A smart puppy dog explains the problem with conformation dog shows
You can't keep a good dog down.
Whether it is off the furniture or off of hubpages!
Hi there, my name is Beauregard and I am a 6 year old Border Collie. You may have seen me before on hubpages when I wrote a couple of articles as a guest writer for my human grandmother. Well, she decided that hubpages wasn't for her. I on the other paw kind of liked being so pup-u-lar so I decided to see if my uncle DDS wanted some help. He has written some okay articles, but a lot of them, well I don't know. I really thought I could be a good dog by helping him out as a guest writer.
DDS wasn't too sure at first, but once I told him that there was a big story, and one that I was barking mad about he said yes right away.
The subject I want to talk about is conformation dog shows. I really hope it gets all of you humans thinking and talking. As you will see, there are some very serious issues.
A brief history of dogs
Humans and us dogs have been living, working and playing together for a long time. We know for sure that there has been domestication within at least the last 10,000 years or so, but some evidence suggests that it could have been as long ago as 30,000 years ago. That is a pretty long time. No wonder we've become such good friends!
This started with the domestication of the grey wolf. Humans quickly learned to take advantage of the wolfs natural abilities and instincts and so from very early on my ancestors were working for humans in many of the roles and jobs we do to this day.
Different communities of humans often living in drastically different places would tend to favour certain traits and instincts over others. Those dogs that could do the job that was needed to be done were most likley to be bred with other dogs that could get the job done.
This led to the formation of broad regional variants called landraces. These are the precursor to our modern 'breeds'.
As dog breeds began to develop they still tended to be defined predominately whether or not the dog could perform the task for which it was meant to perform.
It wasn't until relatively quite recently in the 19th century that dog breeding as we know it today was born.
It was also during this time that dog shows and the seeds of a terrible problem were sewn.
For the first time the focus shifted from ability and function to appearance.
So how could that be so terrible? Doesn't everyone think their pup is beautiful?
So just what is so bad about conformation dog shows?
You might be wondering why such a handsome dog as myself would be worried at all about being judged on how I look? Well that all has to do with exactly how I am being judged and why.
The dogs at a conformation show aren't being judged against each other, but rather against a picture in the judges mind of what the ideal appearance for that breed is based on a specific range of measurements and markings and shape as is written down in the breed standard.
This is because modern dog breeding came in to being around the same time that an idea called Eugenics was quite popular. This was the idea that a population could be made better by preventing 'inferior' individuals from reproducing, breeding 'best with best' and never mixing races so as to keep them 'pure'. And just in case you were wondering, these ideas were applied first and foremost to human beings. Us dogs just got caught up in some really bad science.
There are in truth advantages to keeping these breed standards in that it produces dogs that look more or less like each other with mostly similar temperaments. Advocates of these practices argue that this allows people to make informed choices when bringing a new pup into their homes, resulting in fewer unwanted dogs. The downside, sadly is much worse than any benefit this affords us dogs. The reason is the way the similarities within a breed are maintained, and that is through inbreeding, the mating of closely related individuals. The first problem with this is that people wanting to do well in the dog shows as well as the implied prestige of canine royalty would want to have their dogs as closely resembling and decedent from champion dogs. This led to some dogs being over-bred and for a lot of inbreeding to occur. A dog that may have a champion look to pass on will also pass on a lot of problems as well. The rate of genetically inherited diseases in purebred pups is staggering. Thankfully us border collies still tend to be bred as working dogs and so not from such a narrow lineage, although even for us there are problems. I am an epileptic dog and the problem is often found in border collies. As for the pedigree dogs? Well It's more freak show than dog show and truly depressing. A good source of information on this is the BBC One documentary 'Pedigree Dogs Exposed' that was released in 2008 and that I have included here so you all can get a lot more information and have a more in depth (but very upsetting) look at some of the problems being bred into us poor dogs.
BBC1 documentary: 'Pedigree Dogs Exposed'
How the Kennel Club is trying to fix things
In response to this problem and the backlash from the airing of the BBC1 special the Kennel Club decided to self police itself to screen for health issues and to limit how closely animals are inbred. They argue that they are still in the best interest of the integrity and welfare of dog breeds, suggesting that a mixed breed dog can pick up genetic problems from a wide variety of unknown and uncontrollable sources. They have also started to alter some of their breed standards such as with the bulldog, moving away from traits that have become increasingly disastrous for the health of the animal. This is a move in the right direction, but still think that the conformation shows still provide far too much of an imperative and incentive to breed animals close in appearance and thus close in relation. I think that even with all the best intention in the world, at the end of the day the conformation shows create too much moral hazard toward bad practices and the problem is likely to serious and too urgent for simple tweaking to be effective.
To give you an idea of how serious the issue is an article originally published in the Telegraph in 2008 warned that many pedigree breeds could become extinct in as little as 50 years.
This is not simply a matter of checking for health problems. What looks to be happening here is something called 'inbreeding depression' which is a process by which offspring of breeding pairs become less and less viable. In the biological world 'viable' means 'able to make puppies of their own that can make puppies of their own'. It is a genetic bottle neck. If we do not move in the right direction and quickly the future for many breeds and many individual pups is grim.
Are breeders bad then?
One might ask, if all these horrible problems arise from the breeding of dogs, wouldn't it be best to eliminate dog breeders?
This would seem to be a simple solution, but alternate scenarios like the proliferation of puppy mills seems to trade one bad situation for another. As much as the tragedy of what inbreeding and conformation shows has done to us dogs really makes me want to bite someone I am hoping that committed, ethical and dog loving breeders can take the science of what they are doing more into account and quite broadly change and open up the pool of dogs from which they are willing to breed from, and do so much more often.
Of course for that to happen these breeders are going to have to have customers for these dogs. A pedigree pup can sell for thousands of dollars. Since I have yet to see a human that is any good at all at being a sheep dog, I suppose you humans have to find a way to eat and feed your families. If all of you humans started demanding dogs with greater genetic diversity, and refusing to buy inbred animals, then the breeders would no longer have a reason to breed them.
If I was a breeder I would lead the way on this because I think people respond favourably to businesses that lead with strong ethical choices. Of course I am after all a border collie, and we are pretty smart! I just hope all of you humans get the message before the situation gets even more bleak for us dogs.
What we can do to help
Well as horrible as the situation is, I think that there are enough people out there that value dogs as co-workers, friends and family members. I also have some trust that even a lot of the people doing these very brad practices will be able to see the consequences of their actions. I think for sure the way dog shows work and are judged will have to change. kennel clubs don't at all have to be bad things. Some, like the Swedish Kennel Club in fact have been ahead of the game for a long time. They will even let you register your mutt and make breeders responsible for any health issues that arise in the first three years of the pup's life.
Overall though things will happen based on where you spend your time and most importantly where you spend your dollars. You might think you wont make much of a difference on your own, but as long as this keeps being discussed and people keep being educated, then more will join in moving things in a positive direction for us dogs.
We have been working with you, and your friends and loyal for a very long time. Thousands of years in fact. I am hoping that you will share this article and help make our health and genetic diversity a priority. It is very time consuming typing with my pup nose, but if all of you humans help spread the word then it will be worth it.
Thank you for taking the time to read my article.
-Beauregard, a good dog.