Friday 19 March 2021

Colonel David Hancock MBE - I salute you

I was so sad to hear of the passing of cynologist/writer/canine historian Colonel David Hancock MBE last weekend. I met him at his home in Oxfordshire in early 2008 where we interviewed him for Pedigree Dogs Exposed.  

I remember climbing up the stairs to his office which was lined floor to ceiling with dog books, many very rare, and feeling acute library-envy. I am pleased to read that his collection - along with the books and over 700 articles he wrote himself - is now safe with the Kennel Club.  For now, his extensive writing is also still available on his website. Please do check it out for some of the most informed writing on dogs you will ever read. See here.

I am not sure there's anyone in the world who knew more about dogs.  One reviewer called him "perhaps the most important living writer about dogs." He also, along the way in a full life, was a professional soldier, ran a rare breeds centre and wrote the breed standards for the Sporting Lucas Terrier, the Plummer Terrier and the Victorian Bulldog.

What I liked most about him was that although he looked and sounded like someone from the Establishment, for him it was always the dogs that mattered most. He was a well-known critic of the Kennel Club and a great champion of breeders who fought for change, his opinions always rooted in a real understanding of both dogs and history.

I got this email from him a few years back:

"Jemima, You’ll be amused to learn that I’ve produced a new breed standard for the Mastiff that is going to annoy a lot of people who deserve it! It’s on my web site, attached to serial 803 in the archives bit. The OEMC and the MA are being invited to comment – so watch their space with interest. Do keep well and combative! Regards, David"

Sadly, the Club declined to adopt David's suggested new standard which would have promoted a more sporting dog.

I have, however, made a point of following his advice to keep being combative.

Fittingly, one of David's last articles graphically documented the decline in his beloved Mastiffs - check out the deeply depressing images here.

We were only able to use a few snippets of our interview with him in Pedigree Dogs Exposed - notably one of the most compelling soundbites in the film ("We are, in effect, breeding them to death." 

Here, for posterity, is a lightly edited transcript of the whole thing. I know many will find it fascinating.

Q: What is your opinion of the state of health of purebred dogs today?

I don't think the state of purebred dogs is anything worth boasting about. I think we have breeds that are more refined, or the dogs in that breed look much more like each other, there's an evenness within a breed.


I think quite a lot of breeds that are heavy-coated have become excessively heavy-coated; breeds that were short-faced have become damagingly shorter faced. Breeds that had long backs, short legs have been exaggerated to the detriment of the dog. And this has all come as a result at the pursuance of breed points, trying to make a breed look so much like itself, that it can almost become a caricature of itself.

Q: And what has the cost of that been?

I think the cost of exaggeration in dogs is that it shortens their lives and in the case of short-faced dogs it affects their breathing, it affects their scenting capability. With the long-backed breeds you have a dog that could be two years old but its back is the equivalent of five years old.

You also get slipped discs and problems of extremely painful arthritis. The bent leg breeds also get bone problems, and the excessive bending of those legs and the shortening of those legs puts great stress on the rest of the dog. 

Anything that exaggerated would not happen if dogs were bred by dogs. The exaggerations come because dogs are being bred by humans to suit humans.  

Pedigree dog breeding today needs remedial treatment or it will end in disaster.

In breeding dogs without their best interests in mind we are, in effect, breeding them to death. They're shorter lived, they lead limited lives. That is not good for dogs, and it's also not good for the moral conscience of man.

Q: That's a very strong statement. Do you really feel that?

Yes I do…A bulldog that cannot breathe properly, a dachschund whose keel is almost on the ground, a bassett hound with such severe arthritis in its legs that every time it moves it groans. This is not good.

Q: Are there other examples which have shocked you?

The excessive weight in mastiffs means that there have been occasions when a mastiff has jumped down from an estate car at a show, damaged itself because of the sheer weight of the body… that's been bestowed on it by man. It's been put back in the car and taken home because it was unfit to continue. And when you breed dogs too heavy for their own good, that is a sad reflection on the moral values of the breeder of that dog. 

Q: Could you talk a bit about the reflection of us as a dog loving society… Britain is thought of as a nation of dog lovers. We were the first to introduce animal welfare legislation.  Are we now leading the way in terms of animal welfare for our dogs?

I don't think Britain leads in animal welfare at all, certainly not in pedigree dogs. I think we started, we were the first nation to have a kennel club, we have created more breeds of dog in the pedigree dog world than any other nation. But we have not built safeguards into the perpetuation of those dogs.. We've allowed some breeds to become too heavy, some too short faced, some too heavy coated, some too short legged, others too short lived.

All in the pursuit of cosmetic points, not sound anatomical points, and that is a reflection again on the breeders and their standards of… that which they bring to life - not to their love of dogs. We're a nation of dog owners, not a nation of dog lovers.

Q: That's a terrible indictment. 

I think it's not so much an indictment but a reflection on how far we've come away from the original purpose of dog breeding within breeds. The original purpose of kennel club shows were like the livestock shows, where you show animals and you admire their fitness for purpose, their soundness, and their anatomical soundness above all.

We've drifted away from that. We are now breeding them for prettiness, for cosmetic design, to please judges. Now this cannot be right, and every time we change a breed we have to ask ourselves two questions: are we bringing in these changes to make the dog look prettier, or are we bringing it in because previously the dog was inefficient? 

If the answers to those questions are not in the best interests of dog, we've lost our way. 

Q: Who or what is to blame?

I think the blame for the current situation in the pedigree dog world is spread across a wide field. But in every element there's a human hand. Kennel clubs across the world have a lot to answer for because they've not shown leadership. They've shown patronage, but they've not shown leadership. 

They should be showing pedigree dog breeders the way ahead… how to breed sounder dogs, how to breed dogs that lead a healthy life. There's no need to lose breed points, but there's certainly no need to exaggerate breed points. If you look, throughout history, of how these breeds evolved and how they developed, they weren't exaggerated in the past. 

And they have become more exaggerated since showing dogs became popular. That in itself is a reflection on whether the breeders like their breed, or just like winning.


I think breeding to, for perfection, is very questionable. I think the original purpose of livestock shows was in pursuance of a purpose for that breed. For example, function has always ruled form. The gun dogs were developed for a purpose, the hounds were developed for a purpose, as were the terriers and the shepherd dogs.


In other words, the gun dog men were behind the very first dog show held in the middle of the nineteenth century. They didn't want to see exaggerated dogs, they wanted to see the best examples of the dogs that could excel in the field.


Part of the reason was to identify future breeding stock. Now, shows are held where the breeding stock is chosen entirely because it wins, not necessarily because it's the best. A bad judge can lead to the wrong dog being bred from, and that is not good for the future of that breed.

Q: How aware do you think the kennel club is and why is it that they're not being stronger?

Kennel clubs, I think by their nature, are self-regarding. They tend to operate through committees, and they don't have one strong person who's got a mission, a life's purpose, to make things better. As long as the thing's going along, and big shows like Cruft's pay their way, and attract high attendances, they do not think - or always have at the front of their thinking - the best needs of the dogs. 

The dogs are why all this happens. And if you allow certain breeds to become so exaggerated that it harms them, or breeding is conducted so closely by inexpert people - inbreeding, in other words - that it results in inherited diseases being spread more widely, if you allow dogs to be bred without any health checks… this is not pedigree dog breeding, this is reckless dog breeding.   

Q: Was there a moment of revelation for you?

When you see foxhounds going flat out in pursuit of quarry, when you see coursing greyhounds being used in the field, when you see terriers going to ground, when you see shepherd dogs operating in the pastures, you begin to realise that these dogs were purpose-bred in pursuit of function and that's why they look like the way they did when they were brought into the show ring. 

When you get to the stage when dogs can no longer carry out their original function, because breeders - who claim to love the breed and respect it - have bred them that way, you begin to realise that they've lost their way. 

Unless there's a functional test along the line, for terriers, for shepherd dogs, for gun dogs, or for sight hounds - unless you can match their appearance in the show ring with some kind of functional test of their ability, then you are not going to breed dogs as functional creatures, you're going to breed them as ornamental objects.

Q: But there's lots of breeds that don't have any jobs anymore, no?

I think the fact that a breed is no longer used for its original purpose is a lazy way out for breeders to say we don't need to breed them to look like that anymore. If you look at a collie that, where its coat is so heavy it would not last very long in the pastures in a winter… If you look at greyhounds where their hind legs are so heavily exaggerated and over-angulated, that they get hip problems, then… there's no way that that dog could run fast anymore.


And without tests, and without the design being tested - after all, most designs are tested - the designs of many breeds now have been forgotten. And as a result, the breeders are losing their way, the show ring rules, and in many breeds the dogs simply don't look like their prototype.

Q: A lot of breeders maintain they're improving their dogs - are they?

The improvement of dogs needs a definition. The kennel club have their overall leitmotif… “the general improvement of dogs.” What do they mean? Are they breeding sounder dogs? The fact that you have 45,000 Labradors newly registered every year, are they being bred better now than when that breed was first promoted here in the 1920's? 

It is an astonishing success story in that Labradors were hardly known at the end of the 19th century. But has the breed actually gained? Are they still functional dogs? A lot of the working dogs don't look like the show dogs at all. They are lighter, they are quicker, they are smaller-headed, they are lighter boned. Which is the correct Labrador, the one that can operate in the field, or the one that can win prizes in the show ring?

The improvement of dogs in the last 123 years, or however long the kennel club has been operating, could have been so much better. If the kennel club from the very start had said 'We are not just going to allow dogs to be shown and judged on cosmetic points, we're going to match that test with a field test'. You could have developed function and form at the same time. 

I think too, by neglecting to have mandatory health schemes, they have woefully neglected the health of dogs. Now when you're closely breeding dogs within a breed, you need skilful breeders. It is not the job of animal breeders in a backyard. Brother-sister, mother-son matings may produce dogs that look like the breed. But they… don't have the genetic virility and the genetic diversity to ensure that their progeny in due course lead healthy and sound lives. Now the kennel club could have done more to make sure that dogs were functional, respecting their original design, and been aware of the problems of closely breeding within a closed gene pool.

After all, the closed gene pool is the result of kennel club recognition. It is an imposed sanction on dog breeders. If they don't breed registered dog to registered dog, they cannot register the progeny. Now you cannot insist on that without being responsible for the outcome. And I don't believe they have been as responsible as they could have been over the prevention or the reduction of the incidents of inheritable defects in dogs.

Q: Some people will say they're just dogs. Why should we care?

I think we should care about pedigree dogs because in the hands of the wrong people - unskilled breeders - you can produce dogs that lead short lives, lead hampered lives, with their sight impaired, their bones impaired and their ability to lead a reasonably contented life seriously affected. In other words, they can be handicapped by their own breeding

If you look at breeds that for centuries were bred to a function, like mastiffs - not just the English mastiff  but that group of dogs, they were powerful gripping breeds that in the days of primitive hunting before the invention of firearms were used to pull down big game so that man could collect his quarry. 

They were immensely valuable before the invention of firearms. They had to be strong necked, strong headed, immensely determined - but still hounds. If you now cast your mind to today, the mastiff, sometimes weighing in at 20 stones, has been bred for bulk, almost like breeding a short-horn dog. 

And it serves absolutely no purpose. The mastiff was never intended to be that heavy, it was never intended to be that immobile. Dogs with that lack of agility who tried to operate in the boar hunting field twould not have lived long. Now they've come a long way entirely because of man's insistence that the mastiff should be a giant dog - heavy and huge.  

It never was. And the mastiff experts of 1880 like M. B. Wynn, who wrote the standard book on the mastiff, always said the English mastiff was traditionally never a huge dog. It was breeder intent: 'My dog is bigger and heavier than your dog'. 

Now unless a kennel club steps in and stops breed clubs from going down that kind of line, of breeding dogs excessively for weight, or in the case of the bulldog where one breeder boasted he had the shortest faced dog in London - did he care about the welfare of the dog? No. The boast was more important to him than the dog.

Q: You mentioned before an owner who boasted about a mastiff that had died at four?

There are breeds that are shorter lived than they should be. I know of breeders of what they call 'alternative bulldogs' - Dorset old time bulldogs, Victorian bulldogs, or in Canada, old time bulldogs -  that live to 14,15, and are still swimming. I know of many kennel club registered bulldogs that do not live past the age of four. That is not acceptable. 

The kennel club has been operating for what, 130 years. Now is the time, before it's too late, for them to say to breed clubs: 'Mandatory health schemes start now, excessive exaggeration in breed design stops now'. 

So many breed standards use words like 'feet massive', 'head massive', 'coat long', um, 'back short'… Dogs bred by dogs would not have those kind of stipulations. Function decided form, function never went in for exaggerations. The dachshund - that was the badger terrier, the badger dog - was not as close to the ground, as long backed and as short legged as it is now. 

There are plenty of depictions of the breed in the last 200 years to prove that point. The bassett hound is now shorter legged, longer backed, and closer to the ground, heavier boned, than it was ever in the past. If you look at the bulldog, the dogs in the baiting rings had jaws. If they didn't have jaws they could not bait bulls, they could not cling.

The idea that a short faced dog can go on breathing while it's gripping… a bull, is not borne out by the fact that all the dogs used in the boar hunt had long, strong jaws. They were heavy headed dogs, but they had ample jaw length. 

Q: We've had bulldog breeders say to us 'that roll on the face is to channel the blood from the bull' - could you talk about breed points like that?

If you look at the bulldog, and the way in which breeders aim or try hard to justify the short face, the excessive wrinkling, … and the physique as being traditional - it is simply untrue. Alken produced famous prints of the bull baiting ring, and not one dog in his depictions - and he was a very accurate illustrator - not one of those dogs had a short muzzle. 

Not one of them was over-boned. If they were not agile, the bull killed them. That is a pretty severe test. And so it's absurd to try to justify things that were introduced by man into the breed as being there for an original purpose, it is simply not true. 

What is true is that in the 19th century and 20th century some bulldog breeders were so anxious to breed a short-faced dog, they crossed their dogs with pugs - and six different Victorian authorities have testified to that - and they also produced contraptions which they clamped on the dog's head to stop its jaw growing. They also tied its back legs together whilst the pup was growing.

Q: But we wouldn't see that level of cruelty today

No but you wouldn't see cruelty like that today, but you're seeing the result of that cruelty. They weren't doing it for the well-being of the dog. The dog had no say in this. 


And if you take a breed like the bull mastiff, where dogs - they can have a short face, or they can have a longer jaw - the ones with the short face are the ones that get out of breath. And I know of a bull mastiff breeder that has both types in their kennel. The ones with the shorter muzzle and the ones with the longer muzzle. The ones with the short muzzle are the ones that cannot run a long way without getting out of breath and suffering respiratory problems. 

The longer jawed dogs do not have that problem. That is a perfect illustration of the handicap which too short a muzzle can give to the dog. It can also affect the dog's scenting ability. 

Now scent to a dog is like sight to human. What you are then saying is that if a bulldog has only 20% of the scenting ability of another, longer faced breed, it's the equivalent of breeding a human being with one-fifth the sighting ability of a normal human. Is that acceptable? 

Q: Could you project into the possible futures and where this could go?

DH: About 10 years ago a group of Canadian vets got together and produced a report. And their conclusion in a phrase was 'unless something is done, we are going to lose pedigree breeds in the next 100 years'. Now that's a fairly long time… if they'd be more precise they might well have said that some breeds would be lost in 25 years.

Q: How does the UK Kennel Club compare to others?

All kennel clubs have a role to play in the healthy breeding of dogs and the welfare of dogs. You cannot just pay lip service to that.

If you take, say, the Finnish kennel club - … their kennel club is much more open to membership, and it has rules on breeding dogs. Mandatory health checks are essential, and they do not allow what I call reckless breeding - where you can mate any dog to any other dog and register the progeny. 

That is not a serious breeding exercise, it's certainly not a scientific exercise. All it's doing is wallet chasing and producing an almost a kind of puppy farming. It's condoning the production of dogs just because they are pedigree. And it's wrong to assume that the word pedigree means quality.

Pedigree and quality in the world of dogs are two terms that should not be used as being synonymous because they're not. 'Pedigree' gives that slight cache of quality. A pedigree dog can have no quality at all. 

Q: Are you a kennel club member?

I am not a kennel club member. And I wouldn't wish to be one because I am not a breeder of dogs. I do not show dogs. But my interest in dogs is that they are sentient creatures, and whether they are bred to a breed design or whether they are mere pets and to no design at all, their well-being matters. 

There is far too much assumption in the pedigree dog world that because breeds are being perpetuated as breeds, they must somehow have some quality and they must therefore have some people looking after them. 

And not enough thought is given, from kennel clubs down to the breed clubs, to the dog. Far too much is done with the whole business of showing, owning, breeding, ah, proliferating, litters and so on. In the end the idea that we're all in it for the love of dogs does not withstand scrutiny. 

Q: What should people expect from a pedigree certificate? 

You should be able to obtain a pedigree form which shows you how the dog was bred, who its ancestors were. It should be able to tell you whether the dog's been hip scored, elbow scored, has its eyes tested - and if in certain breeds they have a problem - whether that dog has been identified in that line or not. 

It should also give you an idea of how the dog's ancestors have been judged by knowledgeable judges. On the continent they have a grading system. Our kennel club will not allow it to be introduced here. I would like to know if I was going to buy a pedigree dog whether it was going to go blind, whether it was going to live a long time, and whether its ancestors had been graded excellent. Because knowledgeable judges grading dogs excellent in some countries, they're the only dogs that can be bred from.

Q: Isn't there a fundamental problem with the whole notion of kennel club breeding as it is at the moment? You're operating within a closed gene pool, isn't it a road to nowhere?   

Kennel clubs could have a most valuable role in the breeding of pedigree dogs if they chose to. If they were to agree to mandatory health schemes, if they would limit the exaggerations in dogs in certain breeds. And if they were to make sure dog breeding was the pursuit of excellence, not the proliferation of dog shows. 

It's the dogs that matter, not the shows. 

I don't know of any pedigree breed of dog that does not have inheritable problems. And of course mongrels and cross-breds can have inherited problems too. But I think when you're selling a breed and selling a pedigree dog for £500 you are in effect deceiving the purchaser of that dog if it is going to one day develop a condition which is inheritable and is harmful to the dog.

Nobody wants to buy a dog which in four years' time is going to be lame, is going to blind, or indeed, dead. Or, is going to keel over from a diagnosable heart disease. There are certain breeds, like the cavalier king charles spaniel - a superb companion dog - that's so quickly being overwhelmed with inheritable conditions affecting its heart, for example.

Far too high a percentage of dogs in that breed are dying from heart conditions or affected by heart conditions. Now without a mandatory health scheme which forces you only to breed from dogs that are free of those conditions is the way forward…to go on breeding dogs just because they happen to belong to a breed is no way forward.

Q: How do you think the kennel club perceives attention from the European Parliament or our own government? Do they welcome it, do you think?

DH:  The kennel club - certainly the English kennel club in Britain - is far too self-regarding and far too smug. If Cruft's is a success, the kennel club somehow feels it is a success in itself. But if you look at the rate at which inheritable conditions are affecting dogs, if you look at the way in which the design which has been allowed to develop in some breeds are affecting its well being, and if you look at the way in which dogs are being over-produced - this is not good news. The kennel club boasts about how many dogs it registers each year because its whole funding system is based on money received for the registration of dogs. That's why- how it pays its way. But in a way, that encourages people to over breed.

If they are saying 'the more shows we have, the more entries we have, the more dogs we can register, shows that were successful' - that is not a judgment, that is a commentary. A judgment is how many good, sound dogs of high quality are being produced in Britain. 


Now, we started dog showing. We started pedigree dog breeding. We created more dog breeds than any other nation. We, of all nations, should now be looking to our conscience and saying 'Ok, we started this particular human interest, what we must do now is set standards that the rest of the world admire'. At the moment, certainly in Europe, they are setting standards which we do not emulate.

Q: Do you think the kennel club is aware of the need to change? 

Kennel clubs and clubs like that, by their very nature, resist change. There's a complacency about them. And they measure success, in my view, by the wrong criteria. How many dogs live a long time? How many dogs lead a contented life? How many dogs can still carry out their original function? 

Are we breeding livestock - which dogs are - to a degree in which the public admire? Or are we just perpetuating dogs because they look like the breed whose title they claim? Now, it's a matter of personal conscience here, and clubs don't have consciences. They are self-perpetuating, they're self-congratulatory, and they do not question themselves at all.

Dissidents, critical voices, are poo-pooed. At Cruft's time, anyone that criticises the pedigree dog industry, criticises the way in which judging is carried out, dog breeding is carried out - are considered to be heretics. That is not healthy. They should look towards dissident voices - especially if they're well-informed - and say 'perhaps these people have a point. 

Perhaps we should take on board some of the points they've been making. Do they have some validity?. Now what are we going to do to move forward? You cannot keep a club which is responsible for living creatures… stuck in time. They have got to take advantage ofa dvances in veterinary science, and in genetic knowledge. And that they are not doing. 

Q: They would say that they are. So do you think there should be a independed body overseeing and providing leadership? 

I think a kennel club which has a monopoly is in a dangerous position - from a dog's point of view. Because they can do what they like. What you need is healthy competition, or for the existing kennel club to say 'have we got this right? Should we not change? In what way should we change?'. But it's disappointing too, that the vets, the veterinary surgeons, don't speak up. 

Do they speak up because the sicklier dogs are, the more patients they get, the more money they make? That's a cynical statement, but why do veterinary surgeons not speak up? They are scientists. They are in possession of facts. 

But there is no feedback, there is no, survey being done by the veterinary profession to say, oi - this kind of incidence of eye disease in collies has got to be more than just coincidence. We must report it, we must have a reporting system, so that we can breed out these faults, we can reduce their incidence, and aim to produce a healthier dog. 

Is not the purpose of veterinary science to produce healthier animals? Or is it to produce as many patients as you can?

Q: I have to say a lot of vets we've spoken to feel increasingly strongly about this… But how do you convince breeders? They think that they've got healthy dogs. They see critics as outside interference. While that's going on are we not beating our heads against a brick wall?

There are some breeders of pedigree dogs who are extremely honourable, very well-informed, and are contributing quite wonderful dogs to the world of dogs. But they are the minority. I would like to hear them speak out more, but how can they speak out more if they become pariahs?

Their dogs will be penalised at dog shows, people will not recommend their pups, and they will be unable to continue. And so there's a self-defeating side to this - … dog breeders who set out to breed better dogs and obtain better specimens in their breed stand to be penalised in many ways. What you must do is go along with the current trend. 

And if you take, say, the bull terrier - the bull terrier was designed by a man called Hinks up in Birmingham in the 20th century - they did not have egg shaped heads… If the egg shaped head was a benefit, he would have bred a dog with an egg shaped head. But we decided, we the great, the dog breeding fraternity, decided that the bull terrier was to have a sheep's head, or an egg shaped head, relatively late on in the development of the breed. 

That shows you two things: one is that the breed clubs did not have the true interests of that breed at heart - otherwise they'd have not allowed it to happen - and secondly, there was no guardianship. Where was the kennel club when a bull terrier with an egg shaped head was patronised, fashioned, and considered to be the example of the breed. 

Those were the dogs that won in the ring - if you took a bull terrier in the ring today without an egg shaped head it wouldn't win. And yet, the bull terrier without an egg shaped head is the correct bull terrier, the correct example of that breed. And people like Hinks must be turning in their graves. Because all their work has been betrayed. 

Q: What do you think of Cruft’s?

You must take away the razzmatazz and the fact that it's become a dog food show, and a dog accessories manufacturers’ show. 

If the dogs that turn up on the day are not good enough to win, the judges have the ability under kennel club rules to withhold prizes. They never do. But if you read the judges' critiques after the show - this is Britain's premier show, it's called the greatest dog show in the world, and it might well be - but if you read some of the judges' critiques, they make comments like: 

'How on earth did they qualify?', 'I am distressed to see the way my breed is developing', 'This is a distressing sign and we must do something about it', 'The dogs were displaying upright shoulders, they were too short in the back, they were unsound in feet.' Many of them, time and time again, say how unfit the dogs were. They were overweight, they were in no condition, they lacked muscularity. 

Now, if the TV presenters at Cruft's time ever read the critiques of the Cruft's judges, they would be a bit more humble in their endless fawning, sycophantic praise of what is going on there. 

It is a livestock show, not a razzmatazz puppy outing. And I think the light-hearted, all-admiring, uncritical comment that Cruft's receives by the TV coverage is quite shameless. 

Q: If they were more truthful, what kind of commentary do you think we'd have?

I think there's a need for truthfulness over the commentary on any human involvement with animals. Dog breeders need people to criticise them. Not unfairly, but to make sure that they listen to another voice. Because within breed clubs, within the kennel club, if there's not dissent, if there's no critical voice, all sorts of terrible excesses can go on and with some breeds have gone on.

Q: Talk to me about your hope for the future, and how realistic you feel about that hope.

DH:  I think the breeding of pedigree dogs in particular needs a lot of remedial action, now. I think the kennel club must introduce mandatory health schemes. I think it must… do more than just alter the written breed standards, to stop the exaggerations that have crept in, in many breeds. 

I think it must re-introduce a system of breeding within the show ring so that if you're identifying future breeding stock, you can say 'this dog has been graded excellent by three different judges' or 'this dog has been graded merely satisfactory by three different judges'. The idea that every pedigree dog is worth breeding from is not a good way to proceed. 

But unless you have some kind of curbs on dog breeders, they will purely go on breeding pups. And you could argue, the cynic might say, the shorter the life of the dog the sooner the future owner needs a puppy. And so there is some self-interest in dogs not living a long time. 

But the insurance companies are not stupid and they are now charging far more breed on breed, and far less for cross bred dogs. Now cross bred dogs need not be healthier than a pedigree dog, but if the insurance companies think they are, are they completely wrong? 

Q: How hopeful are you really, David, that enough is going to be done to save pedigree dogs? 

Unless kennel clubs, breed clubs, those involved in the pedigree dog world, develop and evolve into a more dog-led, dog-conscious organisation, in the end they're going to be forced to introduce dramatic change by activists. The kind of people who have led to the Hunting With Dogs Act. 

Which is better, reorganisation and rethinking from within, by people who are in the dog game, have knowledge and can apply it, but choose not to. Or for somebody outside, some do-gooder, somebody who sees what's going on and doesn't like it coming in, crashing about.

Is that better than self-imposed rethinking, reorganisation, and saying 'we can't go on like this, we're not moving at a fast enough pace'. But unless kennel clubs, unless breed clubs, unless the pedigree dog world sorts itself out, then one day - I would like to think that vets would be more outspoken - I think the dog welfare activists almost certainly will be. 

And is it not shaming for the European Council to produce a long list of British breeds which they feel are breeding dogs which are not leading a contented, long, happy, stress-free life. Is that not shaming? 

And to just say we'll do it our way and these people are totally wrong - 20 countries have signed up to ETS 125. Britain is being advised not to by the kennel club. Is that vested interest? Or what?

If you leave the kennel club with its current philosophy to make changes, another century will go by without those changes. 

They need a visionary leader who says: 'look, this is all very comfortable, but we are not improving dogs. There are well over 400 inheritable conditions in the breeds we promote. We are not going to allow this. We are not going to allow an unsound dog to win a prize. We are not going to allow a dog to be bred from when we know that it's going to be blind one day'. That kind of moral guidance is needed from somewhere.

If the kennel clubs can't produce it, then either a rival kennel club will be created by some group of well-meaning and probably well-funded people. And the kennel club will disappear because financially it's very fragile. Or, government will step in - and you can see from the Dangerous Dogs Act, a discredited act, written by ignorant people - and if you think that the kennel club was one of the two bodies that the Home Office consulted in the drafting of that act…

The kennel club has got a lot of soul-searching to do. They've got to ask themselves lots of fundamental questions - have we truly improved dogs? Do we truly just carry on as we have been for the last 125 years? Or should we rethink what we're doing? Unless they have that kind of fundamental reappraisal of… the business they're in, I really do fear for the future of the pedigree dog.

The pedigree dog industry regards any criticism as coming from outsiders who are producing ill-informed comment. They should stop saying that and say 'Are the points these people making, are they correct? 

Is it correct, is it morally correct for us to be breeding, and judging, 20 stone mastiffs that can't lead an active life? Or bulldogs with such a short face they can't lead a stress-free life?'. 

Q: What sort of response have you had from speaking out on this issue?

Well, it's interesting because I do a great deal of research, and I study breeds and have for half a century. But if you write in magazines, you write books as I do and at Cruft's time you appear or are heard on BBC programmes - people talk in the pedigree dog world to protect their own interests. 

They try to make you sound ill-informed, not really knowing what you're talking about. Or, they try to give the impression that they are the experts, they're in charge, and nothing is going to change. That's very unhealthy. Every theatre values its critics. 

Every activity which is purely self-regarding and regards itself as untouchable, frankly… is not going to last very long. Because all it's doing is perpetuating the same old problems, not solving them. The kennel club needs, and the pedigree dog industry needs, to start solving some of its problems and not writing off all criticism as ill-informed.

Q: You’ve made me feel rather depressed about the prospects of changing things. Is that how you feel?

I do about quite a lot of the show dogs. And the sadness of the Hunting With Dogs Act, is that it is already affecting already hound breeding. The effect of the Dangerous Dogs Act has been to drive the strong-headed dogs that will persist into the hands of semi-criminal people.

There is another way of doing this, not by banning, not by prescribing, but by realigning - making sure that people who like the use of dogs in quarry pursuit, or the use of dogs that look tough and macho - there's a way of handling that. And it's not by identifying breeds and by banning things, but redirecting it.

And we talked about hound training - hound training produces extraordinarily fit, wonderfully well-bred dogs. And gives a lot of humans and a lot of dogs healthy exercise. What can be wrong with that? 

Q: I'm not sure how comfortable you feel talking about it, but do you see anything that equates to overt racism in dog breeding?

There's a kind of scorn for crossbred dogs, or mongrel dogs, which defies comprehension, really. Because there are many crossbred dogs and quite a lot of mongrels that are healthier than many pedigree dogs. And that shouldn't be so. If it is so, why are pedigree dog breeders so inefficient?

But if you look at, foxhounds… the dogs in the pastures, the sheepdogs - they're not bred to a closed gene pool. They are bred by gifted breeders in pursuit of function. And their health, their soundness, and their ability to lead long lives are built into that system.

What shepherd wants to train a dog to see it die at two or four or six? He wants a dog that lasts ten years. There is absolutely no point if you use dogs in having short-lived dogs. But there is every point in the pedigree dog industry in wanting more puppies or puppies sooner. That's not just a cynical point - if you are breeding dogs for money, it's a straight point of financial forecasting.

Q: Is there a snobbishness in purebred dogs? If yes, is there a justification for it?

In the pedigree dog world, even within the pedigree dog world, there is a snobbishness. For years, people who bred bulldogs were considered the villains. People who bred bull terriers were considered to be semi-criminals. People who kept gun dogs were considered to be slightly upper-class. The people who kept hounds were considered to be slightly more countrified.

And I think certain breeds - Staffordshire bull terriers - have long been associated with working class owners. So there has been a built-in, snobbishness I suppose is the word, a class consciousness in it. People who kept Borzoi were very different than people who kept Staffies. And, it may be true from the point of view of their level of income - but it certainly is not reflected in the quality of the dogs.

Q: Is there a level of disdain that the show world has for working dogs?

The racier, faster working Labrador is often looked upon as sort of a black whippet, and scorned. But some years ago when I was making a video on the Labrador retriever, I spent some time with a very famous Labrador breeder – Gwen Broadley - who bred dogs that were not only extremely appealing but could function in the field. And she didn't have that attitude at all. She admired Labradors because of what they could do as well as what they looked like. And she was very anxious that her dogs perpetuated a type that could work and had working ability.

If you showed a mastiff breeder a dog that had been crossbred between two similar breeds, say an American bulldog and a Presa Canario, and if it looked like an English mastiff but was actually a better dog they wouldn't announce their concern and worry that somebody could produce a better example of the mastiff, they would say 'it isn't purebred' as though that was some kind of defence. Well nobody says if you're not a noble family you aren't any good. In human terms, why is it that pedigree dogs have been elevated to have some kind of quality purely because they are purebred? It's totally irrational.

Q: Could you talk to me about the pedigree breeder’s pursuit of "perfection"?

 People who admire and patronise a particular breed, whether it's a cocker spaniel or Borzoi, are looking to produce the best specimen of that breed that has ever been produced. Seeking perfection, you could say. But in so doing, if they produce it, say with a nobler head, is that a better dog? It might look nobler, but does the shape of it allow the dog a healthier life? Or is it too narrow, too long, its eyes too… sunken, is there too much loose eyelid and so on.

If it is overfurnished as a setter, and has excessive feathering on its legs, or its tail is overfurnished, that is a handicap in the field. Therefore is it still a setter? If it's a spaniel and its ears drag on the ground, is it still a working dog? 

If it's a bulldog and will be killed by the bull within 30 seconds - and yet is still claimed to be perpetuating the dogs of the ring - is this a pursuit of perfection or is it misguided? And whenever people seek perfection, they introduce… subconsciously imperfections as well. 

And I think in the end, with living creatures, it has to be function. Function decided form - that's why the breeds… resemble the dogs they do. But function also meant that the sight hounds of the world - no matter where they are - all look very similar. The pastural dogs, the herding dogs, all look very similar. 

The mountain dogs, the flock guarding dogs, all look the same. From Spain, across to Russia, they're all of a similar conformation. Is it not therefore worth respecting that function that produced breeds right across the globe and gave us the breeds we have today? 

And so what we should be looking for is soundness in dogs, not perfection in breeds. 

There is a terrible human arrogance in thinking that we can, in an artificial arena - like a show world - improve on all those pioneer breeders, those dedicated, devoted people who produced these wonderful breeds of dog for us to enjoy. 

That arrogance in the end overlooks the best anatomy to suit purpose, and it also tends to denigrate the well-being of the dog.  Because perfection becomes the goal. 


The outline of the setter, the stance of the fox terrier in the ring, the way in which the sight hound moves confidently across the ring, the way in which a chow stands haughtily, looking slightly oriental… these things have become prized, but to the detriment of the dog. The Chows' over-straightened stifle does not lead to healthy gait in the dog. Sunken eyes in any breed is not a good idea. The… loose lidded dogs, where you get what is called 'haw', where the dog can get red0rimmed eyelids which grass-seed can get in - certainly if they're gun dogs like the Clumber spaniel, or hounds like the bassett, grass seed in your eye is - you would know it from your own experience - is extraordinarily painful. When the eyelid almost collects grass seed because it's so loosely fitting - and has been bred and allowed for in the breed standard - that is a kind of pursuit of perfection which is almost surreal. It's saying that the description we've given these dogs - even if it harms them - must be adhered to. That is an irrational act.

In the past, the kennel club has allowed out crossing when it has been necessary. The field spaniel to the English springer, the deerhound to the greyhound, the miniature bull terrier to the full-size bull terrier. And there are other examples. I think that enlightened outcrossing is an answer to some of the ways of reducing exaggerations in dogs. 

But on the other hand, when you see dogs with over-angulated hind-quarters in the show ring and winning, that's not good for anybody - except people who get paid to treat hip problems. 


David - thank you, Sir, for all you did for dogs.

My sincere condolences to David's wife, Susan, who is fund-raising for David 's favourite charity.  Please see here if you would like to contribute something in this wonderful man's memory.


  1. Such a intelligent Dogman and a value source for me as a DobermannKeeper. He will be missed by many and countless times I checked his archive to study about the history of many beloved breeds. These people are rare in 2021 !

  2. You will be missed by all of us who want to see a useful healthy future for our dogs.

  3. A wonderful piece. Thanks for posting it.
    I sense one blind spot in the writing: the fact that the primary function of most dogs, at least in the developed world, is service as human companions. The popularity of Labradors owes a lot to their ability to become much loved family members, and very little to their inclination to retrieve game.
    I can't imagine a kennel club that accounts for emotional intelligence, playfulness, and empathy in its evaluation of dogs.

  4. RIP Colonel.....I could've written what he said word for word myself, in fact I think I have more or less right here on this blog over the years as RiverP.

    Only small thing I may have had fun arguing with him about is his statement that "pet dogs have no particular design".

    To my mind at any rate pet dogs are just as much working dogs as any other "working" dogs. I prefer working dogs rather than pet bred dogs generally because of their robust health as many are selected for all the right reasons. Functional, sounder, healthier and live longer...However there is no reason pet dogs shouldn't be all of those things either and bred for our specific needs which most were originally. They still need to be functional, healthy and in many cases sporty or even not sporty, small, large, friendly, intelligent etc etc.

  5. Thank you fot this post. I didn't have to pleasure to meet him but I'm grateful for all the information and posting one of our dogs Freddy (f1 bred by Gammonwood) for one of his blogs. I hope a lot of people will read his work

  6. The belief of "dog (show) people" in the ability of their own collective to sufficiently self-critique, self-regulate, self-correct and evolve while at the same time serving an unscientific, self-indulgent and self-defeating endeavour (inbreeding) is unfounded to the point of religiosioty. Case in point - our species can't even regulate ourselves away from imminent existential threat. David Hancock was a precious voice of courage, integrity, reason and wisdom in a world that is unsustainable in its current trajectory. Thank you for the valuable piece.

  7. Thank you for this wonderful tribute. David is a national treasure and his passing is such a great loss to the dog world. We have so much to be thankful to him for. Through his tireless efforts and impeccable research he has left us with an invaluable wealth of knowledge, particularly in regards to the origins and specific traits of breeds and breed types. David was utterly devoted to seeking the truth in these matters. When it came to canine welfare his guidance was always clear, thoughtful and informed. In everything he did he maintained a dogged allegiance to the very best interests of our faithful friends. I will so greatly miss his guidance. To the truest of the true dog men I salute you.

  8. Wonderful interview and a great man who I had not heard of prior to this blog post. Thanks for spreading his thoughts to a wider audience. (I'm in the USA).