Social media has turned “spectating” into an activity in which you’re watching an event with your fingers on your smartphone, ready to tweet or post your most witty or blistering observation marked with the appropriate hashtag. Often the online commentary is more interesting than the on-air commentary, and sometimes it’s even more interesting than the event itself.
In recent years I’ve certainly felt that to be true about the Westminster Kennel Club dog show, which has already shown itself to be fertile ground for parody thanks to Christopher Guest’s “mockumentary,” “Best In Show,” with Guest himself showing the Bloodhound in this clip:
Runner-up has to go to humorist Merrill Markoe‘s tone-perfect brief takedown of the show, “White Women in Knee Length Skirts Group.”
What neither Guest nor Markoe (both dog-lovers, it should be noted) ever did is mock the dogs, who are for the most part just going along with the whole affair in the good humor and sense of participation that’s part of what we love about dogs. The dogs are there because we want them to be there — or at least, their owners do — and that kind of makes it unfair to mock an individual dog. Saying a certain breed is a hot mess (:::cough::: Bulldog::: cough :::Pekingese :: cough :::cough:::) is fair game, especially when some breeds have been bred by fashion’s dictates to the point when they make hot-house orchids look hardy. But picking on an individual dog? Not cool. Not cool, indeed.
Which brings me to the Best of Breed Labrador at Westminster, or as the wags on social media quickly named her, the “#Flabador.” Also, “#Fatador,” And those were two of the nicer comments I saw.
Fat Labradors have become commonplace in the American show ring, with the ascent of so-called “English”-style Labradors. American show Labs split with American field Labs years ago, with the show breeders favoring a bigger-framed, stocky dog. Only in recent years, though, have fashions in the show ring favored enhancing that stocky look with actual fat — or at least looking the other way when that’s what happens.
Yes, the Brits got there first. I attended the premiere British dog show, Crufts, a decade or so ago. There are typically more than 20,000 dogs showing over the four-day run, and since Crufts requires the dogs to be on display when not competing (it’s what’s called a “benched” show) you get a really good look at lots and lots of dogs. I was standing with a top expert in my own retriever breed (Flat-Coated) watching the Labrador competition while we talked. Many of the dogs seemed overweight to my eye, but my British cohort assured me that they were normal for the breed.
“You think that’s a good thing?” I asked her.
“Absolutely not,” she said. “It’s appalling.”
That’s exactly the word that came to mind as I watched the Westminster Best of Breed Labrador in the Sporting Group competition. Her appearance was … appalling.
Look, I’m pretty sure that dog is very nice, and I would probably like her if I met her. I have a very soft spot for retrievers, after all. And I know that her breeder/owner loves her and is very proud of her. But … what sort of crazy blinders do you have be wearing to think that dog is a splendid example of a working retriever? This is not about judging a hog for the dinner table. The Labrador is — or is supposed to be — an athletic working dog with the stamina for long days in the field.
I watched the poor dog’s fat roll around her frame as she was moved for the judge, and saw her panting with the exertion of trotting around a green carpet. Really? It is bad enough that show Labradors have been bred for frames that resemble prize Angus bulls, but to value the addition of fat on top of it? What collective madness has taken over the brains of people who breed Labradors for the show ring?
Interestingly enough, a study of Labrador retrievers is the benchmark for much of what we know about the impact of excess weight on health and longevity. Last year at the Western Veterinary Conference I heard a presenter from the veterinary college at North Carolina State University say that obesity-triggered arthritis kills more dogs than any other health problem. Since I had just lost a dog to cancer, I raised an eyebrow at that. But he made his case: Dog-owners put their dogs down before their time because they can’t stand to see their pets so painful and crippled. That’s what arthritis does to dogs, and being overweight or obese is one of the biggest factors contributing to the early onset of arthritis.
Keeping dogs 10 percent below “ideal” body weight adds two years to a Labrador’s life, and even more time when you look at extending their ability to stay active and pain-free.
While the social media mocking of this dog continued, I was alternately horrified, saddened and angry, thinking back to that presentation. The Labrador is the No. 1 dog in the nation, and what is the message show breeders are sending hundreds of thousands of Labrador owners? Veterinarians can tell you, because they deal with it every day: People who think fat is normal on a Labrador, and are positively shocked when their veterinarians tell them they are killing their dogs with food.
Killing your dog with food. Yes, you are.
Please, please spare me the nonsense about Labradors needing that extra weight as insulation when swimming in cold water. Field-line Labradors don’t look like that, and they’re in and out of cold water every day. The Westminster Labrador hasn’t even a minor field title, and a look at her sire’s pedigree shows nothing but show ring wins (and lots of them).
In the last decade or so the show ring Labradors have gone in completely the wrong direction, farther and farther away from their fit, field-line cousins. A few minutes looking at show-ring dogs from 10, 20 or 30 years ago will prove to you that they didn’t always look like this, and that’s even before the current fad of overfeeding them to make them look ever stockier began. And it’s not just this dog, by any means: At a recent local show, the first I’d been to in a few years, I was as shocked by the fat Labs there as I was when I first encountered the phenomenon in British show ring.
Here’s what will change this: No ribbons, ever, for dogs who are overweight. Every ring, every weekend, everywhere. A few months of that topped by a Westminster where the breed-ring judges show every fat dog the door would put an end to this sorry trend right away. The dogs won’t mind, and their owners will get the message. And that’s a big win for all dogs.
#nofatdogs. Now there’s a hashtag I can get behind.