The Westminster Dog Show fails the animals it profits from. Here's why
America’s iconic dog show encourages breeding for beauty over health. It says a lot about our society’s fixation on aesthetics and status at the cost of empathy
Rumor, the German shepherd named best in show at Westminster this week, at a Wednesday photo-op atop the Empire State Building Photograph: Smith/ZUMA Wire/REX/Shutterstock
On Tuesday night, a television audience of millions watched as a German shepherd named Rumor was named best in show at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show, earning the nominal title of America’s best dog. More than 20,000 dog shows are held in the United States each year but Westminster is by far the most watched and recognized, a zeitgeist moment for a niche pastime as it crosses over into the cultural mainstream if only for a night.
But the pomp and glitz of Westminster obscures the disturbing and inescapable reality that underpins America’s second-oldest sporting event: the breeding of dogs for beauty over health. Simply put, the criteria that determine a winner or a loser in the show ring do not work to better, and in many cases are detrimental to, future generations of dogs.
As a certified professional dog trainer, I’ve found a number of factors contribute to a dog’s ability to live a satisfying life and many of them are directly related to their genes. The purpose of a conformation dog show like Westminster is to evaluate dogs for breeding stock, which is why dogs must be intact to participate. That includes measuring them in such a way that promotes selection of parents in order to produce the “best” puppies.
In the conformation ring, dogs are judged on how well they conform to breed standards. This means that the judge isn’t simply deciding he likes the appearance of the golden retriever better than that of the chihuahua. He is deciding that the golden retriever in front of him is a better example of what golden retrievers should be.
The creation and interpretation of these breed standards determines winners from losers. (Never mind the politics of breed clubs, breeders, handlers and judges, creating a climate where accusations of bias are commonplace.) But these standards leave much open to interpretation. Examples of adjectives used to define them include loyal, curious, funny, independent, aloof, sweet, clever, confident, proud, courageous, dignified, affectionate, mellow, social, stubborn. The ability to define and declare that a dog exemplifies adjectives like these is nearly impossible in any context, let alone the extremely limited set-up of a show ring.
Sadly, health has no representation in the conformation ring. Despite many options for genetic health tests – that many kennel clubs and breed clubs promote and many breeders use – the results are not included in the evaluation of the animals. A judge decides solely on whether the dog is good breeding stock based on a visual scan and physical touch of the dog while in the ring. Even if the structure of the dog is clearly detrimental to its health, it will often still be chosen if it appears visually appealing or even flashy.
This problem was underscored on Tuesday night as Rumor became only the second German shepherd to win best in show in Westminster’s 141-year history. The German shepherd, initially meant to be extremely athletic and agile, now walks on its hocks because the over-angulation that leads to the sloping back became a “fad” in the show ring. Crippling early arthritis as well as back and spine issues frequently cause these dogs to endure heavy amounts of physical pain and disability at young ages.
The breeding of German shepherds for the confirmation ring has led to painful deformities in the name of an aesthetic ideal. Consider how Westminster champion Rumor, right, now walks on his hocks. Photograph: Getty Images
In years’ past, the state of the show-bred GSD was even worse and, by comparison to even more extremely deformed dogs, many insiders claim that things are improving. Unfortunately, working line people want nothing to do with a show shepherd and most pet homes don’t aim to eventually choose between euthanasia and having their dog fitted for a wheelchair. Worst of all, show dogs don’t know that they are famous or valuable, don’t necessarily appreciate hours of grooming or travel, and certainly wouldn’t choose a retirement filled with physical pain in exchange for a few years of successful beauty pageant success.
A dog with a faulty temperament is a maladjusted animal prone to behavior problems. Veterinary care and training can certainly help to correct or improve health and temperament problems, but when discussing the potential genetic predisposition to these problems, the goal should not be to create animals that will require large amounts of unnecessary maintenance in order to achieve a reasonable quality of life.
Consider that show dogs are primarily handled in slip collars, which are also called choke chains or strangle collars in that they constrict indefinitely, disabling the dog from breathing if tightened enough. It can be argued that the collars are not used to correct, punish or hurt the dogs in competition, but you can also see dogs being popped and yanked on their collars even during televised events, not to mention their training history. Add in the fact that handlers are permitted to feed the dogs throughout the competition, which means that, whether punished or rewarded, behavior is heavily influenced by the handler both during the show and in training. The only reasonable conclusion is the behavior of the dogs in the show ring does not represent their temperament, but a combination of their own instincts and reactions to their environment paired with how they have acclimated to the influences of the people who have trained and/or handled them.
There are many physical components to appearance that directly relate to function, but often dogs are bred for physical characteristics that do not relate to function or, in some cases, are detrimental to function and are instead based on preference or style. A perfect example would be a dog with a brachycephalic head shape (think: bulldog, pug, boxer, shih tzu), which has no function beyond visual appeal and hinders breathing to varying degrees.
Of course dogs are bred by people besides show breeders. Working dog breeders are breeding dogs for function. (Interestingly, many working line breed clubs have strict policies against inclusion of conformation bloodlines.) Neighbors throw their family pets together in the backyard to show their kids “the miracle of life”. Irresponsible breeders and puppy mills mass produce dogs for profit, and stray or neglected dogs find each other in alleys. But our most publicized, heavily marketed, carefully organized attempt towards modifying breeding stock for dogs in the general public, is nothing more than a beauty pageant/fashion show.
When it comes to clothing or artwork, people can make their own choices about spending money on something for visual appeal. But manufacturing domestic animals whose sole purpose is to live alongside us and improve our quality of life with no consideration for their quality of life is a depressing commentary on our fixation on aesthetics and status at the expense of compassion and empathy.
Marisa Scully is a certified dog trainer from Philadelphia.
While I agree with much of what Ms Scully has to say about the AKC, "the Fancy," and show dogs in general; I don't think she goes far enough to portray the misery of purebred dogs that are intentionally bred for deformity, disability and disease. She also fails to speak about the AKC's registering of puppy-mill puppies, thereby hoodwinking the gullible American who is blinded by the glitter and glitz of Westminster and other high-profile conformation shows.
These people (Donald Trump is one - see previous post HERE) have bought into the fallacy that "Best in Show" dogs are the best and most desirable dogs to own. In fact, the average American imagines that an AKC registration on a puppy is an implied guarantee of that puppy's health, fitness and quality in general. Nothing could be further from the truth. Many show-winning dogs are physical and mental wrecks - and that includes Westminster winners.
An issue on which Ms Scully and I do not see eye-to-eye on is the use of the choke collar. Choke collars can and are misused in the handling and training of dogs, but in skillful hands they are a fine tool. One should be instructed in their proper use, like any training aid. But in point of fact, training collars are not allowed in the show ring, and a bug-eyed, choking dog sun-fishing at the end of a show slip-lead is unlikely to get much in the way of approbation from a dog-show judge, however distorted his or her perceptions of beauty may be.
I have never seen Ms. Scully work a dog. She may be a splendid trainer. But I am skeptical of her description as a "certified dog trainer." I looked into the rigor of obtaining certification from ccpdt, and I'm not impressed. To be certified by the "Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers," as a Certified Professional Dog Trainer-Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA), one must:
√ A minimum of 300 hours’ experience in dog training within the last 3 years.
√ Provide a signed attestation statement from a CCPDT certificant or a veterinarian
√ Sign and file our Code of Ethics
The CPDT-KA exam consists of 250 multiple-choice questions. The exam is given at computer-based testing facilities throughout the U.S. and Canada.
As for the first requirement, it seems that grooming, acting as a vet-tech, and animal shelter work can count toward your 300 hrs. of experience in dog training. You must spend 300hrs. of a period of 26,280 hrs. in the training of dogs. (Or grooming them, or holding them while they get a distemper shot.) Somehow this does not seem to me to be an arduous training schedule.
In regard to the second requirement: A veterinarian? Isn't that sort of like getting an "attestation" of one's flying skills from an aircraft mechanic? Most vets don't know squat about dog training.
Further testing/ certification from this group is not much more impressive. It may look nice on an advertisement, but I don't expect the average owner of a Golden Retriever who pulls on his leash or pees on the floor is going to look into it. They will probably simply accept this certification as an index of quality just as readily as they accept the AKC logo on the retriever's registration.
No, if you really want to know what a crock show-bred dogs, Westminster and all other conformation shows are, Go watch "Pedigree Dogs Exposed" and the sequel, "Pedigree Dogs Exposed - 3 Years On." You can find them HERE and HERE and then there's THIS .