Through the years some pedigree dog breeders have gone beyond simply aiming for conformity to breed standards, and have begun producing animals with 'extreme conformation' to take out the big awards. The quest for exaggerated breed characteristics deemed desirable by show judges has encouraged inbreeding with subsequent health and welfare issues for dogs. Hereditary diseases and conditions are also perpetuated as a result of breeding closely related animals.
The largest and most famous of all dog shows is Crufts, a UK institution since 1891 run by the Kennel Club which held its annual show just a few weeks ago. Crufts is the largest show of its kind and has been the subject of much controversy surrounding its judging standards and breeder practices.
'Desirable' breed characteristics and their effects:
• Flat face and short muzzle in brachycephalic breeds such as boxers, pugs, Pekinese. This likely causes these dogs to have trouble breathing due to their 'pushed in' faces. Narrowed nostrils and windpipe, enlarged soft palate, collapsed larynx and the inability to pant causing overheating are all seen in these breeds and more so in very short nosed animals, constricting the respiratory system even more.
• Small skull selection in Cavalier King Charles spaniels resulting in brain damage.
• Large size and consequent rapid growth in large breed dogs resulting in hip and elbow dysplasia.
• Massive head size in bulldogs means a normal birth is rare and due to their body shape they often require assistance to mating.
• Protruding eyes in Pekinese and other 'bug eyed' breeds make them prone to injury and even eyes popping out.
• Double curl in the pugs tail is normally achieved only in conjunction with curvature of the spine.
• Drooping of lower eyelids in basset hounds leaving eye exposed to injury and infection plus excess folds of skin which can impede mobility.
A basset hound bred for dog shows vs. a regular basset hound. Photo / Supplied, Thinkstock
Since the documentary Pedigree Dogs Exposed aired in 2008 these and other exaggerated breed characteristics - genetically carried disease, close inbreeding, culling of healthy puppies and other negative breeding practices - came to light. Although the Kennel Club denied compromising the health and welfare of pedigree dogs, the Crufts show lost many sponsors including the BBC which chose to cease broadcasting the event.
The RSPCA stated that it was "concerned about the unacceptably high levels of disability, deformity and disease affecting pedigree dogs".
Unable to ignore the overwhelming response from the public and animal welfare groups, show organisers reviewed all breed standards in 2009. The Kennel Club stated that new standards will "not include anything that could in any way be interpreted as encouraging features that might prevent a dog from breathing, walking and seeing freely". The Kennel Club is also now refusing to register puppies produced from direct inbreeding, a previously common practice to lock in desirable traits.
Additionally, independent vet checks were introduced from 2012 for best of breed winners. The purpose of these checks is to ensure each dog is healthy, and disqualifying any deemed to be suffering from breed related health and welfare issues.
Despite these positive steps, Crufts still has many critics who feel not enough is being done for the welfare of these highly ornamental animals.
Personally I prefer dogs for who they are rather than what they look like. A pug battling to breath or a Pekinese with eyes bulging out of its head seems to serve only the interests of a very human ideal of perfection.