Trading Standards officers, more accustomed to unearthing counterfeit goods and dodgy fireworks, have now turned their investigative skills to tracking down cross-bred dogs. Special operations teams are to perform spot DNA tests on dogs to check whether they have the bloodlines their breeders claim.
The officers are to begin genetically testing pedigree dogs sold through advertisements in local newspapers and bring their DNA evidence to court if the animals are not the champions that breeders claim. The unprecedented move follows scores of complaints from dog-lovers who have paid for pedigrees but unwittingly bought mutts.
Operation DNA Pedigree will begin next month in West Sussex, with a monitoring exercise to detect unscrupulous breeders suspected of swindling prospective owners. Trading standards officers around the country will follow suit.
Until now, officers have found it hard to prove in court that phoney Dalmatians or bogus St Bernards aren't what they seem. Prosecutions against breeders for forgery and false trade descriptions can carry fines of up to pounds 5,000 or a spell in jail.
Earlier this month, a breeder in Lincolnshire was warned a prison sentence was "inevitable" for falsely claiming that Cavalier King Charles spaniels and Yorkshire terriers had Kennel Club pedigrees. The Kennel Club, which runs Cruft's, registers a quarter of a million dogs every year, but there are no official checks to see if the pedigrees registered by breeders are genuine.
Trading standards officers are being trained to sample genetic material from dogs' mouths to check if the puppies' DNA matches their supposed parents. They will also launch DNA "raids" following complaints from the public.
"A lot of people don't think to complain to trading standards because they don't associate us with pedigree dogs," said Andre Bedlow, a West Sussex trading standards manager. "But this is a potential scam and relatively unpoliced area. We have attempted to prosecute following complaints in the past but it has proved extremely difficult."
In the US, where DNA testing has been used for two years, about 10 per cent of pedigree dogs have proved to be bogus.
The Kennel Club, which this year developed a genetic mapping system for dogs, has been talking to the Trading Standards special operations teams about how to DNA test the animals. "There have been sporadic cases where breeders have not known who the real father is," said Dr Jeff Sampson, Canine Genetics Coordinator at the Kennel Club. "Some mistakes have been genuine, some people don't realise that Bonzo in the next kennel has dug under the concrete floor and got through. But some mistakes are deliberate." Pedigree dogs can cost from pounds 20 to several thousand pounds.
Dominic Sancto from Kent paid pounds 50 for Polly, a pedigree Jack Russell, five years ago as a companion for his other Jack Russell, Max. He wanted a Jack Russell to run alongside his horse when he rode but, unlike Max, she was uncontrollable around horses. He soon realised that she was not a pedigree.
"She's a lovely dog but she definitely isn't a standard Jack Russell. She didn't look like the dogs that were shown as her father and mother," he said. "She's a very fast dog, so maybe a whippet jumped over a fence."
Breeders at the 109th Cruft's show at the Birmingham National Exhibition Centre yesterday endorsed the scheme. They said the checks would help curb the excesses of intensive puppy farms, which they feel can undermine years of hard work by introducing rogue dogs with genetic defects into chains of pedigree puppies whose pure history can be traced back generations.
"I'm absolutely in favour of this. There's no reason to object if you're an honest breeder with integrity," said Dr Molly Weeks, former secretary of the Bull Terrier Club. Pedigree bull terriers can cost up to pounds 700.
Jean Humphrey, a member of the Bassett Hound Club, said: "Many of these farms just seem to take a pin to pick out a nice pedigree dog name and give it to one of their puppies." A pedigree Bassett can set you back pounds 450, a non-pedigree pup much less. "But you'll soon find out they may have health problems," said Mrs Humphrey.
Some breeders are already taking steps to identify true pedigrees. Greyhounds are tattooed on their ears which, in theory, ensures that pedigrees, which fetch up to pounds 4,000, are the genuine article. "I'm totally in favour of any kind of identification that makes it easier for abuse to be detected," said Jenny Taylor of the Retired Greyhound Trust. "There is a real danger that a pedigree breed can be undermined by a rogue dog."
...BUT WOULD THE TOP BREEDERS RECOMMEND IT?
"There's no reason to object if you're an honest breeder with integrity. Bull terriers are quite distinct from an early age."
DR MOLLY WEEKS
"Many of these farms just seem to take a pin to pick out a nice pedigree dog name and give it to one of their puppies."
"I'm in favour of any kind of identification that makes it easier to detect abuse. A pedigree breed can be undermined by a rogue dog."
"We are prepared to try and identify any gene associated with defective hearing ... but you wonder whether it will affect the Dalmation."
"DNA testing ought to help because it will let us know which dogs to put together - and that's what it's all about."
PETER LITTLEReuse content