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How Extreme Dog Breeding Has Brought Untold Suffering to 'Man's Best Friend'

The quest to make the 'perfect dog' has created news kinds of animal cruelty.
 
 
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Photo Credit: onixxino/Shutterstock.com

 

This article first appeared in WhoWhatWhy.

Take a look at an old photo of the iconic German Shepherd, Rin Tin Tin, who died in 1932. Now look at a photo of another of the breed, a German shepherd show dog of today. Notice the difference?

The second photo shows a German Shepherd with a sloping back and legs splayed apart. Some people call today’s German shepherds “half-frog dogs” because of the position of their legs.

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Rin Tin Tin (left); modern show dog (right)

Today’s dachshunds and basset hounds also look amazingly different from those bred as little as 50 years ago. Their legs are shorter, their bodies are longer, and their bellies almost drag on the ground.

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Basset Hound from UKC in the 1980s.

And Pekingese and pugs have flatter faces. Both have trouble breathing because of their pushed-in noses.

Pekingese

Breathing is harder for Pekingese dogs that are bred with flat faces. (Photo from UKC.)

These remarkable changes stem from an obsession among dog breeders to create the perfect dog—perfect that is, according to the standards for purebreds competing in dog shows like the annual extravaganza of the Westminster Kennel Club. This breeding is slowly disfiguring, often in unbearable ways, the very animals that dog show fans claim to love.

Now, a number of concerned animal-welfare people, along with allies in the dog-show crowd, are trying to change the way breeders manipulate the genome of these animals.

No breed has suffered more from the quest for “exaggerated” features than the Pekingese—a breed once favored by the Emperors of China. Back then, the animal would have looked very different than the show dogs of today. In the last thirty years, Peke show dogs have undergone troubling changes.

“A Peke actually had a nose in the 1980s,” says Wayne Cavanaugh, president of the United Kennel Club (UKC). “It was pronounced just enough to give them an airway. Today’s Pekingese winners are photographed sitting on blocks of ice because they are overheated and are just barely breathing.”

Peke faces didn’t go from two inches to one overnight. They changed gradually. “We are talking about a fraction of an inch here and there over time,” explains Cavanaugh. “These changes are becoming acceptable, and there is a trickle-down effect because I’m seeing it on the street.”

Two different clubs: American Kennel Club versus United Kennel Club

Both got their start in the late 1800s.  One major difference between the two organizations is that  UKC focuses on the Total Dog, which means that all dogs must compete in agility courses. Proponents and animal welfare advocates boast that—unlike the AKC—dogs that compete in UKC events don’t have pushed in faces, short legs that can’t run an obstacle course, and other exaggerated features. By contrast, in some  AKC events, dog owners can enter their animals for competition based on looks alone, although they do have agility for some breeds.

Cavanaugh is no stranger to the American Kennel Club. He was its vice president, before leaving the organization to take over the UKC. He told WhoWhatWhy that he has made a number of enemies speaking out against extreme breeding standards, often hearing criticisms in a workshop he leads for UKC judges. “The first day they are mad at me,” he explains. “Then they get it.”

They “get it,” Cavanaugh says, because he’s been there—having served as a judge at the Westminster Dog Show. “I did it too. And now I understand how we let this go on. You see when you are in the show ring, and are judging 10 Pekingese all lined up next to one another, your eye tends to be drawn to the one with the more exaggerated features. That is the one that you tend to choose as the winner.”