Why the Westminster Dog Show Hoopla Worries Me

Does the famous dog show turn certain breeds into status symbols? And what does the AKC really stand for? You might be very surprised.

AKC logoYes, it’s that time again: Best in Show! 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 all understand what goes on beyond the red carpet. What does AKC, the American Kennel Club, 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 my clients talk about acquiring 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?

If you are watching the Westminster Dog Show as a research tool or buying guide, listen carefully to the breed profiles as the dogs are introduced. Look out for code words and phrases. Guard dogs are described as “vigilant.” Herding dogs are said to “need a lot of exercise.” The translation is that guard dogs may not like any of your friends and guard your mailman’s pant leg… with its teeth.

“Exercise” may mean never being without a tennis ball for your obsessive/compulsive Border Collie! Seriously, no breed club wants its breed described with negative traits. Take “developed to hunt vermin” seriously. That little terrier will want to hunt your cat until you teach your new Jack Russell otherwise!

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. The American Kennel Club was founded in 1884, and it is a purebred dog registry that promotes events for purebred dogs, the largest and most prestigious of which is the Westminster Dog Show.

The AKC also says it advances canine health, sponsors events to encourage dog showmanship, offers the Canine Good Citizen program and lobbies Congress on a number of dog related issues, among them fighting anti-puppy mill legislation. Its rationale for supporting puppy mills states that its motive 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.

Wally and Zee Zee
Wally and Zee Zee

But … My Dog Has Papers!

The AKC is primarily a registry of purebred dog pedigrees in the United States. Currently, there are 185 recognized breeds, with six new breeds this year that were able to compete at Westminster.

In order for you to purchase 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? Wrong.

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.

Take the senior citizen breeder of Toy Poodles and Bichons, for example. Mrs. Poochon has nine dogs: five females and four 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.”

I have two 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, 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 them 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, two 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 owner, thrilled they had found his dog. “I don’t want that (expletive) dog, you (expletives). Why do you think I dumped him out of my car five towns over? He bit my kids!”

I took ZeeZee from Cocker rescue because he was slated to go into a prison rehab program after failing in two adoption situations. That’s right. Put a biting, fearful dog in prison with men with anger issues. I had to rescue him.

My two dogs are prime examples of poorly bred dogs that should never have been bred in the first place. They were bred as inventory for the pet store trade. Wally was never purchased for any home, and ZeeZee went to a bad home. 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.

Footnote: Wally and ZeeZee are the best dogs and my best friends. Wally just turned 10, and ZeeZee hasn’t bitten anyone in… a long time.

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 this country. 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.

Once I talk to them about OFA or Pennhip screening for hip dysplasia, letting them know their puppy or puppy’s parents have not been checked, do you know how many people return a puppy after they have had it a few days? Not many.

What’s All This About AKC?

Some breed clubs have actually been upset when the AKC accepts their breed.

The Border Collie is a great example. The 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 Breeds

Now my last two cents about designer dogs. I have lots of little mutts in my practice running around with adorable portmanteaus, like 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, a client brought me an adorable mutt, 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 absolutely nothing. Then again, what do AKC papers mean? Really. (Beware of the Mrs. Poochons, y’all!)

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. And if the Golden and the Lab that produced that 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.

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 thee breeds. It’s fascinating. One of the newest 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 two sniffers and you get a great tracker!

Again, this is why so many breed clubs are wary of breeding for “the look” only.

Two 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. These groups have very 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, hips X-rayed and the list goes on. 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 catch a case of Angelinajolitis. You’re going to want to get that puppy out of that bad breeder country. (This would be me, of course — owner of seizing, limping, biting lovebuckets!)

So, happy herding and sporting, you old hound. When you’re tired of working, be a sport and dig up some snacks, you feisty little terrier! May the best dog win… a spot on my couch.

Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD

View posts by Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD
Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, is a small animal and exotics veterinarian who has split her time between a veterinary practice in Pelham, Massachusetts, and her studio in New York City. Dr. Lichtenberg is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine with 30 years of experience. Her special interests are soft tissue surgery and oncology.

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