Alison Skipper is one of the two independent vets appointed by the KC to conduct the vet checks on the Best of Breed winners of the 15 highlighted breeds at Crufts.
She and Will Jeffels are, variously, being accused of being either useless or animal rights activitists intent on bringing down pedigree dogs. Of course the truth is rather less exciting. It turns out that Alison Skipper is an experienced general practice vet with a life-long interest in pedigree dogs. We also know that Will Jeffels was the show vet at the UK Toy Champ Show last year.
I can't imagine what the last few days have been like for both of them.
Here Alison Skipper has her say.
"One of the few positive things about being one
of the two independent vets at the centre of this controversy is that I am, at
least, independent. What I am about to write is my own opinion, and nobody has
told me what to say, or even asked me to say it. Most of the other big players
in this story have a vested interest of some kind: they are important people in
the Kennel Club, or the British Veterinary Association (BVA), and so can’t
speak completely freely, or they are well known people within the dog world,
such as important judges or exhibitors.
"Will Jeffels and I are not any of these
things: we trained as vets because we like animals and wanted to work with
them, and we volunteered to be the first vets implementing the new show checks
because we supported the initiative and decided – rashly, perhaps – to get
involved. I haven’t even seen Will for 20 years or so – we didn’t meet during
Crufts – but we are united in our willingness to stand behind the reforms.
I grew up on the fringes of the dog show world.
My mother took out our family affix in 1952, and was a regular breeder during
the 1950s. I’ve been coming to Crufts since it was at Olympia, with the
clickety- clackity old wooden escalators up from the tube station. I’ve been a
small animal vet for 22 years, and have had pedigree dogs of my own throughout this
"I used to be very active in Australian Cattle
Dogs, and was one of the driving forces behind an international effort in 1996
to source samples to develop a DNA test for PRA in the ACD; this was rewarded
by the development of a gene specific test by OptiGen in 2004.
"I wrote the veterinary column for Our Dogs for over five years. I am
currently (unless they kick me out over this) a member of four breed specific
canine societies. At the moment, I have four dogs of smaller breeds. Over my
time in dogs, I’ve done a bit of showing, including at Crufts, I’ve bred three
litters (with one DIY caesarian!), and I’ve done club level agility for several
years. I work in a small animal practice with lots of dog breeder clients,
including some successful show kennels, and a large proportion of working dogs.
However, I have never shown dogs seriously, and the one time I judged a match
at a fun day, I realised that judging was not for me. What I am, I hope, is an
ordinary vet with a strong interest in, and love for, the pedigree dog, a good
degree of clinical competence, and enough personal integrity to do what I think
I know how the dog world works, but I know very
few of the main players within it, and these, I think, are the reasons why the
KC and BVA appointed me as one of these first two vets.
"To go from a quiet life one week to being at
the centre of such an emotive controversy the next is not easy, or fun. Why did
I agree to do it? It wasn’t for the money; we didn’t get paid. The KC gave me food
for the weekend, a bed for the night, and the chance to watch the groups on the
days I was at Crufts, which was all very nice but I could have stayed at home
and watched it on TV, and saved myself a lot of trouble. I’m not stupid: I knew
it would be extremely controversial, and that I would probably have to make
decisions that would be very unpopular. And it wasn’t without personal risk; if
I were found guilty of false certification I could be struck off the veterinary
register and lose my livelihood. That’s a pretty strong incentive to be
accurate when carrying out a clinical examination.
"I agreed to do this because I thought it would
help to improve the health and welfare of pedigree dogs. Personally, I see
nothing wrong in the ethical production of pedigree dogs, except perhaps for
the argument that there aren’t enough good homes out there for the dogs there
are already. A healthy, happy pedigree dog obviously has as good a quality of
life as a healthy, happy mongrel. However, nobody is compelled to breed
pedigree dogs. It’s something we all choose to do.
And it seems to me that, if we are choosing to
bring new dogs into the world, it’s only right that we should do what we can to
produce dogs who are not physically prevented from having a good quality of
"As has often been stated, there are two
problems with this that are undeniably more of an issue with purebred dogs than
breeds: the various genetic issues that afflict
different breeds, and the issues of health and welfare that relate directly to
exaggerated conformation. For some years, ethical breeders have made huge
progress in improving welfare through the various schemes for monitoring
This is hugely important, and has clearly
helped to improve lives for thousands of dogs; breeders should be proud of what
they’ve achieved in this area.
"But inherited disease is only one side of the
coin, and until recently, the other side of the coin, the problems caused by
extreme conformation, has been rather overlooked within the dog fancy.
The two sides are quite separate; a breed can
have very moderate conformation and be plagued by serious inherited disease
issues, such as the Cavalier, or it can be relatively healthy in terms of
invisible problems and yet have clear issues with some aspect of its body
"This high-profile breed scheme is a hugely
important step towards reducing the problems associated with extreme
conformation. Nobody ever said, "Oh good, I’ve produced a puppy which is going
to suffer pain as a result of the body shape I chose!”, but it’s all too easy
to overlook chronic low-level discomfort, and I think it’s undeniable that some
breeds are associated with issues of this kind. Dogs that have always had
exposed, irritated inner eyelids aren’t going to scream with pain or stop
eating because their eyes hurt; they don’t know any differently, but surely the
same dog would have a better quality of life if its eyelids fitted better to
the eyeballs. It must be better to be a Pug who can chase its friends in the
park than to be a Pug that struggles to walk along a path. Surely these things
are not in dispute, or they shouldn’t be.
"The brief that Will Jeffels and I were given by
the KC was very clear: we were not meant to assess conformation in the
same way as a judge would, and we were not meant to penalise a dog because of
any aspect of its shape or structure, unless we felt that attribute had led to
a problem with its health or welfare. So we couldn’t reject a dog just because
it had a short face or lots of skin folds, for example, or because we didn’t
like the way it moved; only if it had trouble breathing, or a skin infection,
or was lame, as a result of its structure.
"We were chosen to do this, rather
than specialist vets, because Steve Dean thought it would be unfair for judges
to be over- ruled by, for example, specialist ophthalmologists, because they
might notice things that no judge could be expected to see. He thought
that experienced general practitioners would know what’s normal and what isn’t
– we earn our livings doing it – and would be able to see obvious problems that
a judge could also see.
"The KC told us exactly what they wanted us to do, and
then left us to go and do it.
They did not try to influence our decisions in
any way. We could have passed – or failed – any or all of the 15 dogs quite
freely. It is sad that some dogs failed, but I think it shows that there is a
need for this scheme: if we had been assessing a group of Borzois or Cairns or
Dalmatians I don’t think any would have failed.
Obviously, I am bound by professional
confidentiality and cannot comment on any of the dogs I examined. The owners
are not so bound and I would be happy for any of the owners of the dogs I
examined to make public the form I signed, in its entirety. I wrote several
comments on most of them, and many of the comments I wrote were positive, even
on dogs I failed. I have enormous sympathy for the owners of the dogs that were
failed. It must have been disappointing, embarrassing and humiliating, and it
gave me no pleasure at all to do it.
"There are several general points from the
examination process, however, which I think are worth emphasising. Firstly,
there are many possible reasons for failure. Some of them may be temporary:
lameness, for example, may have gone by the next day, but one fundamental rule
of veterinary certification is that you can only attest to what you see before
you at that moment; you cannot speculate on what the animal might have looked
like five minutes earlier or five minutes later. Also, as with judging,
there may be problems that are found on close examination of a dog that would
not be visible from the ringside.
Secondly, it’s obvious from the photographs on
the Internet that some of the BOB winners which failed were indeed of more
moderate conformation than some other dogs within that breed. It must have been
particularly galling for those owners to fail. However, we weren’t being asked
to judge whether a particular dog was better than the breed average; we only
examined the winner, and if the winner still had a problem that affected its
welfare on that day, our task was to say so.
"If it displayed the least extreme
conformation in its breed, then the judge had done the best job they could from
the stock available, whatever the end result; and if the winner showed far more
moderate conformation than would have been the case a few years ago, then that
is still to be praised, even if there was still a problem.
"One thing that I am angry about is that the
media coverage is focused so exclusively on the dogs who unfortunately failed.
I wish there were more attention on the dogs that were passed. Nine dogs were judged
the best of their breed, passed as free from issues that were affecting their
health and welfare, and went on to compete in their groups, with several being
shortlisted by the group judges. Those breeds should be enormously proud of
what they have achieved, because in many cases the winners were indeed of far
less exaggerated conformation than they would have been a few years ago, which
is a great cause for celebration.
"Those breeders have done wonders. For
example, even Jemima Harrison has written positively about the winning
Bloodhound on her blog, which is remarkable. I was really glad to see ‘my’
Bloodhound in the big ring, moving soundly and with eyes free from discomfort.
That’s what it should all be about.
"It’s natural that emotions should be running
high; change is often difficult. And it’s inevitable that there will be
teething problems in a new and unprecedented process. Everyone who was involved
in this endeavour will have learnt from it, and certainly there are some
aspects of it that can be improved.
"Will Jeffels and I strongly feel that the
initiative is worthwhile, and we are continuing to support the KC in its
efforts to promote healthier conformation. Dog showing is a sport, a hobby. The
world would still spin on its axis if there were no dog shows. If we choose to
spend our leisure time, or in some cases our careers, in the world of dog
showing, we should remember that we wouldn’t be able to do it without the dogs,
and the least we can do in return is to choose healthy body shapes for them to
live their lives within.”