Ever since Pedigree Dogs Exposed aired in the UK in 2008, show breeders in the US have looked on in astonishment at the way the Kennel Club in the UK "pandered" (as they see it) to the critics. They just don't get why the KC, after a relatively short period of defensive denial, began to implement changes.
There are quite complicated reasons why reform has come. They include:
• strong backing for reform by the veterinary profession
• three major reports highlighting the problems (including one co-commssioned by the Kennel Club itself)
• the setting up of the independent Dog Advisory Council.
• a growing acceptance by both breeders and at least some at the Kennel Club that there were problems and that more should be done to tackle them.
• a little bit of Governmental pressure
• the loss of Crufts' major sponsors
• the loss of mainstream television coverage of Crufts
• behind the scenes, a loosely-organised group of campaigners. Comprising researchers, vets, photographers, journalists, bloggers, breeders and pet owners, this is the "doggerati" - bullying through a strong, simple, single message: put the dogs first.
• the internet - which allows the free-flow of information, a fast response to misinformation and sharp commentary on stupidity.
But the primary motivator was publicity. Lots of it. Very bad publicity. And it was unrelenting. Pedigree Dogs Exposed was a water-cooler moment here in the UK and the general media couldn't get enough of the story. For months and months and months.
Pictures of gasping Bulldogs, bug-eyed Pugs and Shar-pei whose head looked like they'd been stung by a thousand bees were plastered all over the newspapers. Every bit of fall-out from the film generated headlines - Pedigree withdrawing its sponsorship of Crufts, the announcement of the inquiries, the BBC dropping the televising of Crufts. Much of it was front-page news in the nationals and it heaped more and more pressure on the Kennel Club.
In the end the KC had no choice. It really was a question of its own survival.
Observers in the US have no idea what it was like for the Kennel Club. They think the KC were pussies. "It couldn't happen here," they maintain. "The AKC would never roll over like that."
Of course there have been pockets of bad press for US show breeders. The odd hard-hitting magazine article. The occasional television item. Quite a lot of strong blogging. Nothing, though, that the AKC hasn't been able to bat off fairly easily. It's a big country. There are so many different TV stations and the media and the dog-owning public so diffuse. While Pedigree Dogs Exposed was broadcast in the US, it aired on local PBS stations and BBC America. It never made the big time.
But it's hotting up in the US. Last week, the AKC took a drubbing from The Today Show on NBC. The report focused on husbandry, not genetic/conformation problems but it was bad news for the AKC.
Have a look at this:
(If the video doesn't load, you can view the report here.)
Making it a whole heap worse is that the AKC spokesperson interviewed by NBC was a disaster. Cornered by the fact that there was no real defence to the charges, she had to admit that the AKC fields just nine inspectors for the whole of the USA and was unable to say what percentage of breeders had been checked.
What the AKC should have done was to say that it had launched an investigation into the claims and the Great Dane case in particular; that it would act on its findings; that it realised that nine inspectors for the whole of the USA was woefully inadequate, and that steps were being taken to improve things.
But nope. The day before the show aired, the AKC sent out this defensive plea asking the dog world to bombard NBC with "it's not fair" emails.
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You'll see that not a single one addresses the specific charges made in the Today Show report.
And let me spell it out: if the Today Show had got it that wrong, the AKC would not be asking people to whinge to NBC. It would be consulting its lawyers.
Absolutely outrageous, incidentally, was the AKC's Top Fact No 11:
"They didn't tell you that The Today Show's Natalie Morales made a TV public service announcement in conjunction with the Ad Council and the HSUS."This is a really cheap shot by the AKC- an attempt to discredit the piece by insinuating that an NBC anchor is an HSUS monkey because she supports pet adoption. (Yep, just rescuing a dog these days is almost enough to have you banged-to-rights as an animal rights activist.)
It reminded me a lot of the release the KC put out the day before Pedigree Dogs Exposed aired in the UK (still available here) - which served only to alert the mainstream media to a newsworthy spat.
The AKC response to the report was, in effect, just as damaging as the report itself.
You cannot tackle charges like this with deflection.
It's like the Catholic Church saying: "Now you claim some our priests have been abusing children, but look at the wonderful work these nuns do with the poor on the streets of Buenos Aries."
It doesn't work.
Is it a blow the AKC will withstand? Probably - for now. It was lucky that NBC chose to pitch Wayne Pacelle from the Humane Society (HSUS) against the AKC. Most people in the dog world hate HSUS so much that they were inclined to rally round the AKC on this occasion.
Despite the hatred of HSUS, the AKC has taken bit of a battering on its blog on the issue (see the comments here.) This reflects a growing voice from within - something which contributed to prompting reform here in the UK.
It really was piss-poor PR by the AKC - an organisation that is not really used to be having a spotlight shone on its nether regions. It is going to have to get used to it, though. The word is increasingly out, not just regarding the registration of dogs bred and raised in less-than-ideal circumstances, but in respect of:
• conformation problems and inbreeding (just as bad in the US as they are here, although affecting breeds to different degrees)
• falling AKC registrations - while its rival the UKC is enjoying a rise in registrations. (This is prompted in part by the UKC's Total Dog philosphy, popular dog events, appeal to grass roots owners and - or so I like to think - in the UKC's acknowledgment of the issues I highlight here. The UKC is still way behind what the KC or Scandanavian KCs in terms of reform, but it has made a start. It will no longer register the progeny of first-degree relative matings and it has revised some breed standards. More about this another time.)
The AKC meanwhile, has dug its heels in (it will still register the closest of matings and it has resolutely refused to alter breed standards that plainly demand conformational extremes). In comparison, it feels elitist and stuffy.
Yesterday's spoilt child.