Westminster Allows Mutts, Sort Of

Here’s the big question: Why can’t the well-endowed, wealthy AKC do more to improve dog breeding and canine health in America?

Why can’t AKC, a well-endowed, wealthy organization, do more to improve dog breeding and canine health in America? By: David K

Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, a competition of the AKC — and often called “the Super Bowl of dog shows” — is making its first nod to diversity in February by letting mixed-breed dogs join its new agility competition.

During the weekend leading up to the Big Dance, mutts and purebred dogs alike will be jumping through hoops and traversing the course, doing things that, well, dogs like to do.

But this will be a far cry from the beauty pageant to follow, where all roads lead to Best in Show. Best in what, I ask?

Criticism of the AKC

The American Kennel Club is the country’s foremost dog breeders’ association, and Westminster is the dog show of shows, supposed to exhibit high-brow, excellent, ethical dog breeding at its finest.

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 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 [PDF].

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, the AKC is also under fire for sanctioning ear cropping and tail docking. Worst of all, in my veterinary opinion — it 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.

Adding Mixed-Breed Pets

By allowing beloved mutts to compete in agility trials, the AKC may be trying 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.

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It may humanize an organization that has been accused of being more interested in conformation than canine 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 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 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 that 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.

Changing Old Practices

America is far behind some European countries when it comes to ethical dog breeding and animal welfare. Ear cropping and tail docking have not been practiced in England for decades. And breeders of German Shepherds in Germany have decreased the tragedy of hip dysplasia in the breed by leaps and bounds. In America — not so much.

Americans still like to cut off ears and tails and dewclaws willy-nilly if they think it makes for a better-looking dog. Better-looking to whom?

And sadly, we still breed German Shepherds and other large-breed dogs in this country with hips so lax, their femurs are waving to their pelvic bones from another room.

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When a duped new puppy parent with a puppy mill Golden Retriever walks into my office, for instance, and I ask him where his OFA certification is on his new puppy’s parents’ hips, he stares at me like a deer in the headlights. “OFA cert-a-what?”

The puppy mill may not even be sure who the parents of the pup are, let alone X-raying the parents’ hips, but the AKC has most certainly issued it papers. Why? Because the puppy mill paid the registration fee.

Breeding for Beauty Alone

I admire and love the pedigree dogs I see on the street, out in the world and in my practice. The range and beauty of these dogs is indeed one of the great wonders of the animal kingdom. My beef is that these dogs are not always being bred to improve the function of that breed, and to safeguard their health. I am actually quite elitist when it comes to dog breeding.

I support choosing breeding stock and engineering breeding so that the end puppy product is a great example of what that breed was bred for in the first place. But in this country we have bred for looks, not function, because of prestige shows like the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show and our fascination with winning and celebrity.

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.

So in the end, 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 Bostons with noses so shortened they can’t breathe?

By breeding for a certain look or size, how many genetic diseases have we made worse? By: SheltieBoy

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?

Is This a Sign of Change?

The breeders’ associations and reputable breeders are out there. 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, indeed, 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.

I hope the inclusion of the mutts at Westminster’s agility show is a good sign for dog breeding and showing. By seeing the great worth in all dogs, perhaps the AKC will get its priorities on the right track. I mean, if this great country can embrace marriage equality, repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and continue to work on equal pay for equal work, maybe there’s hope that dog snobbery and elitism can wear a more inclusive muzzle too.

Let’s break that fur ceiling, you adorable mutt-faces! And please check out those doggy X Games as well as the pups in tiaras when the Westminster circus rolls into New York City (and on your TV) next month.

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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