Tuesday 20 July 2021

TV REVIEW: Britain's Puppy Boom: Counting the Cost

Personally, I think the BBC should have been brave and gone with the original title for this programme: "Will My Puppies Make Me Rich?" But when the programme was announced last November (see here), the dog world lost its shit, convinced the BBC was going to produce a get-rich-quick guide for wannabe dog breeders. The two young women who secured the commission as part of a pitching competition were bombarded with abuse online. Even the RSPCA, which should have known better, called the programme "irresponsible".  

The BBC was forced to put out a statement condemning the abuse and confirming their commitment to producing a well-researched, responsible programme (read that here). But, disappointingly, the Corporation bowed to pressure and changed the title to something that was not going to offend anyone but is rather dull/worthy in comparison.

That matters because it's the very people who might have been drawn in by the original title who needed to see what proved to be a good film.

The programme was always going to include cautionary tales about how breeding dogs can go tits-up - such as the couple who decided to breed their Bull Terrier bitch because it would be nice to have puppies during lockdown and, admitted wife Jo, because "my husband wanted some dollar".

They ended up two grand out of pocket. The bitch, Ginny, needed an expensive emergency C-section; there was only one pup and judging by the way Jo was coo-ing, he may never be sold. "He's outstandingly beautiful," she says, cradling the all-white puppy. All I could think was: I hope the puppy doesn't turn out to be deaf (a significant risk in all-white Bull Terriers).

But of course some people do make money from dog breeding. A lot of money. In Manchester, photographer Rosie who specialises in snapping the currently fashionable bully breeds, told us that some breeders are copping £60k from a single litter of pups. That figure continued to ring in my ears and I suspect in the lugholes of many other too, in spite of the precautionary balance the programme included - which of course is what the welfare organisations and others feared. But the fact is that this kind of breeding is out there and it is a perfectly legit subject for a documentary. I thought it was great, actually, to have the issues raised for the younger, BBC Three audience.

There wasn't much evidence here of "good" breeders, certainly not in the sense touted by the Kennel Club which was thanked in the credits but whose influence was unfelt.  I don't think the KC was mentioned once, perhaps considered as irrelevant by the programme makers as it clearly is to the young breeders who are doing things their way. 

This will have infuriated many traditional breeders who will complain that the programme didn't feature one of their own; instead choosing to feature breeders such as 21-yr-old Hayden,  a young man who had crossed his palms with Silver - the name of his American Bully, who he'd mated with his Old English Bulldog bitch to produce a whopping litter of 12, nine of which survived. 

There was no mention of any health-testing (so presumably none) although the pups looked in chunky good health. Their mum, though, seemed very subdued,  skinny from the effort of raising all those pups and with signs of irritation round her eyes.

Click to enlarge

Presenter, vet Fabian Rivers did not delve too deeply - although perhaps he did and it was edited out by the  programme-makers wary of being too tough on those who had been good enough to speak to them. 

Rivers, who is very personable on screen, did spell out that fashionable breeds can make a big dent in your wallet (in vet fees) way beyond their £3k+ purchase price, but the programme was rather thin on detail about inherited defects - even allowing a Dachshund rescue person to wax lyrical over Dachshunds ("they make absolutely amazing pets") with zero mention that 25% of them suffer from spinal issues that can leave them paralysed or that there are huge concerns about the number of them being bred to meet the current demand.  Still, I guess there's been a previous film or two that has focused on this aspect...😀

The programme was journalistically at its meatiest when it came to exploring canine fertility clinics - a relatively new phenomenon in the UK and currently unregulated. We've been highlighting them on my campaign group CRUFFA for the past three years as they're often run as a profitable sideshoot by breeders who specialise in breeding overdone Bulldogs + Frenchies. 

This was not obviously the case with clinic owner Rosie in Stockport and my hopes were raised when she told Rivers that there were some things she wouldn't do. Aha! So she would not, perhaps, facilitate the breeding of dogs that anyone with eyes in their head should never be bred? Nope, that wasn't the issue.  Rosie just reassured us that, unlike some others, she wouldn't take a £200 artificial insemination fee off unwitting owners when the timing meant there was no chance of puppies. She also told us that a natural tie (you know, when dogs just get on with it without human interference) was "dangerous" - something that should have been challenged given the programme's target audience was people who are new to dog breeding. We do not need a new generation of breeders who think this is normal.

The programme sent an undercover reporter into the biggest fertility clinic chain - SmartBreeder - to attend a course advertised as "being covered by a fully qualified vet". Except the person who ran it - a guy called Dave Holt who was very full of himself - was neither a vet nor a veterinary professional. The camera caught him teaching his students how to draw blood (something that can legally only be done by a veterinary professional in the UK) -  and he also recommended the illegal use of the human mini-pill as a contraceptive in dogs. 

SmartBreeder has yet to issue a formal statement, other than to claim that Dave Holt provides the courses via his own business. I'll add it here if one is forthcoming. 

Regulation of these fertility clinics is way overdue and I hope the focus will encourage the Government into action. Same for the coverage of ear-cropping, incredibly fashionable at the moment, despite being illegal in the UK for more than 100 years.

Britain's Puppy Boom: Counting the Cost is available online now and you can watch it here  - although only if you are in the UK I'm afraid.