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UK dog breeding struggle gets ugly for pug

It sounds so British that a nasty argument has broken out between those who say they love dogs and those who say they love dogs more. But such a royal catfight has ensnared the country’s most prestigious dog show, Crufts, which opens today here in Birmingham, a four-day extravaganza of four-legged bliss that has attracted millions of viewers at the British Broadcasting Corp. since 1966.

But not this year.

The BBC has dropped its coverage of Crufts after a documentary exposed questionable practices at some competitive dog breeders. The quest for the perfect look has produced Pekingese with excessively squat faces, Bulldogs with oversized heads, and Dachshunds with unhealthy bodies. Crufts, one anti-cruelty campaigner complained, was nothing less than a “parade of mutants”.

The fallout has led to competing claims over who has the best interests of dogs at heart in a country where more than one in five households own a dog, a fact well-supported by evidence on Britain’s pavements.

Stung by the bad publicity, Britain’s Kennel Club, which runs Crufts, published revised canine beauty standards in January – changes which club officials said were already underway but which they say were rushed in reason for the controversy. This sparked protests from some breeders and owners who fumed that the rules were being changed without warning just before Crufts, which people here call the “greatest dog show on Earth”.

The motto of the competition this year, coincidentally or not, is ‘Happy Healthy Dogs’, promoting an ideal that, club officials puff, they certainly didn’t need to be lectured by the BBC.

“It’s almost as if they made up the idea, when in fact we were very aware of it and we were already working with the breeds that we felt were of most concern,” said Caroline Kisco, club secretary. “But we’re taking a softer, gentler approach to getting them to accept the changes.”

The documentary that caused the stir, “Pedigree Dogs Exposed”, aired on the BBC and was not for the faint-hearted. It showed animals suffering from horrific physical issues seemingly bred into them by owners eager to achieve contest-winning looks. Some dogs mated with their parents, or brothers and sisters between them, an inbreeding that can lead to malformations.

There were Pugs and Pekingese bred to have as flat a face as possible, an attribute that prevented them from breathing properly or regulating their body temperature. (A Peking champion had to be placed on a block of ice when he received his award.) Bulldogs were molded into such an odd shape that they could not mate or give birth naturally.

Most painful to watch, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel was writhing in agony from a permanent headache because his skull had been raised too small for his brain – like “a 10-foot waist shoved into a shoe. size 6”, explained a veterinary neurologist.

The public outcry was immediate. Crufts’ main sponsor, a pet food manufacturer, has pulled out. And after an internal review, the BBC decided in December to drop its coverage of the show.

It was bad news for Jose Baddeley, who has a solid setter Gordon in this year’s competition (“Lotty, but his real name is Birchgarth Fool’s Gold With Lourdace”).

“We have nothing to watch,” complained Baddeley.

Meanwhile, judges have been instructed to be alert for signs of poor canine health. Revised guidelines for poochy pulchritude, Kisco said, should also help ensure dogs are “fit for function, fit for life,” as the Kennel Club’s slogan goes.

Standards for “just a handful” of breeds have undergone significant changes, Kisco said, including the bulldog, which is meant to lose its classic Churchill jowls and gain longer legs and a leaner body. This prompted a complaint from Robin Searle, chairman of the British Bulldog Breed Council: “What you will get is a completely different dog, not a British Bulldog.”

But many animal welfare activists are glad that questionable breeding practices have been exposed and public debate about the ethics of dog shows has, so to speak, been sparked.

“This ‘perfection’ breed of pedigree dog is destroying its subject matter,” The Times of London said last week in an op-ed titled “Ruff Trade.”

“It’s hard to see the dog as man’s best friend when they’re neutered, made to commit incest and paraded under bright lights in Birmingham,” the newspaper said.

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