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Pedigree Dogs Exposed - The BBC documentary on breed standards (Part one)
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Pedigree Dogs Exposed - The BBC documentary on breed standards (Part one)

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In August 2008, the BBC aired a documentary expose of The Kennel Club's breed standards and the effects they had on the health and overall wellbeing of the pedigree dog population of the UK.Few dog owners or canine enthusiasts will fail to have heard about the documentary and the ensuing furore within the pet world over the encouragement of potentially harmful and dangerous breed standards which were considered to be encouraged by The Kennel Club at that time.However, if you are only peripherally aware of the documentary, its effects or what breed standards actually are, you may not be fully aware of the large impact the now four year old documentary continues to have on the pedigree dog world, the policies and direction of The Kennel Club, and breeders and dogs as a whole. Pedigree Dogs Exposed has had far reaching effects throughout the dog world, and led to perhaps the biggest shake up of The Kennel Club and its policies in its entire history of almost 240 years. Intrigued? Read on to find out more!

What are 'breed standards?'

The (official) Kennel Club is the oldest recognised kennel club in the world, and is widely considered to be the authority on dogs and dog welfare, as well as being the governing body for the registration of pedigree dogs, dog breeding procedures and breed standards and judging practices. Perhaps the greatest role The Kennel Club fulfils is setting breed standards and judging protocols, and defining the desirable traits and characteristics of recognised pedigree dog breeds and any pedigree dog's hierarchy in the scale of desirability and show quality of the dog.The basis of pedigree dog show scoring and ultimately, defining what makes a good quality or desirable pedigree dog comes from the presence of Kennel Club breed standards.Breed standards are the basic guidelines on what makes a good pedigree dog, and varies greatly from breed to breed. Breed standards takes into account the size of the dog, their colouration, physical appearance, conformation, gait, anatomy and much more. In the pursuit of producing the perfect show quality pedigree dog, dog breeders follow The Kennel Club's breed standards to identify desirable traits in their dogs and selectively breed them to produce offspring which raise the standard (according to the set breed standards) of the dogs in that line, and come ever closer to the conforming exactly to the breed standards in every way.

Pedigree Dogs Exposed

The documentary 'Pedigree Dogs Exposed' investigated the breeding standards set by and encouraged by The Kennel Club, and concluded that many of The Kennel Club's defined breed standards were in fact, detrimental to the overall health, wellness and ongoing viability of various pedigree breed dogs, and was in a large proportion of cases leading to significant health issues, painful conditions and illnesses and general discomfort in a range of pedigree dogs. The programme highlighted five main core issues within their documentary, detailed below.

Breed standards that were mutually exclusive from health and wellness

The programme highlighted the fact that some of The Kennel Club's breed standards were impossible to meet without being detrimental to the health of the dog breed in question. The Cavalier King Charles Spaniel dog, for instance, is specifically bred to have a small head in order to be considered as a good breed standard dog, leading to a condition common to pedigree dogs of that breed called syringomelia, which means that the brain of the dog is simply too big for the skull- leading to intense pressure on the brain, and almost constant agonising and debilitating headaches in the dogs affected. If you imagine the kind of public reaction that would occur among dog owners if a person caused that amount of pain to a dog by physically abusing it, it's no wonder that large scale public outcry ensued over the revelation that dogs were being deliberately bred in such a way that would cause that level of pain and suffering as a side effect of conforming to a standard of appearance.

Significant departure from natural breed norms

Pedigree Dogs Exposed also examined the historical appearance of a range of pedigree dog breeds, and found the majority of them to be significantly different in appearance to their modern- day counterparts, indicating that modern breed standards have moved away from encouraging breeding to natural anatomical and health norms, instead concentrating on producing show dogs which would not thrive in a natural environment and were unfit for their originally intended purpose.

Canine eugenics

The programme condemned The Kennel Clubs' encouragement or acceptance of eugenics within the dog world- the culling of dogs and puppies from pure bred dog stock that did not fully conform to the relevant breed standards. Whereas traditionally, non breed standard dogs may well have been destroyed, today modern practice usually involves neutering the dogs in question to allow them to lead a normal and full life without the opportunity to breed and produce further dogs which deviate from the breed standard.

Deliberate inbreeding

Deliberate inbreeding of closely related dogs in order to maintain a breed standard or keep a breed line pure was also highlighted, due to its propensity to lead to an increased range of inherited genetic defects and abnormalities which were detrimental to the health of the dog. For instance, it was revealed that the gene pool of the Pug dog breed in the UK, which consists of some 10,000 dogs, could be traced back to only 50 individual unrelated dogs.

Unhealthy champion dogs

Pedigree Dogs Exposed revealed that The Kennel Club was actively encouraging the existence of unsafe and unhealthy breed standards, by awarding high level championships and titles to dogs which were found to be suffering from a range of genetic health conditions and inherited illnesses, and were then going on to be bred to produce further dogs with the same issues unchecked.Specifically mentioned was the 2003 Best in Show winner at Crufts- a Pekingese dog which had undergone a soft palate reconstruction surgery due to breathing problems from an abnormally shortened muzzle, and which had to sit on an ice pack to be photographed due to overheating because of its dramatically flattened face.

Public reaction to the programme and The Kennel Club's response

Understandably, public reaction to the documentary was strong, and The Kennel Club found themselves under the spotlight for all of the issues mentioned in the programme and their encouragement of unsafe and unhealthy breed standards. The Kennel Club lost a great deal of public support over the issues raised in the documentary, which was over two years in the making. The BBC refused to air the Crufts dog show, several high profile sponsors removed their support from the club, and the RSPCA condemned The Kennel Club for its practices. While The Kennel Club initially refuted the majority of the claims made in the programme, they later rolled out a reform programme of breed standards from October 2008 onwards, something which is still very much at the inception stage today.To find out how this massive shake up of the pedigree dog world has changed things since the airing of Pedigree Dogs Exposed, read our second article on the subject- Pedigree Dogs Exposed- Three years on.

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