Purebreds, Perception & the Public

From the pages of ShowSight – The Dog Show Magazine. Originally printed in the April 2016 Issue. Click to Subscribe. 


Why do you all starve your dogs?”


I was standing ringside with my Saluki when a spectator approached. “They’re just naturally thin, like Greyhounds, because they’re runners,” I replied, remembering to smile. When you own a Saluki, you’re used to that question. “They were bred to chase down gazelle in the desert. And actually, all of these dogs would be considered too fat to run well. Most of them we have to beg to eat. See?” I did my demo with the bait where the dog usually refuses to take it. She gulped it down. Thanks.


“Uh huh. So why do you make her tuck her tail?”


That question isn’t as common. “I didn’t, that’s the natural way this breed carries their tail,” adding, “She’s not unhappy, just relaxed… See? It’s not tucked, just hanging.” I tried to make her do something to at least look happy. So of course she just glared at me.

Regardless, that wasn’t the answer he was looking for. “Why would anyone breed a dog to tuck its tail like it’s been beaten?” I recognized the challenge in his tone.


“They’ve been like this for thousands of years, so I don’t know, but that’s how they are in their native land. Most dogs built for speed carry their tails like this.”


He looked unimpressed. This guy was obviously itching for a fight. So I couldn’t help myself. I added, “They were the only dogs allowed in the Bedouin tents, and I guess the Bedouins just didn’t want to look at a dog’s butt hole while they were eating.”


Amazingly, he started to chuckle. Then he admitted he didn’t like looking at his dog’s butt hole either. But it was only a temporary triumph. A German Shepherd walked by. “Why have show breeders ruined German Shepherds?” He knew enough to go into some detail, “The way they crouch down in the rear, and their rear legs are so bent they all have hip dysplasia.”


It’s one thing to defend your own breed, but defending another is a lot harder—especially when there are parts of the criticism you agree with. I clawed at my feeble brain cells to pull up OFA statistics. “Actually, as far as hip dysplasia, turns out that’s not related to the rear leg bend—there’s a lot of breeds with pretty straight hind legs that have a lot more hip dysplasia. Shepherds rank maybe 40th or so.” (I just now checked and they rank 39th, so maybe a few brain cells are still firing!) “I know everyone thinks of them as the poster dogs for hip dysplasia, but it’s not true. I know they were one of the first breeds to work hard on improving hips, and they’ve made a lot of progress, so maybe that’s why.”


“So why are their hind legs so bent, and they look like they’re headed uphill?”


I DID write German Shepherds for Dummies, but that was a long time ago. Still, I had some brain cells still surviving: “A certain amount rear leg bend is what helps them out-trot just about any other breed, and trotting is important for one of its original purposes as a shepherd. They worked as a sort of moving fence, trotting laps around huge flocks all day to keep them together in areas where they had no fences. So they had to be able to trot forever without getting tired.”


He mulled it over, then said, “Well it sure doesn’t look like the one I had as a kid.”


Yeah, I know. Nor did it look like my childhood neighborhood GSD, “Profit,” a dog I so admired I named one of my Salukis (“Prophet”) after him 40 years later. Did the dog before me not look like our childhood GSDs because the show GSD was new and improved? Or had the show dog gone beyond improved through overdone to caricature? We walk a tight rope between Preservation and Improvement, and between Improvement and Caricature. I came up with something like “Breeders today are trying to get back to a more moderate look” or some such, but mostly I was busy praying a Bulldog didn’t walk by.


That was in January. Fast forward to Crufts 2016 and the controversy over GSD judging. The press and social media alike went crazy criticizing the bitch that won the breed, calling her a “banana-backed hyperactive cripple,” some even saying she appeared to be in pain. They used her as ammunition against dog shows and purebred dog breeders, so I was hot to jump in the fray to defend her merits. Only I couldn’t.


The thing is, the very parts people were complaining about were in fact in contradiction to the UK GSD standard. Yet we see that in many breeds here and abroad: the written word is interpreted in bizarrely contorted ways in the real world. “Straight” topline somehow means curved, “level” means “sloping” and so on. The Kennel Club did what they could to negate the bad PR, although that included basically throwing the GSD under the bus. They edited her performance from their group video (although it can easily be found online) and came on television 24 hours later to essentially criticize the judge. KC Secretary Caroline Kisko indicated the KC was not happy with the BOB award, stating that the many of the category 3 breeds—those which were singled out as needing the most care to combat problems—had improved considerably in recent years. “So it is very disheartening to see one breed so peculiarly out of step with others,” she said. “We need to review the process and see what support we are giving to breeds to keep the improvements going,” she said.


In response to Kisko’s statement, the GSD League of Great Britain condemned the KC for disregarding the breed specialist judges who had given the bitch other top honors. The League maintains that she fits the breed standard, was proclaimed by the Crufts veterinarian to be fit, but admittedly did not respond well to the overwhelming circumstances of the Crufts main arena, giving a false impression of her temperament.


The website, change.org has a petition now for “The Kennel Club to ban the breeding and showing of GSDs with excessively sloping backs to prevent further breeding of animals who are predisposed to hip and joint issues…” In two weeks the site has amassed more than 85,000 signatures of the 150,000 it is aiming for.


The Kennel Club has been trying to deal with the public’s perception of purebred dogs as unhealthy and misshapen since the 2008 release of “Pedigree Dogs Exposed,” the television documentary that both exposed and exaggerated health problems of purebred dogs. Facing public condemnation, the KC at first refuted the allegations, then responded by reviewing breed standards for traits contrary to well-being, changing many and requiring veterinary checks at high-profile shows for certain at risk breeds. The initial vet checks at Crufts proved controversial as 6 of the 15 high profile breeds subject to the checks failed, in some cases due to minor ocular scarring from previous injuries. The KC also committed money to a genetics center developing new DNA tests, developed an online tool, Mate Select, that contained health tests results and inbreeding levels of individual dogs, and they banned first degree inbreeding. Many fanciers were angry at what they saw as the KC caving to AR demands.


A sequel Pedigree Dogs Exposed program aired three years later and found the KC’s efforts lacking.


Although PDE had far-reaching effects on the UK public’s perception of purebreds, the program never hit network television in the US. However, all you have to do is look at the results of the “Blackfish” program on Sea World to imagine how PDE would further deteriorate the US public perception of purebreds. Sea World waited too long to respond to their critics, and did not make their case strongly enough. That, along with the fact that Sea World is a publicly traded company, which means the resultant lower attendance was hurting stockholders, and maybe we should not have been as shocked as we were when Sea World capitulated to, and even joined with, its critics. It may have seemed like a feel-good ending to some, but it could be the beginning of the end for the killer whale, as Sea World was responsible for more research on and conservation of that species in the world.


What we can learn from PDE and Sea World is that we can’t just ignore our critics and think they’ll go away. It didn’t work for the whales, or the elephants or so far, for purebred dogs. The public may forget a celebrity’s sensational tryst by the next week, but they will remember perceived animal cruelty forever. Unless maybe, it’s Michael Vick.


We are the “stockholders” of the AKC; our shares are our dogs, and our dividends, the pleasure they bring us. To protect our stock holdings, we need to do certain things:


We can’t ignore or deny our problems. We can’t breed dogs with traits that cause diseases. That doesn’t mean every breed must have a track star physique but it does mean that every dog we show and reward must be free of issues that affect its quality of life.


We can’t operate in a vacuum. We can’t just keep on “improving” by rewarding the extremes, lest we improve our way to caricature. And the only ones who seem to like caricature are the people who breed them. If your breed standard calls for a trait associated with health problems, ask yourself if a strict interpretation of the standard is really causing these problems or if an extreme interpretation is causing them. Breed and judge to the standard!


At the same time, don’t be so quick to turn on our fellow breeds. We all think our own breed is improved, not exaggerated; and that associated health problems are overstated—but then we shake our heads and are quick to jump on the bandwagon in accusing “that other breed” of being an example of breeders gone wild and “AKC ruining a breed!” Make an effort to understand other breeds and find out if there is justification for what may seem at first to be an bad design.


But more than that, please don’t make the rest of us come to your defense if you have ignored the plea above to breed to the standard!  

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