Dr Carri Westgarth, from the Institute of Infection and Global Health, is a dog researcher; trainer; behaviourist and owner, as well as a Full Member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors. She holds a Medical Research Council Research Fellowship – ‘Understanding dog ownership and walking for better human health’.
We love dogs. One in four households in the UK own a dog, and we adore them like members of our family. We also love watching TV shows about dogs, and that includes Crufts every March, ‘the greatest dog show in the world’. Some of us are even lucky enough to be able to attend in person during these four days where the dog-obsessed unite under one massive roof and nobody looks out-of-place.
Whilst we are engrossed in the breathtaking displays of agility and obedience, celebrating accolades of responsible dog ownership, and shedding a tear over life-changing partnerships, it is sometimes easy to forget the real reason it exists – so that breeders and handlers can compete for the ultimate prestige. It brings a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘status dogs’, most commonly used to describe very different societal groups.
The perfect dog
Inherent to this drive for the perfect dog, is the ongoing controversy over the welfare of dogs deliberately judged on and bred to maximise gross mutations of the archetypal dog form. Although arguably ‘healthier’ crossbreeds do attend the show for activities other than the show ring, this is the first year Crufts hosted the ‘Scrufts’ final exclusively for crossbreeds. A positive step no doubt, but as a Sam Gaines of the RSPCA so eloquently puts it “over the next four days, four dogs will be judged on health, welfare and behaviour; 20,568 will be judged on their appearance.”
The problems with breeding for these extreme features are fairly self explanatory. The Kennel Club may have introduced veterinary checks for the most worrisome breeds but the discussion that follows within dog behaviour experts often centres on more subtle welfare issues. For example this year we had the ‘Best in Group’ Skye and Tibetan terriers that are promoted as ideal with a long gleaming coat, including flowing thickly over the face. This could easily lead to the development of fears and anxiety, because the dog simply can’t see what is going on around it.
One question keeps gnawing at me – is this for our enjoyment or theirs? Watch closely and subtle signs of stress are rife in the show ring– yawning, lip smacking, sometimes even biting – and these are dogs supposedly well trained for the experience. From having previously handled qualified Assistance Dogs at the event I know that even just being in the environment is extremely stressful to any but the most ‘bomb proof’ dog. Last year I observed a sniffer dog on a stall barking incessantly and the handler obviously getting rather annoyed with it. Even an ‘expert’ often doesn’t recognise not-so-subtle signs of an unhappy dog.
Concerns extend beyond the show ring too. Whilst research suggests that up to three-quarters of our pet dogs enjoy a walk every day, I wonder how many show dogs permanently miss out on the prime joy of being a dog – having a good romp in the woods – because they must not spoil their pristine coat? Many will live in kennels and so will their puppies, to be sold on as pets. But not being brought up inside a busy home is detrimental to good socialisation and can lead to behaviour problems.
Apparently knowledgeable and acclaimed breeders can often give incredibly misguided ‘expert’ advice with no appreciation of the impact on dog welfare. I have lost count, for example, of the number of manic and severely stressed Siberian Huskies that turn up at my dog training classes once they reach adolescence and that have “never been let off the lead because the breeder told me not to.”
So should events like Crufts be banned then? Absolutely not. Dogs are (for the most part) highly beneficial to our physical and mental health and should be celebrated and promoted in our society. This year the presenters repeated the mantra of celebrating ‘happy, healthy dogs’; a positive sign. It really has been great to watch long wagging tails of traditionally docked breeds and so refreshing to see only one squished face amongst the seven contenders for ‘Best in Show’.
When last week I suggested writing this piece we joked “wouldn’t it be extraordinary if a Labrador won this year?!” … and would you believe it he actually came second! Most of all, we must not forget that the people attending and competing in Crufts do love dogs – if they didn’t they wouldn’t be there and it would not exist. But in the words of behaviourist Morag Heirs, “this year I came away feeling that the Kennel Club has done one hell of a lot to save its reputation, but you only have to scratch under the surface to see there is still a long way to go.”