Sunday 19 August 2018

Pedigree Dogs Exposed 10 yrs on: everything and nothing

Pedigree Dogs Exposed was broadcast on BBC1 in the UK 10 years ago tonight.  It laid bare dog-breeding practices that had caused a great deal of harm to dogs - harm that had been overseen by a Kennel Club that should have known better.  

Indeed it did know better. Even its own genetics advisor, Jeff Sampson, had written in 2004 in an article for a symposium that: "Unfortunately, the restrictive breeding patterns that have developed as part and parcel of the purebred dog scene have not been without collateral damage to all breeds."  

Like many before him (and since) the answer for Sampson (who was clearly not stupid but had been subsumed into the KC culture) was to advocate gently from within in the hope that something might change.  He and the Kennel Club could fairly point to money put into research to developing DNA tests for the ever-spiralling number of genetic diseases. It's just that nothing was being done to tackle the root problem.  

When I first walked through the steel and glass doors of the Kennel Club's Clarges St headquarters in London’s Mayfair in early 2008 - past oak-panelled rooms, fine art and chefs in starched whites pandering to the Members, I smelled complacency.

Despite the KC's literature claiming that the primary objective of the Kennel Club was 'to promote in every way, the general improvement of dogs',  it had actually overseen a criminal genetic neglect of man's best friend.

It was the Kennel Club that had endorsed the breed standards, that sanctioned the dog shows, approved the judges, green-lighted inbreeding, refused to mandate health checks and had continued to register puppy farm dogs.

It had done next to nothing because the problem was - and remains - that the people who run the Kennel Club are part of the whole self-serving system.  Group-think had persuaded them that it was OK... convinced them that a show-ring rosette was prima facie evidence that they were doing something good for dogs. 

For those that don't know, Pedigree Dogs Exposed was prompted by the death of my Flatcoated Retriever, Fred. That's us at the top.

Fred was born in 1987 and I lost him in 2003, aged 15.  I had thought he was going to live forever and my heart broke into a thousand shards when he died.  Truly, I  had never felt grief like it - and I write as someone who had already lost their mother and father before their time, my mum when she was just 46 to a brain tumour.

It was after Fred died that I discovered that Flatcoats, typically, die of cancer around the age of 8/9 and I was horrified. I felt cheated enough that I had lost Fred at 14.  And I asked: why do so many flatcoats die of cancer so young?

It opened Pandora's Box.

It wasn't just Flatcoats.

It was breed after breed after breed, with some paying a horrendous price in terms of genetic disease, wounded immune systems and lifespans that, for some, average just six or seven years old. 

I started making Pedigree Dogs Exposed with an open mind but the more we researched, the more we learned and the more shocked we became.  By the time the film aired,  I felt completely justified in calling it one of the greatest welfare scandals of our time.  What grated most was the pomposity; the arrogance with which crippled German Shepherds were being wobbled round the show-ring by breeders who to their core believed their dogs were superior to any randomly-bred mixed breed when the scientific evidence spoke so strongly to the contrary.

Inbreeding was seen as a good thing ("as long as you knew what you were doing" - which mostly they didn't).  

The KC happily registered pups born of mother/son + full sibling matings. 

Breeding  from a top-winning dog as often as possible in order to pass on those champion genes to as many of the next generation was seen as a way of improving the breed. 

The show-ring was busy selecting for ever-more extremes - gasping Pugs, bulbous Shar-peis, German Shepherds that were dragging their back ends,  all on the watch of a Kennel Club that enjoyed Royal patronage and a respect in higher places that, frankly, it did not deserve.

As many will remember, I was the villain for highlighting that a top-winning Cavalier had been diagnosed with syringomyelia  rather than the owner for continuing to show and breed a dog with such a hideous inherited condition.

I don't think I'm exaggerating in saying that Pedigree Dogs was a "water cooler" moment.  There had been many others  before PDE - notably vets Simon Wolfensohn and Emma Milne,  and writers/such as Pat Burns (Terrierman) and J Jeffrey Bragg, but it's hard to beat the power of 9pm prime time BBC and the international sales that followed (the film made a particularly big impact in Sweden and Australia). 

The issue hit the headlines - and continued to dominate front pages in the UK for months to come, fuelled by the three high profile reports into dog-breeding that followed,  the desertion of Cruft's main sponsor, Pedigree;  the BBC dropping the broadcasting of Crufts after more than 40 years, and the setting up of the Dog Advisory Council as a canine watchdog (sadly now defunct).

For my part, having lit the blue touch-paper, I found I couldn't walk away. I wrote articles, did interviews, started this blog (almost 7 million page views to date) spoke at conferences and dinners, chivvied the great and the good behind the scenes and embraced social media to continue to spread the word. 

In 2012, I made a follow-up (you can view it here) which highlighted the need for more to be done.  Rather more recently, driven by deep concern about the lack of reform for the extreme brachycephalics, I started CRUFFA in an effort to tackle that particular issue from a different angle. 

So, 10 years on, where are we now? 

The good news

• There is much greater awareness of the dangers of selecting for extremes - whether for very flat muzzles, or short legs,  excessive skin or size.  If you compare the dogs that won Crufts in 2008 with the dogs that won Best of Breed in 2018, there is a perceptible swing towards moderation in some of the worst breeds.

Crufts 2008    ©The Kennel Club

  Crufts 2018  ©The Kennel Club
(yes a bitch, but she reflects the general trend)

• There is widespread acknowledgment that inbreeding is a bad thing.  Most breeders now know what a co-efficient of inbreeding (COI) is and that a high number is a bad number.  Some are going beyond the COI worked out from paper pedigrees and using tools such as Embark or MyDogDNA to check diversity and disease status at a DNA level. Some - heaven forfend - are even doing some thoughtful outcrossing.

• There is a wealth of new science on the issues. Make something a hot topic, as did the film, and the research interest and funding will follow. 

• I had the devil of a time trying to persuade the veterinary profession to speak out when I made PDE. Today, they are among the strongest and most determined advocates for reform at both an individual and profession level. Thank you.

• The RSPCA was always on board, in no small part due to their then Chief Vet, Mark Evans who spoke out extremely strong in the film. Since then, all the main animal animal welfare organisations in the UK have played a part in maintaining the impetus for reform. A big thank you to them, too.

• Legislation: October 1st sees the introduction in the UK has of legislation that makes it a criminal offence to breed from a dog "if it can reasonably be expected, on the basis of its genotype, phenotype or state of health that breeding from it could have a detrimental effect on its health or welfare or the health or welfare of its offspring."  The proof of this will be in the pudding but my hope is that a few high profile cases will act as warning shots over breeders' bows. There are similar laws now being enacted in Europe/Scandinavia, too.

• Social media: nothing to do with PDE, but Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and others today act as an effective watchdog. Pictures of extreme show-dogs proliferate quickly and attract widespread censure.  Brands that use exaggerated breeds to flog their stuff are now contacted - and very often respond quickly. This morning on Twitter I collared both Body Shop (Cruelty Free International) and supermarket Waitrose for using a Frenchie and a Bulldog respectively in their marketing. I am hopeful of a good response. Everyone can help here by doing the same - it really works. Brands in the main do not want to be associated with animal suffering.

• The Kennel Club has come quite a long way since 2008. After initial denial, it quickly bowed to public opinion  (the then Chairman of the KC, Ronnie Irving, described it at the time as "a tsunami of hate") and began making changes. These included the banning of first-degree-relative matings; better training for judges; a review of breed standards (and changes to more than 70);  the introduction of Mate Select;  educational tools for breeders and the public; vet checks at major shows; the establishment of the Kennel Club Genetics Centre at the Animal Health Trust.; a limit on the allowed number of C-sections; increased funding for research and the news that it would consider well-thought-out outcrossing.  The KC's Assured Breeder Scheme is now policed much more strictly.  The KC supports a peer-reviewed journal which publishes useful research in the field. More recently the KC announced breed health and conservation plans which are intended to take a more holistic view of breed health - although the huge delay on these being publicly available suggests these may be proving contentious with breeders/breed clubs. 

Sounds a lot, doesn't it?

The bad news

• Exaggerations are always in danger of sneaking back in.  This Peke has just won the Toy Group at the World Dog Show in Amsterdam. 

Bottom line, if we'd seen true reform, the Pekes winning in the show-ring would look more like this little one from 100 years ago - a dog today that would be thought to be a Tibetan Spaniel.

And at Crufts this year, although there were some more moderate dogs - and better breathing  than we saw 10 years ago - it was depressing that this young dog had qualified.

There has been zero progress in terms of moderating faces in the extreme brachycephalics.  Deleterious underbites are the norm with jumbled mismatched teeth the inevitable consequence. There are still no restrictions on popular sires, either - and little impetus when this is where the serious money lies in dog-breeding.  This year's top Bulldog, Ch Sealaville He's Tyler,  has sired around 200 litters. At at least £500 a squirt, this is where breeders claw back the expense of raising top show dogs and it's an income stream few would willingly forego.

• Inbreeding is still rife.  The KC may have banned actual mother/son, father/daughter and full-sib matings, but they still register puppies from matings that are far more inbred than this because of cumulative inbreeding. They also chose to not also forbid grandfather/grand-daughter matings - a pairing Sir Patrick Bateson, who chaired one of the reviews into dog-breeding, thought was particularly pernicious.

• We've seen outcrossed Dalmatians and outcrossed Irish Red + White Setters registered by the Kennel Club - but this has been entirely due to individual breeders fighting for it; not something initiated by the Kennel Club or the breed clubs, which in the main remain deeply conservative. As such, outcrosses are extremely rare and the norm is still to breed dogs in closed gene pools with the inevitable consequences.

• Breeders continue to convince themselves that they can health-test their way out of problems. 

They can't.

• Progress has been made in raising awareness of the health deficits associated with particular breeds, but the popularity of some of our most deformed and disabled breeds - Bulldogs, Pugs, French Bulldogs - has soared.   The Frenchie is now the UK's most popular KC-registered dog - knocking the far more sensible (and more sound) Labrador off the top-spot it has held for decades.

Now, we're seeing a surge in miniature smooth Dachshunds - seen as a cute "easy-keeper", at least until they bugger their backs. They have a muzzle, I guess.  Just no legs.

• There remains disdain for crossbreeds, despite the science telling us that they tend to be healthier and live longer than their purebred cousins. The comparing of purebred dog breeding to eugenics in PDE was uncomfortable for many, but the parallels are obvious. And they remain. Everyone who still looks down their nose at a labrador x poodle and refers to them as a "labramongrel" needs to take a long hard look at what's driving how they feel.

How depressed am I by this?  In truth, at times, very.  But it is not as lonely a place as it was. There were times when I've felt like I was the only person shouting that things must change and now I am not. The conversation has started - and it continues.

Ten years is the blink of an eye and there has been change. It is heartening to see the progress made by European and Scandinavian kennel clubs in particular.

But it isn't yet the root and branch reform in the way we breed dogs that's needed to protect our dogs and it could so very easily slip back. There is also much work to be done in helping puppy buyers to make better choices.

The dogs still deserve better.