Each February, the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show brings the glitz, the fur spray, the red carpet of the canine celebrities.
I don’t mean to rain on your doggy parade, but I want to make sure you understand what goes on beyond the red carpet.
- What does the American Kennel Club (AKC) really stand for?
- What does winning at Westminster mean?
- What are the inherent problems associated with our system of pedigree dogs?
I enjoy watching the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, for both the people- and dog-watching opportunities, as well as the spectacular canine specimens, the sublime and the ridiculous alike.
But I worry every year when people at my vet clinic talk about getting a certain breed because they saw it on television.
Is it like buying a new pocketbook? Does the Westminster hype turn certain breeds into status symbols? Does it underscore the need for some people to buy a “purebred” dog?
The Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show was founded in New York City in 1877 by dog fanciers, men who owned hunting dogs. They met at the Westminster Hotel, thus the name.
If you are watching the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show as a research tool or buying guide, listen carefully to the dog breed profiles as the animals are introduced. No breed club wants its breed described with negative traits.
Look out for code words and phrases:
- Guard dogs are described as “vigilant.” The translation is that guard dogs may not like any of your friends and guard your mailman’s pant leg … with its teeth.
- Herding dogs are said to “need a lot of exercise.” Translation: “Exercise” may mean never being without a tennis ball for your obsessive/compulsive Border Collie.
- Take “developed to hunt vermin” seriously too. That little terrier will want to hunt your cat until you teach your new Jack Russell otherwise.
Criticism of the AKC
The American Kennel Club was founded in 1884. It is a purebred dog registry that promotes events for purebred dogs, the largest and most prestigious of which is Westminster.
The AKC purports to promote canine welfare and ensure ethical breeding. The organization’s mission statement claims it is dedicated to “upholding the integrity of its registry.”
The AKC also says it advances canine health, sponsors events to encourage dog showmanship, offers the Canine Good Citizen program and lobbies Congress on various dog-related issues. Among them? The AKC fights against legislation to curb puppy mills.
Its rationale for supporting puppy mills is to protect the breeding industry.
The AKC makes a lot of money from puppy registration, whether it be your local Golden Retriever breeder or a puppy mill in West Virginia. It doesn’t differentiate between the two.
The Humane Society of the United States, on the other hand — the largest animal welfare organization in the world — takes issue with how good a job the AKC is doing in its mission, criticizing it for poor regulation of horrible breeders and sanctioning and protecting puppy mills.
- The AKC is under harsh scrutiny for supporting puppy mills, giving insufficient inspections and blocking legislation in many states intended to put a stop to the inhumane practices of puppy mills.
- It is also under fire for sanctioning ear cropping and tail docking.
- Worst of all, in my veterinary opinion — the AKC sanctions debarking as a means of “noise control” in populated neighborhoods.
Given the track record of the AKC, it’s no wonder a dog lover like myself can be confused by the elitist “beauty pageant” vibe of Westminster.
Why can’t this well-endowed, wealthy organization do more to improve dog breeding and canine health in America?
The Humane Society concludes that the AKC is financially beholden to the commercial breeding industry.
The Westminster Dog Show’s Attempt to Humanize Itself
In 2014, mixed-breed dogs were allowed to compete in agility trials.
With this move, the AKC may have tried to have Westminster look more inclusive and less elitist. Imagine your “favorite neighborhood mutt” mixing it up on the agility course with the Westminster darlings.
It may humanize an organization that has been accused of being more interested in conformation than health issues, an organization that has been accused of collecting registration fees from as many unscrupulous breeders as possible, rather than trying to shut down those dirty, criminal puppy mill operations.
Although my veterinary practice doesn’t cater to breeders, I have a few breeders as clients and as friends. These are good women, always interested in whelping healthy litters, and they love their dogs. But when it comes to producing a “show dog,” conformation comes first.
This is because the AKC, the Humane Society maintains, cares more about external qualities alone. The AKC is not addressing the laundry list of genetic and hereditary problems plaguing American dog breeding today.
Some of the dogs I care for who are headed for local or national stardom have questionable temperaments and may carry inherited health problems. But as long as they perform well and look good in the ring, many breeders continue to show and breed these lines. They shouldn’t.
I recently had a spaniel who tried to bite me on the exam table. Even his breeder couldn’t look in his ears without her own dog trying to bite her … but he got his championship! What a not-nice dog to breed.
But My Dog Has Papers!
The AKC is primarily a registry of purebred dog pedigrees in the United States. There are nearly 200 recognized breeds.
In order for you to buy a dog “with papers,” your puppy’s parents must be registered with the AKC as the same breed, and your puppy’s litter must be registered with the AKC.
So this means you are guaranteed a healthy puppy from a reputable breeder and the breeding stock has been carefully monitored, right?
Nobody from the AKC ever has to lay eyes on your breeder or your litter. Registration is done online or by mail.
How do you know the lineage printed on your pedigree papers is legitimate? You don’t. It’s done by the honor system.
How the Honor System Could Be Abused
Take the senior citizen breeder of Toy Poodles and Bichons, for example.
Mrs. Poochon has 9 dogs: 5 females and 4 males. None of them are “fixed.” So was it really Harry who met Sally in the alley? Or was it Pep-pep on the back steps with Bette?
Mrs. Poochon rustles up some papers from the bottom of her kitchen drawer with some numbers of her males and registers the litter as sired by Harry. Is that a guilty smile on Pep-pep’s muzzle? I think he had his way with Bette while Harry was catching a cat nap.
Unfortunately, a disreputable breeder and not just a confused lady with Poodles could do the same thing and register a litter with misinformation on “the honor system.”
A Quick Story About My Own Dogs
I have 2 Cocker Spaniels. With papers.
Wally has AKC papers from a puppy mill in North Carolina, and ZeeZee is from a Missouri puppy mill, one of the worst states for overcrowded puppy mills with sick and overbred dogs.
- Wally is 42 pounds, has long legs and a coat like a poodle. He is an epileptic dog, needs thyroid medicine every day and has severely dysplastic elbows (degenerative joint disease).
- ZeeZee is a small Cocker, short legs squat to the ground, with a little bear coat of questionable etiology, and aggression issues.
I have these dogs because nobody else wanted them.
My “purebred Cockers” with “papers” look nothing alike, nothing like the breed standard, and came to me with unforeseen health and behavioral problems.
Yet the AKC is happy to register them as “American Cocker Spaniels” and happy to protect the puppy mills they came from. They both came to me via pet stores that buy exclusively from puppy mills.
Wally was in a pet store until he was 4 ½ months old. A local animal shelter worker took pity on him while shopping for non-living things at the mall, saw that he was too old to be in a store, not socialized, and spent her hard-earned animal welfare money just to get him out of there.
And he was reduced from $1,200 to $250. What a bargain! How much will it cost to buy him a non-seizuring brain, 2 new elbows and a functioning thyroid gland?
ZeeZee was found wandering the streets at 9 months old. He had been microchipped, so the rescue people called his family, thrilled they had found his dog. Sadly, the reply was: “I don’t want that (expletive) dog, you (expletives). Why do you think I dumped him out of my car? He bit my kids!”
I took ZeeZee from Cocker rescue because he was slated to go into a prison rehab program after failing in 2 adoption situations. That’s right. Put a biting, fearful dog in prison with men with anger issues. I had to rescue him.
My 2 dogs are prime examples of poorly bred dogs that should never have been bred in the first place. I’m glad they both wound up in my home, but they came pretty close to unhappy endings.
The AKC supports breedings like these by not doing anything to stop them, in my opinion, and by trying to block legislation that would safeguard puppy breeding.
Health Issues and the AKC
If you listen to the AKC ad campaigns and the commentators at Westminster, they strongly imply that the AKC is all about canine health and healthy breeding when, in reality, it does not regulate canine health or breeding ethics.
The AKC admittedly states that AKC papers “in no way indicates the quality or state of health of the dog.”
In addition, the AKC’s and Westminster’s standards for dog showing and awarding of honors is all about physical appearance and body conformation, not emotional, behavioral or physical health.
The German Shepherd Club of Germany, for instance, requires hip and elbow X-rays before a dog can be bred. Not so in the United States.
Uneducated buyers purchase, for example, a Golden Retriever puppy or a German Shepherd from an unreputable breeder or puppy mill. If they don’t know that those breeds are plagued with hip dysplasia and the parents and grandparents haven’t been checked, that pup is at greater risk of having inherited bad hips.
When a duped new puppy parent with a puppy mill Golden Retriever walks into my office, for instance, and I ask about the OFA certification on the puppy’s parents’ hips, the person stares at me like a deer in the headlights. “OFA cert-a-what?”
The puppy mill itself may not even be sure who the parents of the pup are — let alone X-raying the parents’ hips. Yet the AKC has most certainly issued it papers.
Why? Because the puppy mill paid the registration fee.
What’s All This About the AKC?
Some breed clubs have actually been upset when the AKC accepts their breed:
- The Border Collie is a great example. This dog is known for its exceptional herding and athletic abilities and intelligence, and Border Collie people feared that the AKC’s interest in conformation and appearance alone would hurt the breed. Many choose not to register their Borders with the AKC.
- The same is true of the Jack Russell Terrier. There was great variation in this breed, and the Jack Russell clubs loved this about their dog. Many were afraid that with AKC acceptance comes breeding for a certain look, and that may lead to breeding in problems and breeding out diversity.
Designer Dog Breeds
Now on to designer dogs…
I have lots of little mutts in my practice running around with adorable portmanteaus, like Doodles and Schnoodles and Pomchis and Cavachons.
OK, OK, they are not “mutts.” They are purebred crosses. Mutts are a delicious unknown mix.
A few years ago, someone brought an adorable mutt into my clinic, and she told me the dog had “papers.” I giggled. Boy, had she been taken, I thought.
But in fact, there are designer registries on the internet, so you can get papers for your Afador, or your Malteagle or Bosapso. These papers mean nothing. Then again, what do AKC papers mean? Really.
There is something to be said for these designer breeds, or dog hybrids. With a more diversified gene pool, these hybrids may be healthier than purebreds with a narrower gene pool. But be aware that many of these “breeders” are still not screening the parents for diseases.
I am beginning to see my first Goldendoodles, unfortunately, with lymphosarcoma, a cancer prevalent in the Golden Retriever, although any breed can get it.
- If the Golden and the Lab who produced a Goldador have not been screened for hip dysplasia, the hybrid breed is at risk.
- The Cavachon can still have heart trouble like the Cavaliers.
- The Cockapoo may still have terrible ears like the Cocker.
- And so on…
There is actually nothing new about “designer breeds.” Most of our current breeds have evolved from other breeds.
Listen at Westminster for the history of the breeds. It’s fascinating. One of the newer AKC breeds to be accepted, the Cesky Terrier, is a hybrid of the Sealyham and Scottish Terrier.
When dogs were more than companion animals, bred primarily for their hunting, herding, working abilities, dog owners bred for these traits. If one sheep farmer had a great herding dog and his neighbor had another, they bred them!
It could be a Border-Blue-Australian-Heeler for all they cared, but it tended the sheep. Same goes for that Walker-Bluetick-Plott — nothing but a great coon-hunting hound dog! Just breed the best 2 sniffers and you get a great tracker!
With dog shows like Westminster, we are not breeding Miss American Puppy based on her achievements and skills — we are breeding for the best hair. Dog showing is about the swimsuit competition, not if they get the questions right.
I believe Westminster is breeding the supermodel, not the athlete, or the hunter or even the best lap-sitter, a notable canine quality. We are breeding for style, and throwing away health and temperaments:
- Why else would we have German Shepherds with their back haunches nearly touching the ground?
- Or perky Pugs and Boston Terriers with noses so shortened they can’t breathe?
- Why have we bred toys so tiny that their little brains are too big for their even littler craniums, and their teeth fall out of their mouths because they don’t have enough jaw bone to support them?
By breeding for a certain look or size, how many genetic diseases have we made worse because the desired trait was linked to a health problem?
Again, this is why so many breed clubs are wary of breeding for “the look” only.
Thumbs Up for a Healthy Purebred
If I have done some trashing of the AKC, let’s not trash the parent clubs of many breeds.
The breeders’ associations and reputable breeders are out there. These groups have active health committees that work hard to address health-related concerns for their breeds.
Many breeders have eyes tested; skin biopsied; hearts checked; elbows, shoulders and hips X-rayed … and the list goes on.
Thanks to their hard work, and fabulous veterinarians who care about these breeds, genetic testing is being made easier and more affordable. Screenings for many more diseases are made available every year. This is a positive wave of the future.
But the AKC is not making sure that more breeders screen for these genetic diseases — and, according to the Humane Society, not ferreting out enough of the criminal breeding operations.
If you do your research, you’ll know when you’re dealing with a reputable breeder:
- Always ask to see the parents.
- If you get a bad vibe when searching for a puppy, turn around and walk out before you look at the puppies.
Otherwise, you’re going to want to get that puppy out of that bad breeder country. This would be me, of course — caretaker of seizing, limping, biting love-buckets!