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A British fight over dog-breeding ethics gets pug ugly

The BBC drops its coverage of the prestigious Crufts competition after a documentary questions breeders' practices. But the show's organizers say they've long championed good health.

March 05, 2009|Henry Chu

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND — It seems so very British that an ugly row has broken out between those who say they love dogs and those who say they love dogs more. But just such a royal catfight has ensnared the country's most prestigious dog show, Crufts, which opens today here in Birmingham, a four-day extravaganza of four-legged bliss that has drawn millions of viewers to the British Broadcasting Corp. since 1966.

But not this year.

The BBC has dropped its coverage of Crufts after a documentary exposed questionable practices among some competitive dog breeders. The quest for the perfect look produced Pekingese with excessively mashed-in faces, bulldogs with oversize heads, and dachshunds with unhealthily long bodies. Crufts, complained one anti-cruelty activist, was nothing less than a "parade of mutants."

The fallout has led to competing claims over who has the best interests of dogs at heart in a country where more than 1 in 5 households owns a dog, a fact well-supported by evidence on British sidewalks.

Stung by the bad publicity, Britain's Kennel Club, which runs Crufts, issued revised standards of canine beauty in January -- modifications that club officials say were already underway but that they acknowledge were being rushed into force because of the controversy. That sparked protests from some breeders and owners who fumed that the rules were being changed without fair warning before Crufts, which people here call the "greatest dog show on Earth."

The pageant's motto this year, coincidentally or not, is "Happy, healthy dogs," promoting an ideal that, club officials huff, they certainly didn't need to be lectured about by the BBC.

"It's almost as if they invented the idea, whereas actually we were very conscious of it, and we were already working with those breeds which we felt to be of the most concern," said Caroline Kisco, the club's secretary. "But we were taking a more softly, softly approach in getting them to agree to the changes."

The documentary that spawned the fuss, "Pedigree Dogs Exposed," aired on the BBC and was not for the squeamish. It showed animals suffering from horrible physical problems apparently bred into them by owners intent on achieving contest-winning looks. Some mated dogs with their parents, or siblings with each other, inbreeding that can lead to deformities.

There were pugs and Pekingese bred to have as flat a face as possible, an attribute that left them unable to breathe properly or regulate their body temperature. (One champion Pekingese had to be set on a block of ice when it received its prize.) Bulldogs were molded into such an odd shape that they could not mate or give birth naturally.

Most painful to watch, a Cavalier King Charles spaniel writhed in agony from a permanent headache because its skull had been bred too small for its brain -- like "a size 10 foot shoved into a size 6 shoe," a veterinary neurologist grimly explained.

Public outcry was immediate. Crufts' chief sponsor, a pet food maker, pulled out. And after an internal review, the BBC decided in December to ditch its coverage of the show.

That was bad news to Jose Baddeley, who has a strapping female Gordon setter in this year's competition ("Lotty, but her proper name is Birchgarth Fool's Gold With Lourdace").

"We have nothing to watch," Baddeley complained.

Meanwhile, judges have been instructed to be vigilant for signs of canine poor health. The revised guidelines for poochy pulchritude, Kisco said, should also help ensure that the dogs are "fit for function, fit for life," as the Kennel Club's slogan has it.

The standards for "only a handful" of breeds have undergone extensive changes, Kisco said, including the bulldog, which is supposed to lose its classic Churchillian jowls and gain longer legs and a leaner body. That prompted a gripe from Robin Searle, chairman of the British Bulldog Breed Council: "What you'll get is a completely different dog, not a British bulldog."

But many animal welfare activists are glad that questionable breeding practices have been exposed and that public discussion on the ethics of dog shows has been, so to speak, unleashed.

"This dog race of pedigree 'perfection' is destroying its subject," the Times of London said last week in an editorial with the headline "Ruff Trade."

"It is difficult to see dog as man's best friend when we castrate them, make them commit incest and parade them under bright lights in Birmingham," the paper said.

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henry.chu@latimes.com

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