Wednesday 25 January 2012

Death Row Dogs

There was a lot of hot air on the dog fora in the lead-up to last night's BBC1 documentary on dangerous dogs... with the anticipation that the film would take the tabloid route re Pit Bulls.

"Death Row Dogs" was much-trailed as featuring the family of 4-yr-old John-Paul Massey who was killed by his uncle's Pit Bull in November 2009. Yesterday morning, the boy's mum, Angela McGlynn, appeared on breakfast TV calling for all Pit Bulls (and types) to be muzzled at all times, in and out of the home.

The fear in the dog community - which as a whole argues that the Dangerous Dogs Act needs to be re-written to punish the "deed not the breed" - was that dogs would once again be demonised in this film. Fueling this were reports that a contribution by "dog-lawyer" Trevor Cooper (who defends Pit Bulls in court) had been dropped by the programme.

Lots, then, put two and two together and came up with "Another Sensationalised, Biased BBC Film!"

But as soon as I saw who had edited the film, I knew it wouldn't be anything of the sort. I have known Paul Dosaj for some years (indeed, I have to thank him for introducing my partner, Jon, to me 15 years ago). Paul is a multi-award-winning editor who never takes the obvious route  and always delivers careful, thought-provoking films.

And, in truth, it turned out to be a truly beautifully-made, non-judgemental film that featured a lot of victims, two-legged and four, and only one real baddie - the law.  The dangerous dogs police unit was headed by an officer who clearly loves dogs and was good at reading their body language. It was a tribute to both him and the dogs that he was able to approach most in full police garb without any fear of being attacked. (But then as he said, 9 out of 10 were not people aggressive.) "He's just scared" he said at one point as one dog twisted and turned on a grab pole. Others would have seen it differently.

The film didn't need Trevor Cooper speaking up for the dogs. The film-makers did it for him while also allowing a nuanced insight into John-Paul Massey's families. I thought his grandmother Helen Foulkes,, who was with the boy when the attack happened, spoke particularly well.

The saddest moment in the film came when we saw a beautiful young dog being put to sleep for just looking a dangerous dog, the innocent victim of a law in urgent need of reform. The dog, heavily sedated from a massive dose of barbituares, was placed on the floor with the camera in front of him looking right into the dog's open eyes as the lethal injection was administered.  You saw the light leave him. It was profoundly moving.

If you're in the UK, you can catch the film on BBC iPlayer for the next seven days.

Wednesday 18 January 2012

Fiona the Dalmatian - the ongoing battle

Julie Evans, with Fiona on her knee,  pleads with the Kennel Club...
I was a little surprised to see the Kennel Club feature in its film the registration of LUA (low-uric acid) Dalmatian Fiona (Fiacre's First and Foremost) as evidence of their forward-thinking approach towards outcrossing.

The truth is a little more nuanced. Without doubt, the Kennel Club deserves applause for registering Fiona.  It really was a good thing - brave too, given the breed club opposition and Fiona's acceptance has allowed Fiona to be shown in the UK.  So it is disappointing to learn that, at the time of Fiona's registration, the KC placed a five-year restriction on the issuing of an export pedigree for Fiona's progeny, thus preventing the pups going to Europe where demand for the LUA gene is considerable. (I assume it was standard practice in such cases, but have asked the KC for clarification.)

Fiona was registered in January 2011 under the Kennel Club's asterisk system - denoting that there is "something unusual" (as the Kennel Club describes it) about her.  Fiona herself is marked with 3 asterisks; her progeny with two; their offspring with one asterisk and, eventually, Fiona's great-grandchildren will be asterisk-free making them indistinguishable from any other KC registered dog.

Of course, it's all a bit of a madness given that the outcross to the Pointer that makes Fiona "unusual"  was all of 13 generations ago, but that's how the system worked at the time.  I should point out, too, that breeder Julie Evans, who has just had a gorgeous litter of pups from Fiona, has always known this.

However, the LUA Dalmatians - after a 30 year battle in the US - have now been accepted for registration by the American Kennel Club. In fact, Fiona (who will be returning to her owner in the States in the spring) is now herself registered with the AKC. And because the AKC has a reciprocal arrangement with the KC, if Fiona was imported to the UK and had pups now, there would be no export restrictions (and no asterisks). Julie, then, would be able to sell her pups freely to Europe where they could be registered as full Dalmatians by other Kennel Clubs.

The same goes for any other AKC-registered LUA Dalmatian - they can now be imported into the UK (and any other country with a reciprocal agreement) and immediately accepted with full KC honours. In fact, KC rules have changed, too, since the KC registered Fiona last January and two further LUA Dalmatians, Sally and Merlin, are not subject to the same export restriction.

So a few weeks ago, Julie Evans asked the Kennel Club to remove the export restriction so that Fiona's precious low-uric-acid gene, brought into the breed via a single outcross to an English Pointer in the 1970s, can benefit the breed in Europe, too.

And the Kennel Club said... "No".

Julie Evans rang them on a day we were filming with her, so I can confirm that she patiently argued her case regarding the health benefit to other Dalmatians. "This is what is all about.. getting that gene out there," she told Breeder Manager Sue Swainson who advised that there was no provision in the KC rule book to allow this.

Finally, at the end of a five minute conversation Julie pointed out that their decision now put her at an unfair disadvantage, compared to other LUA Dal breeders, in terms of her ability to sell her puppies. "I am being prevented from making use of a free market. I cannot export my puppies, but everywhere else in the world can," she said,  pleading with them to reconsider. Sue Swainson said she would get back to her.

A few days later Julie received this email from the Kennel Club:
"From its consultation with the Dalmatian breed clubs - when you first applied to register Fiona - the KC became aware that a number of people in the breed were vehemently opposed to the registration believing that the venture was commercial. As you know, the KCs decision to allow the registration was based on its commitment to consider the registration of dogs from out crossing and inter variety matings if it was felt that to do so may present potential health and welfare benefits. On this basis Fiona was registered despite the amount of discord within the breed.

"It is still the case that the KC is of the view that the decision was taken for the right reasons and we are therefore disappointed to see that you put your current argument to us in business terms – I believe you said to me that you were ’being prevented from making use of a free market’.

"I accept that this will not be the answer you are looking for but the Committee will not consider removing the asterisks."

This really is breathtakingly rude.

Are only breeders that lose money to be deemed worthy now? 

And why is the KC giving credence  to low-lying gossip from breed purists who were desperate to stop the spotted mongrel hordes sullying their precious Dalmatians?

We recently spent two days with Julie at her home on the west coast of Wales and, believe me, the only thing she was rolling in was mud.

Once KC heels have got stuck in, they rarely budge, but this is one bit of KC crazy that needs to be reconsidered - as does the information on Fiona's KC pedigree. The only name on it is Fiona's. No parents or grandparents or great-grandparents are listed despite that information being available. The reason? Because alongside the full AKC Dalmatians in her pedigree are LUA Dalmatians that are not considered "pure". This for some mad reason prevents even the AKC-registered Dals in her pedigree from being included.

Surely either the KC is a registry or not? ("The Kennel Club registers all dogs" claims Clare Balding in the KC film.) Could it not include these dogs on Fiona's official pedigree even if they had to be marked in some way to denote their ancestry?

In truth, apart from the three  LUA Dals now registered in the UK, very little new blood has been allowed into existing breeds. There was the bringing in of some packhound Bloodhounds a few years back; a few Bull Terrier x Miniature Bull Terrier matings to alleviate the smaller version of the breed of the Primary Lens Luxation endemic in the smaller version of breed; and a few intervariety matings in Belgian Shepherds.

The KC now says it will welcome applications from breeders wanting to bring in new blood and that is terrific, truly. But I believe it needs to be much more proactive on this issue - in other words, not just wait until forward-thinking breeders approach them, but to initiate discussion with Clubs of breeds that are in particular trouble genetically.

Sensible discussion on this only, please, as it's an important issue.

NB: I will not be publishing any anonymous comments from anyone claiming that Julie Evans is only in it for the money - unless, that is, they provide categorical proof.

* edited 20/1/11: correction regarding the asterisk system' correction re the restrictions on Fiona and the other two LUA Dals imported into the UK  

Tuesday 17 January 2012

KC film: the verdict

I posted earlier today about the release today of the Kennel Club's counter-film to our Pedigree Dogs Exposed update and promised a "review" when I'd had a chance to see the whole thing.

So what did I think?

Not bad, actually. It is quite well made and I would imagine the KC considers it money well spent in order to show the world what it is doing to secure the future health of pedigree dogs.

I also welcomed the acknowledgment - quite strong in places - that there are problems (if a little bemused by the buck-passing to the judges and breeders as if, somehow, they are not KC-appointed/endorsed).

And I was pleasantly surprised to hear the news that the Kennel Club has decided to ask breeders who register five or more litters a year for a copy of their council license, although it was not made clear what action the KC will take if those breeders fail to comply (have asked the KC re this so will edit in their answer if I get one).

So that's all good. And, in all honesty, it's about as reasonable a puff piece as one could expect any organisaton to make about itself.

Can you feel a "but" coming on?

You bet your bippy.

But as I'm busy, it's late and pictures speak louder than words,  I will simply post some pictures taken (not by us, I should say, given that we were refused access) at the Richmond Champ Show last year... that's the show featured in the film at which KC Chairman Steve Dean sings the praises of the hound group and dog shows in general.. where we, a little unexpectedly, see only level-backed German Shepherds..and where the Neapolitan Mastiff judge raves about how improved the breed is.

(Click the pics to expand)


Is this a double merle?
 CLUMBER (this one won BOB)


Reserve Dog CC


Am I being selective?  Yes, I am.

The point, of course, is that the Kennel Club has been, too.

For a written, rather than visual, commentary check out Terrierman's blog on the KC's film.

Monday 16 January 2012

Dog monopoly - time to pass go?

Irish Red and White Setter breeder Margaret Sierakowski sent in such an interesting comment to the blog yesterday, that I have asked her permission to make it a separate post in the hope that it will provoke the debate that I think it deserves.

"I had an interesting conversation last night with an Irish breeder of working gundogs. It seems that the Irish Competition Authority (their equivalent of our Competition Commission) has ruled that the IKC does not have a monopoly on registrations of dogs or licensing of competitive events for dogs. Nor can they prohibit people who use alternative registries or compete in events not licensed by the IKC from also registering their dogs with IKC or entering IKC shows, field trials etc.
"There are working gundog owners and breeders who feel the IKC is too much dominated by show breeders, who don't understand the working dog fraternity, and they are discussing setting up an alternative registry , appointing their own FT judges and running trials under their own rules. Apparently there are also some smaller shows already being run which have not been licensed by the IKC. Interesting.
"In the UK , the Kennel Club has maintained its monopoly as a registry and controller of all competitive events by simply ruling that dogs who are not registered by them cannot compete, and anybody who organises or enters a show or other event not licensed by them will be banned from future participation in KC licensed events.
"I can remember discussion in the 1980 among UK working spaniel breeders about setting up their own registry and running their own trials, and there was also setter and pointer triallers who wanted more freedom to run events for working dogs other than the KC licensed field trials , whose rules have hardly changed since the 1870s.
"But all the talk came to nothing, even though the disatisfactions rumble on. Probably as many as half of all UK working springers are unregistered, many of them are good working dogs, but they can't be used for breeding with KC registered dogs unless the breeder falsifies the names of the parents on ther application, which of course happens. The cocker/springer crosses continue but also remain illicit under the KC registration system.
"Is it not time for somebody to take the case of the KC's monopoly on registration and stranglehold on the licensing of events to the Competition Commission. A little more competition might focus the mind of the KC on progress into the 21st century. We might be able to get more flexibility on crossbreeding and the introduction of unregistered dogs into breeds. We might be able to hold dog shows which focus more on dogs being healthy, sound and fit for function, and award titles only to dogs certified as fit and healthy and tested for whatever is required for the breed. 
"Just a thought, comments welcomed. Anybody willing to take on the Competition Commission? I suspect it wouldn't be difficult to get a positive ruling. At the very least it might jolt the KC into faster change."

I think I'm right in remembering that gundog breeder Derry Argue (Advie Gundogs) tried to challenge the KC on this some time ago?

Of course, there are now alternative registries in the UK, even if they don't amount to that much for the serious breeder - apart, that is, from working registries such as the International Sheep Dog Society (ISDS). And I believe that Border Collies can be registered with both the KC and the ISDS, so this already happens in a limited sense.

Of more interest, to me at any rate, is a challenge that would allow other organisations to license events and then prevent the KC from banning those who participate in them from subsequent KC-licensed events - if, indeed, this rule still applies. Does anyone know?

The KC's answer to Pedigree Dogs Exposed

We've been aware that this was in the making... A 30 minute film telling us how wonderful the Kennel Club is and how dogs are safe in their hands.  Only had a chance to view the first few minutes (in which Clare Balding in honeyed tones tells us that the Kennel Club registers all dogs.... eh?).

Good to see the emphasis on health in what I've seen so far... and this film would have been unthinkable a few years ago. It also looks well-made (by a small independent called Savannah Films). But already a few things to make me hyperventilate. More later...

Accompanying KC press release here.

Molly comes home - and passes out with joy

Picture: Polly Hancock

London24 runs the story of Molly the pug, safely back home after she went missing when burglars ransacked her owners' flat in north London on January 6.

The dog was found after a big Twitter campaign supported by, among others, chat show host and pug owner Jonathan Ross.

And the reason I'm mentioning it here?

"“Everyone was screaming and crying,” said owner Caitriona Fox. “Molly was excited but then she passed out. She’s been quite nervous, but then she got into bed with us. She’s not normally allowed to sleep in our bed because she snores.”

It is good news that Molly is home. But it is much less good news that, like too many other pugs, her snoring is so loud that it keeps her owners awake as she struggles to get air to and from her lungs. And it is very bad news indeed that, when she's excited, her airways block to the point that she passes out through oxygen starvation to her brain.

Still, as pug breeder Amanda Ellis told us when we were making Pedigree Dogs Exposed, they get back up again, don't they?

Thursday 12 January 2012

The first cut is the.... hardest

The story so far...
Yesterday we had our first viewing of our update to Pedigree Dogs Exposed with the BBC. The film is now at rough-cut stage - never a film's prettiest moment - and showing it to anyone at this stage in the production process is always a bit nerve-wracking. It's the moment of truth for the broadcaster, too.

Fortunately, I am lucky enough to have two wonderful execs - BBC commissioning editor Clare Paterson and executive producer Jane Merkin. Both have been a great support throughout a somewhat surreal production period and, to our relief, they were enthusiastic about the film so far.

Above is a tease screenshot of the film being edited, with the playhead parked on the opening shot of the film (right) after the title sequence. The picture in the middle is from a sequence towards the end of the film of a fascinating procedure we filmed at the University of Leipzig three weeks ago with world brachycephalic expert, Professor Gerhard Oechtering.  The film is a mix of reprise material from PDE, updates on those stories, plus some totally new sequences which we're excited about.

I see that some are claiming that there won't be any reprise material from the original film in PDE2 - not the case at all.. (if the "Let's Resolutely and Always Get the Wrong End of the Stick" Facebook group wants to double-check with the BBC, I am sure it will be more than happy to confirm.)

The Kennel Club told us before Christmas that it did not want to do a filmed interview for PDE2.  We were disappointed. If the KC was getting slightly more savvy media advice it would have realised that the amount of scrutiny the first film was subjected to meant it was in a strong position in terms of ensuring that its views were super-accurately represented in the sequel.  The broadcasting watchdog Ofcom found no overall unfairness to the Kennel Club in PDE,  but it did rule that we should have given the KC a better right of reply on certain points. No one on the team wants that to happen again and a great deal of care is being taken as a result.

Anyway, having turned us down for an interview, we then wrote to the KC offering them (as per BBC editorial guidelines) a written right of reply to certain points we are raising in the film - points that were sent over to them.  We were pretty confident the KC would accept this offer as it is usually seen by individuals and organisations as a very safe way of responding to allegations. (Editorial guidelines have very strict rules about the way these are handled.) But after mulling this over for a couple of weeks or so, the KC called on Monday to say that it had decided to not even offer any written statements to include in the film. No doubt this news will prompt a deluge from the Anons cheering the KC for its decisions - but, on the whole, this tactic tends not to play well in the general media or with the public.

I imagine the KC's tactic at the time of broadcast will be to try to make this about personalities rather than the issues. Or perhaps just to keep its head down.

I am not sure it can be very confident that either approach will work.

I feel genuinely sad that the KC - and others in the dog world - insist on seeing it as "them and us" and, particularly, for taking it all so very personally; for being offended that I and others have been so impertinent as to highlight breeding practices that are causing harm. For me it has always, and only ever, been about the dogs.

Actually, when I interviewed Sheila Crispin (Chair of the Dog Advisory Council) a few weeks ago, I told her (with, I admit, some small intention to provoke) that I was somewhat at a loss as to why the KC had not sent me a large bunch of flowers after Pedigree Dogs Exposed aired. (After all, didn't it give them an excuse to hasten reform they claimed was already in the pipeline?)

Sheila thought this was very funny. She has an infectious chuckle so it makes me smile every time I see it. As it's unlikely to be included in the film, here's the clip..