There is a lot of confusion about the purpose and scope of the Vet Checks introduced at Crufts this year.
This article aims to clear up some of that confusion by looking at the origins and aims of these new checks.
For many years, those who care for and about dogs have deplored the exaggerated conformation of some of our dog breeds.
In 1981, the article entitled ‘The Things We Do to Dogs’ by Simon Wolfenson was published in the New Scientist on this topic. Here is the opening sentence:
The squashed face of the Peke, the drooping eye, the long back of the Bassett, the giant size of the Great Dane – careful breeding perpetuates the unique features of pedigree dogs in ever more exaggerated form.
Going back even further, when I was a child in the 1960s, I remember my mother and our vet deploring the state of Pekes and Pugs as they struggled to breathe and pant effectively.
This is nothing new.
Yet, throughout the generations, the views of the average dog owner have been largely ignored. We have been expected to leave breeding to those that ‘know best,’ i.e., the breeders themselves.
And then along came Jemima Harrison with her hard-hitting film Pedigree Dogs Exposed. Concerns about pedigree dogs swept the nation. As a result, after losing the support of the BBC and its coverage of Crufts, the Kennel Club began to sit up and listen to what people were saying.
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Changes to breed standards
In 2009, the Kennel Club proposed a raft of changes to the breed standards of many exaggerated dogs. Many of these changes were adopted, and a now interested public began to watch for a resulting change in the type of dogs being given awards at high-profile shows.
There have no doubt been changes in how some breeds are ‘judged’ as a result, but in other species, it seems clear that the new breed standards have not been taken as seriously as was intended by the Kennel Club. It was time to get tough.
The introduction of vet checks
Determined to ‘get it right’ this time, the Kennel Club has launched a system of vet checks to take place at Championship dog shows.
The purpose of these very focused checks is to search for clinical problems that have arisen due to exaggerations in confirmation.
Because the checks are specifically concerned with exaggerated conformation, dogs belonging to the many breeds that are not susceptible to exaggeration do not need to be tested. This avoids expensive and unnecessary testing of dogs that do not have a problem. Fifteen high-profile breeds were chosen to be included in the new tests at launch.
This is a unique and clever approach. Unlike any health test previously introduced, it deals ‘head-on’ with the problem of exaggerated conformation and the health issues generated by that problem.
But these dogs are already health tested, aren’t they?
The failure to discriminate between existing health tests and the new vet checks is causing a lot of confusion. Many pedigree dogs are subjected to a raft of different health checks.
Eyes are checked for retinal problems and glaucoma, hips for poor bone formation, and elbows the same. We have tests for diseases like CNM, and dogs can be checked for soundness of movement, heart, and so on.
However, these previous health tests have yet to address the issue of conformational exaggeration. In the past, this shortcoming has led to dogs winning high-profile awards when they are clearly uncomfortable or even in pain due to their poor and exaggerated conformation.
Thirty or forty years ago, people took little notice of how dogs were treated. Training methods were harsh, and many dogs lived a reasonably low-quality existence. Nowadays, we treat our dogs a great deal more kindly and compassionately.
Times have changed, and people are no longer content to turn a blind eye to dogs that are bred with the grotesque wrinkles of extreme Neopolitan Mastiffs, the flattened faces of Pekes and Pugs, and the withered rear ends of the show German Sheperd.
It is just not appropriate anymore.
Change is hard
The new vet checks have undoubtedly upset a lot of show dog exhibitors. Some of these have formed an organization called the Canine Alliance, and representatives of the CA met recently with the Kennel Club to put their grievances and demand the suspension of the new vet checks.
The Kennel Club has stood firm and refused to suspend the new system.
Exhibitors in those breeds where unacceptable levels of exaggeration have taken place will now need to decide where their future lies. Some will probably give up showing.
Others will learn to adapt and breed dogs with a better conformation. Change is always hard, but these changes are designed with the benefit of dogs in mind, not exhibitors.
A better future for dogs
In the years to come, we may now see Pekinese and Pugs with real muzzles and Bassett Hounds with tight eyes and legs that give them a bit of ground clearance.
We may soon see Neopolitan Mastiffs winning dog shows with a skin they can be comfortable in. And I am sure there will be more benefits to follow.
Both the Kennel Club and Jemima Harrison are to be congratulated. The Kennel Club for standing firm in the face of some determined opposition, and Jemima for being the catalyst behind many of these changes with her groundbreaking film.
I very much hope vet checks are here to stay. Hopefully, my beloved working labradors and cockers will never become so exaggerated that they must be on the list. But if they do suffer from extremes of breeding, it is excellent to know that this system of vet checks is in place to protect them.