year who said; “There is this image of the crossbreeds being this paragon of health, in fact they are just crosses of purebreds with a combination of prevalences you find in their parents. It is not true that they are healthier overall and it is wrong to stigmatise purebreds.”

Of course such research didn’t stop Ms Bekhechi’s ludicrous claims: “The BBC stopped broadcasting Crufts following the airing of Pedigree Dogs Exposed, which revealed the suffering of pedigree show dogs. The RSPCA has stated that dog shows, ‘actively encourage both the intentional breeding of deformed and disabled dogs and the inbreeding of closely related animals’ and that ‘about one in four purebred dogs is afflicted with serious congenital defects…’”

And here’s the big finale… drum roll please! Of course you know what’s coming don’t you? Yes, of course, it’s the ‘all pedigree dog breeders are to blame for the dogs in shelters crisis’ part…

Over to Mimi: “Even dogs who never set foot in the Crufts showring lose because of breeders’ pursuit of ribbons and trophies. All the new puppies breeders bring into the world in the hope of producing a ‘best in show’ contender will either fill homes that could have gone to dogs languishing in shelters or end up homeless themselves.”

That’s right Mimi; shelters are filled to the rafters with Standard Poodles and Scottish Terriers aren’t they?

She continued: “And many of these puppies will go on to have litters of their own, bringing even more dogs into a world that doesn’t have enough homes for those that already exist.

“Dogs deserve better than to suffer and die for a ‘beauty’ pageant. Please stand up for the underdog: refuse to attend or watch Crufts and other dog shows. If you’re considering bringing a canine companion into your home, please adopt and have the animal spayed or neutered instead of buying from a breeder or pet shop.

“When you adopt, everyone wins – a dog gets a second chance of life, and you get a friend who’ll take first place in your heart.”

Of course we can all dismiss this rubbish for what it is but it got published in a credible newspaper and got 15,000 shares!

But look what I did with it. See how easy it is to pick it all apart?

So, the general public are presented with a view that depicts us as snobs and goose-stepping eugenicists… not looking too good is it? I mean, why would anyone want to join such a world?

And while we are told to be ‘more inclusive’ and to listen to the alternative view, where is our platform? How can we get our side across?

And, after this year’s Crufts – where a few ‘nameless’ disgruntled exhibitors are alleged to have whined about the ‘amount of foreigners attending the show’ – we can now add those toxic words ‘racists’ and ‘xenophobes’ to the list of our failings and then with the tragic death of the Irish Setter the press went into overdrive!

‘The dog was worth £50,000’ screamed one headline and another article talked of it being a ‘really nasty sport.’

Ah, so that’s it, thinks the public; that lethal combination of money and competitiveness. What nasty people those pedigree lovers must be… to poison the competition… to kill a poor dog. They aren’t real dog lovers. And despite the news that the dog wasn’t in fact poisoned at Crufts the majority of the public will still be left with that opinion… because as we all know, mud sticks.

Again and again negative media stories are being presented to an increasingly gullible public and despite articles appearing that are full of inaccuracies and often peddling downright lies I never see any challenge made to correct them. So, you put yourself in Joe Public’s shoes, the majority of whom have probably never attended a dog show, and in the end wouldn’t you begin to wonder, ‘well, there has to be some truth to it all’?

Crossbeeds

A couple of years ago I wrote a piece that spoke about there being a conspiracy against pedigree dogs. ‘What rubbish,’ scoffed one writer. ‘There is no great dark conspiracy against pedigree dogs’ he laughed. Well, it’s certainly not looking too funny now, is it? With the BBC stooping to ringing around for ‘stories’, the RSPCA asking for reports of sick ‘pedigree’ dogs and did anyone see the recent Jonathan Ross Show where he interviewed Clare Balding? He spoke about her excellent hosting of Crufts and then said, “Of course, crossbreeds aren’t allowed to compete, are they?” to which Clare replied with a firm, No; “What a shame, I’d like to see them there” and then he brought on four crossbreeds for a rather bemused Clare to guess the parentage of. We had a very long backed (of curious proportions) lurcher/Dachshund cross and a Puggle that had a flatter face than the majority of Pugs, it even had a tight curly tail, seen in the show ring. Funnily enough the ‘anti’ stayed remarkably quiet about this appearance. No close-ups of the dog’s face appeared on Facebook and no ranting about flat-faced breeds’ inability to breathe from PETA or the RSPCA. Why was that do you think? Mr Ross then brought on an admittedly cute ‘miniature labradoodle’ puppy. No hysterical screams were heard about the ethics of crossing such vastly different breeds or adding to a burgeoning crossbred population.

Strange don’t you think, and, watching that rather bizarre segment on the Jonathan Ross Show one was left wondering, what exactly was the point of it?

Then we had LBC’s Nick Ferrari revealing what ‘they’ are really after in his appalling interview with Michael Gadsby.

If you didn’t get to hear it please go and have a listen.

Mike had gone on to bravely defend our community against the outrageous and what would eventually turn out to be completely unfounded slurs and insults being aimed at the dog showing world from the mainstream media following Jagger’s poisoning.

However, it soon became apparent that Mr Ferrari wasn’t really too concerned about a dog’s untimely death; oh no, he wanted Mike to dish the dirt on the show world… “There’s a lot of hanky-panky going on there, isn’t there Mr Gadsby?”

Again and again he went off-topic and appeared to have a somewhat unhealthy fascination in the illegal use of talc, hairspray and boot polish on show dogs.

Mike did a sterling job at fending off the ridiculous questions and kept reminding the interviewer that he was there to talk about the poisoning of a dog. How he kept his cool I will never know. Thank God Mr Ferrari didn’t interview me because I don’t think I would have remained so calm and professional; LBC’s ‘bleep’ machine would have been working overtime!

And that would be exactly the kind of reaction the sniggering Mr Ferrari would have wanted.

Listening to that interview hammered home the urgent need for some joined-up thinking just as Gopi Krishnan and Andrew Brace have recently written. I’ve argued it for years; Kennel Clubs and pedigree dog lovers around the world need to unite and pool resources in the face of this negative media onslaught. We need to share what is going on and the threats we face in our individual countries and learn from one another.

Gopi’s idea of a joint fund to be set up to engage a first class PR company to champion the cause and the many plus points of pedigree dogs needs to be given serious consideration. He is right; just think what the combined money from the Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI), the UK, Canadian, American and Australian Kennel Clubs could do in the fight for the pedigree dog.

The attendance at this year’s Crufts proves the dog loving public still has deep affection for the pedigree. We need to learn lessons from the likes of the RSPCA and PETA who have dedicated media centres and fight the scourge of bad press… now!

I grew up reading the writings of true experts like Peggy Grayson, Stafford Somerfield, Catherine Sutton and Tom Horner… no-nonsense people who dedicated their lives to the furthering of the pedigree dog; is it possible that they were all wrong and the likes of Ms Bekhechi are right? Of course it isn’t and we are lucky to still have incredibly knowledgeable people in our midst who could easily dismantle the ignorant, heavily prejudiced and one sided argument put forward by the likes of Mimi Bekhechi.

For far too long this notion that we are all somehow to blame for the scandalous numbers of dogs needing rehoming has been allowed to go unchallenged. It needs to be tackled once and for all. For once the furore over this year’s Crufts has died down, as it inevitably will, this will be the stick that will be continually used to beat us. It would be the perfect first topic for a united group of Kennel Clubs to tackle as it is a common problem all around the world. It’s the very large ‘elephant in the room’ that no one is allowed to mention without getting attacked. Last year’s Crufts coverage provided evidence of this when Kennel Club vet Nick Blayney quite innocently said there were, ‘more crossbreeds in shelters than purebreeds.’

‘Not true,’ immediately screamed the anti before presenting links to reams and reams of ‘facts and figures’. One professionally presented report had pages dedicated to the annual intake of dogs, split by breed and the percentages of purebreed and crossbreed and, at first glance, it did appear that the anti were indeed correct; the list had a total of 5,221 dogs of which 3,357 (64 per cent) were labelled as ‘purebreeds’.

However a quick scan of the list of ‘breeds’ involved showed the ‘purebreed’ total included Jack Russells, Pitbulls, Lurchers and Labradoodles. In addition to 483 misallocated dogs, the ‘purebreed’ figure also played host to 627 ‘mongrels’. Add to that the inclusion of 984 ‘purebred’ Staffies, 102 ‘purebred’ German Shepherds and 92 ‘purebred’ Rottweilers (and I think it would be quite reasonable to assume that half of these weren’t actually ‘purebred’ but assigned to the breed they most resemble – evidence of this practice can quite easily be seen on the various charity websites the revised ‘purebreed’ figure is much much lower at 20 per cent – 1,069 of the 5,221 total.

Was this an innocent mistake or was there some other reason for covering up the true state of affairs?

I approached another charity and asked for their crossbreed/purebreed figures and was told, ‘we don’t help private research…’  – a rather odd approach for a publicly funded charity don’t you think?

And did Nick get an apology for the online character assassination that ensued because he dared to simply speak the truth? What do you think?

Commissioned report

A review of the dogs in shelters needs to be commissioned. Let’s see what the real make up of the shelters are and see EXACTLY who is producing them. If, as I suspect, it shows the majority of the dogs are Staffie/Lab/Collie-type crosses then it is these people who need to be targeted and stopped from producing these types of dogs in such numbers when there quite clearly aren’t enough suitable homes for them. 

Despite PETA’s ridiculous claims, there are in fact a wealth of suitable homes and owners out there… for the right dog – and that’s not a ‘snobby’ statement. Tastes and lifestyles change. What the likes of Mimi fail to understand is that there is no ‘one size fits all’ dog. A lot of people nowadays would be totally unable or unsuitable to give a home to the type of dog most commonly found in shelters. That is why they go for the predictability of a pedigree and there is nothing wrong in that. People are being made to feel guilty for choosing a pedigree, made to feel ‘bad people’ in some way to blame for a rescue dog being euthanised or not getting rehomed. A message that is constantly hammered home at every convenient opportunity by lobotomised-looking Z-list ‘celebrities’ robotically trotting out that familiar line, ‘don’t buy, rescue.’

The pedigree puppy buyer needs to know that they are not ‘bad people, in many respects the well-bred pedigree represents an incredibly wise choice. Maybe it’s time that we began to ask some uncomfortable questions ourselves and start to take back the conversation. If there are indeed a glut of crossbreed dogs in kennels around the world, is it not irresponsible to purposefully create more and add to the unwanted number? Maybe PETA does in fact have a point here. Maybe ‘targeted’ neutering/spaying of all crossbreeds would be the way forward… I wonder how they would feel about that?

I know the KC’s Assured Breeder Scheme has its flaws (many of which could so easily be ironed out with more consultation with experienced breeders) but it is the way forward. It is just the type of scheme that would find favour with the mainstream press and public. A puppy should be something that is in demand… something worth being on a waiting list for… something that is treasured. This is the reason the majority of our dogs stay out of shelters. Most breeders stay friends with their puppy buyers, exchanging Christmas cards and email updates on their dog’s progression. This is how it should be…this is what the press needs to know. And, quite the opposite of Mimi’s statement that ‘there aren’t enough homes for puppies’, we often find that there aren’t actually enough suitable pedigree dogs being produced to fulfil demand which, of course, has left a void that has been so eagerly filled by the illegal Eastern European puppy smugglers.

Our globally joint-funded PR company could demand real action against those who sell five to six week old puppies down the local pub. Puppies reared without a heat lamp, without proper bedding, food or love, the very kind of puppy, once out of the cute and fluffy stage, that will grow into the kind of dog that will need rehoming and fuel the swelling numbers of those in shelters. They could demand to know exactly what is being done to stop the flood of ‘pedigree’ puppies being smuggled in from Eastern Europe. They could work with and put increased pressure on the charities that claim to care about such things. What exactly are they doing to stop it? 

Smokescreen

I believe the pedigree dog is being used as a convenient smokescreen to divert attention and cover obvious failings. A sure fire headline grabbing topic that will get media attention. Surely every charity would prefer there to be no dogs in rescue?

We are told ‘education’ is the key but once again maybe ‘education’ simply isn’t enough as the number of rescue centres continue to mushroom across the land (case-in-point that one dog charity is opening another three centres in the next year) and the numbers of dogs needing rehoming continues to escalate year in year out. We have already been forced to microchip all our dogs to help prevent the casual dumping of dogs; how long do you think it will be before laws are brought in that drastically effect the breeding of all dogs because of the huge numbers of irresponsibly bred dogs needing rehoming?

Today’s society and media is dominated by the individuals and groups who shout the loudest – the ones who make the most noise. We urgently need to start banging the drum for the pedigree dog and for our hobby if it is to survive.

My famous friend thought the best way for all the media attention and lurid stories to die down was simply not to comment on them. She thought that by ignoring them they would eventually get bored and go away. She was wrong and paid a heavy price. Let’s not make the same mistake.

See more, including numerous comments on the article from the Dog World readership http://www.dogworld.co.uk/product.php/134298/

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