By Gina Spadafori
December 8, 2010
Over the weekend last — and for the second weekend in a row — I hopped a Southwest flight a lot south and a little west and once again found myself in not-so-sunny Southern California.Â While the previous weekend was staying with one of the puppies I helped to raise, to find out how well he was doing, this weekend just past was a trip to say good-bye to Zenyatta, the massive mare who is the retiring and undisputed queen of racing, and to check out the American Kennel Club’s National Invitational Championship, casually known as Eukanuba after its dog-food sponsor. (Aside: Check out the Daily Racing Form’s Glenye Oakford, a/k/a one of the Full Cry houndbloggers, video of Zenyatta’s arrival in Kentucky.)
My first-pass impressions of the “Meet the Breeds” booth — an idea the AKC borrowed from its U.K. counterparts’ Crufts show — triggered predictable responses. Patrick Burn, a/k/a Terrierman, was first into the fray, muttering about the canine “freaks” and the human “frauds” who show them. (To be fair, I had goaded him more than a little, sending him a picture from the “Parson Russell” booth of a trio of terrierists. “Ask any of them if they own a locator collar,” he snarled back.) Next in, Heather Houlahan of Raised by Wolves, her wrath prompted by the image of a smiling Leonberger. The Leo, like the border collie and others, is a breed that was “recognized” by the AKC over the intense objections of many of its breeders, who (quite rightfully) saw the move as a money-grab by an ailing organization that (quite accurately) has shown itself an institutional supporter of puppy-mills and a lip-service advocate for better canine health.
Thereafter followed “discussion” that mostly consisted of the desire to see the American Kennel Club bombed into tiny fragments, the pieces then bulldozed into a very deep pitÂ and covered with concrete. Seriously, if you think PETA hates the AKC, you haven’t listened to non-AKC breed advocates. Funny thing is, except for the bombing, bulldozing and cement-covering bits, I agree with these non-AKC breed advocates. The AKC, instead of changing its game to actually be what it pretends to be (‘the dogs’ champion”), is instead doubling down on the same bad bet that has plunged it into a state of financial retreat and increasing irrelevance.
But if you don’t want to toss all the reputable, ethical breed advocates who are more or less forced to work within the confines of the American Kennel Club, how can that organization be changed to do what’s right?
Mind you, I’m also not sure it can be. One need only look at the AKC/Eukanuba link at the top to see what the problem is: The marque event is the beauty pageant. You have to navigate back to the AKC home page to find information on the ugly stepchild championships, agility and obedience, that were also in the convention center (agility in the corner, obedience in the attic). And while I have put show championships on my dogs, it’s sort of because I have to do soÂ to be considered “reputable,” not least of which is by my county, which will not recognize my boy retriever’s hunting work as an acceptable excuse to allow him to keep his testicles under the breeding ban but happily considers his show championship as sign of his value to the future of his breed.
Believe me, I’m far happier with Woody’s ability to mark where a game bird falls, crash through cover and swim through anything to get there, locate the bird with his nose and bring it back than I ever could be with a few people’s opinion on how he trots around a show ring. Sadly, I’m forced to play the cards I’m dealt here.
As has been pointed out in discussions here many times, the fix is pretty easy for working dogs: No “beauty” titles without proving working ability. Throw in a well-planned outcross program to break genetic bottlenecks that make many breeds (including mine) tragically predisposed to cancer or other health disasters and ban “stud of the month” popularity-contest inbreeding and there you go. A performance requirement, along with a change in the beauty blueprint that is the breed standard, after all, would deny championships to the worst excesses of fashion in breeds that previously were working dogs, eliminating, for example, the shameful low-slung disaster that is the AKC’s show-quality German Shepherd Dog. (I tried to get pictures of these dogs walking on their rear heels instead of their toes at the show, but the light a ringside was just too dim.Â And I was retching, which didn’t help.)
Other working breeds haven’t strayed as far afield. Aside from the cancer in flatcoats (and note: that’s one big hairy and completely unacceptable aside) you’ve still got a pretty damn good retriever, a great companion for an active home that can still do not only the work for which is was developed — hunting — but also excel at modern dog sport such as agility. (Above is my friend Teresa Rodney and her dog Sprint, who is my dog McKenzie’s littermate. T-Rod and Sprinty are world-class agility competitors, and at the AKC Invitational they blasted to second place in the most competitive division, a split second away from taking it all. Thanks to our mutual friend Debbie Best for the picture.)
But what do you do with a breed that has been developed for companionship only, like the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel? Or a breed whose purpose has long ago disappeared, like the Bulldog, a breed so utterly and completely destroyed by fashion that last summer at the American Veterinary Medical Association conference, I listened to a presentation where a top specialist said the only way to offer Bulldogs (and Pugs, too) a shot at a life not full of oxygen-deprived, overheated misery is to have their nostrils surgically widened and their soft palates clipped at the time they’re in for a spay or neuter, before the age of one year.Â Otherwise, noted the veterinarian, many will have to be euthanized young when the build up of scar tissue from their struggles to breathe finally blocks their ability to do so. If, that is, they haven’t dropped dead from overexertion already from walking around the block on a mildly warm day. Folks, if breeding for an appearance not compatible with breathing or walking isn’t animal cruelty, it’s hard to imagine what would be.
Every time this topicÂ comes up here people with working dogs advise going to someone who breeds working dogs if you want a puppy from a certain breed or another. But as regular commenter Lis points out, where does that leave people who want a companion breed? Where do they go? And how can we fix breeds who have no working standard?
And more to the point: Is it possible to fix the American Kennel Club to force those fixes?
Sometimes I’m in the “blow ’em up” crowd. Othertimes I’m not. Today … I don’t know. You?