Crufts Dog Show starts next week, on 5 March. "Crufts" – it could almost be the name of one of those aristocratic-looking dogs that win rosettes every year. Heel, Crufts. Roll over, sir. Go to your basket. If Crufts were a dog, it would be a dignified English mastiff with a noble pedigree, standing four-square and alert in the judging arena, its coat glossy, its perfect muzzle trembling with intelligence. How proud Charles Cruft, who founded the world's most important dog show in 1891, would be to see the high reputation in which his brainchild is held...
Except that, unfortunately, it's not. In the past six months, Crufts and all it stands for has suffered a series of blows. Its international reputation as a showcase of British dog-breeding genius has been holed below the waterline. Its owners since 1942, the Kennel Club of Great Britain, have become so beleaguered by the dog-loving public, the RSPCA and even its own members, it now resembles The Stag at Bay being savaged by (non-pedigree) dogs in Landseer's etching. And in the wider world of dog-pampering, professional breeders are struggling to live down the accusation that they're a race of cruel and thoughtless Nazis presiding over a genetic freak show of dumb animals.
What happened to the British reputation as a nation of fond, doting dog-lovers? What has made some breeders turn round and savage the face of their presiding body? And can any combination of bone, Winalot and walkies make everyone Best Friends again?
The first blow was struck last August when Pedigree Dogs Exposed, a harrowing BBC documentary by Jemima Harrison, was broadcast. It revealed in graphic detail how selective breeding – in search of physical canine perfection – was bringing into the world a generation of dogs with health problems: dogs that had trouble walking, breathing, mating or reproducing because of the exaggerated quality of their small legs, or large heads, or flat noses, or wrinkled skin. Viewers watched a Cavalier King Charles spaniel writhing in agony because of the permanent pain in its head: it was afflicted by syringomyelia, the result of being bred with a skull too small for its brain. "A Cavalier's brain," remarked a veterinary neurologist Clare Rusbridge, "is like a size-10 foot that has been shoved into a size-6 shoe – it doesn't fit." Viewers saw a two-year-old boxer called Zak having an epileptic fit, and learned that some members of the breed are 20 times as likely as humans to suffer from the condition. They saw pugs and pekineses "bred to have no face", who suffered from poor airways and risked damaging their eyes if they walked into anything; and bulldogs that had been bred to such an odd body shape that they couldn't mate or give birth without help. It was an hour of ghastliness for any pooch-lover.
The documentary also brought up the contentious subject of canine incest. The more that breeders sought to mate dogs with close family members – brothers with sisters, fathers with daughters, mothers with sons – to produce little clones, the more likely they were to inherit genetic illness, and the less likely they would be to reproduce in future. To hammer a final nail in the Kennel Club's coffin, the programme revealed that the club's origins lay in eugenics, the science of pure breeding that so impressed the Nazis. "It's all about maintaining the purity of these blood lines," said a "canine academic" called James Serpell, "these pure breeds, these pure races of dogs, and making damn sure that they don't cross with anything else because a cross-bred animal was considered a mongrel and therefore inferior."
There was an instant outcry. Steve Jones, the UK's top geneticist, said: "People are carrying out breeding which would, first of all, be entirely illegal in humans, and secondly is absolutely insane from the point of view of the health of the animals... In some breeds, they are paying a terrible, terrible price in genetic disease." At the RSPCA, Mark Evans, the chief vet, didn't muck about. "The show world is about an obsession," he said, "about beauty, and there is a ridiculous concept that this is how we should judge dogs... It takes no account of [their] temperament, or fitness for purpose potentially as a pet animal... and that, to me, makes absolutely no sense at all." His prognosis: if breeders keep up their policy of inbreeding dogs, their genes will come to a dead stop.
Fairly or unfairly, much of the blame for the stricken dogs was laid, like a dead bird, at the feet of the Kennel Club. It was suggested that, because of the Club's "breed standards" – its guidelines that pedigree dogs should look a certain way and have certain salient characteristics in order to win show prizes – that some breeders put the dogs' appearance before their health, breeding freaks in the hope of winning a rosette.
The club was also held indirectly responsible for inbreeding by refusing to condemn it. Viewers reacted with alarm to the moment when the Kennel Club chairman Ronnie Irving was asked if he approved of mother-son matings. That, said Irving breezily, depends on the dogs. Would he consider fathering a child with his own daughter? Irving retorted that he wasn't going to be advised about breeding by a bunch of scientists.
The Kennel Club accused the BBC of biased reporting, although they had co-operated with Harrison for the two years it took to make her film. They pointed out its Accredited Breeder Scheme, which outlines a code of conduct for breeders and encourages them to use health-screening initiatives to ensure they didn't mate their dog with one afflicted by some genetic blemish. That showed them in a good light, surely?
Not according to Dogs Today magazine, a Guildford-based monthly published and edited by Beverley Cuddy. A former employee of the Kennel Club, she has been a thorn in its side for years, conducting a campaign to demand that the Kennel Club tests be made mandatory for any registered breeder. "The dog-show world is like Strictly Come Dancing," she said. "It may seem frivolous and fun, but people's need to have a fashionable look has terrible consequences in the long run." She believes the Club's Accredited Breeder Scheme is merely "a knee-jerk response to stop Defra from implementing stringent European legislation that tries to improve the health of dogs by stopping inbreeding".
Things speeded up. In October, the RSPCA announced it would boycott Crufts 2009 because of its concerns for the welfare of certain dogs. The Pedigree pet-food company, makers of Chum, withdrew its sponsorship. Stung, the Kennel Club promised to review all 209 pedigree breeds in the UK to determine their susceptibility to disease, and publish its findings in 2009.
Unimpressed, the BBC threatened to pull the plug on its coverage of Crufts unless the Club agreed to ban certain "at-risk" breeds from being shown. They were: basset hounds, Clumber spaniels, Dogues de Bordeaux, mastiffs, Neapolitan mastiffs, pekes, bloodhounds, shar peis, St Bernards, chows, German shepherds, bulldogs and Rhodesian ridgebacks. Irving flatly refused, "as it would compromise both contractual obligations and our general responsibility to dog exhibitors and our audience". The BBC retaliated by announcing, on 11 December, that they wouldn't televise Crufts this year, even though their present contract runs to 2010.
Press coverage was phenomenal. Newspapers whose interest in dog-breeding lore had hitherto been confined to the charming resemblance between the Best-in-Show saluki and his lissom blonde owner, saw they had a fight on their hands between two British institutions: the national broadcaster and the world of whippet and weimaraner.
But what are dog breeders like? Are they sinister Royston Vasey figures, performing unspeakable experiments on hapless mutts in makeshift operating theatres? Not really.
Carol Page and her husband Chris have been breeding Clumber spaniels for 25 years at their kennels in Swanwick, near Southampton. Their light, airy sitting-room was swarming with dogs: five of them, though it seems more like 20, as they milled about under my legs. If your knowledge of spaniels extends to cockers and King Charleses, you'd be amazed to meet George, Jezabel, Blanchflower, Busy Lizzie and Belvedere: they're big, off-white brutes with terribly sad pink eyes and elaborate ruffles on their chests, like 1970s cabaret singers. "They're handsome dogs," said Carol, "but it's the huge personality that counts. They're a determined breed, strong-willed but biddable. We train them to work, because they're best when they're given something to do. They're game dogs, a hunting breed, and we work them on the beating line at shoots, flushing the game forward."
Clumbers are not without drawbacks: according to the breed rulebook, they're given to excessive snoring, drooling, shoe-stealing and shedding. "You'll never be house-proud with a Clumber," said Carol. "When they have seasonal moult it comes out in handfuls. I reckon in a week I could knit another one out of what they all shed." Possibly to compensate, they're also immensely affectionate, constantly nuzzling up to their owners for hugs and head-scratchings. Only George has been shown at Crufts, where he is qualified permanently for the "field trials" class.
Carol watched the BBC documentary and felt that "it was very biased, though what it showed was horrendous. Just one case like that spaniel is too many. But although it exposed a few shocking examples, it's not typical of the wider dog world. The vast majority of pedigrees are happy, healthy dogs. I don't have any concerns about any of the breeders that I know."
When it comes to the health of breeding dogs, Carol is a little ambivalent. Clumber spaniels tend to be affected by a genetic deficiency called PDP1, which can retard the body's metabolism and make the dogs too exhausted to exercise. Many dogs carry the PDP1 gene and lead long happy lives without being affected. But should they be used for breeding? It's a question at the heart of the Kennel Club controversy. "If they were affected with the disease, you wouldn't breed with them," said Carol. "But you can use a carrier for mating purposes, provided it's mated with a clear dog, so you can breed it out."
She is a fan of the Kennel Club, who gave her a £4,500 grant in 2004 to test 100 dogs for the virus. "None of the Club's breed standards actually require a dog to be unhealthy or extreme in any way," she said vehemently. "The original standards were set down just to define dogs as they were, not as they should be. Most people look to produce a good, healthy example of the breed, not something deformed."
But what about the tragic spaniel in Pedigree Dogs Exposed? "At the end of the day," said Carol darkly, "it comes down to the breeder's interpretation." Why doesn't the Kennel Club insist that all breeders have their animals tested? "The Club's always encouraged breeders to use those schemes," she said. "There's more urgency now in telling breeders, you should be doing this, but there's a proportion that refuses. But when the Kennel Club in America tried to become more stringent, they found a lot of breeders just walked away."
On 12 January, the Kennel Club announced that its independent breed review would be chaired by Professor Sir Patrick Bateson of Cambridge University and the Zoological Society, so its bona fides were assured. Two days later, as though to pre-empt its own findings, the Club said that it had already revised the "breed standard" of 78 dogs. No more would it insist that, to win at Crufts, certain dogs needed to have a huge head, a long coat, a flat nose or excessively loose folds of skin on its neck. "The breed standards," declared the Club, "have been revised so they will not include anything that could in any way be interpreted as encouraging features that might prevent a dog breathing, walking and seeing freely."
So that was all right then, wasn't it? The Kennel Club had come to heel, so to speak, and put its kennel in order. Alas, it wasn't that simple. "The Kennel Club are like a lot of lazy schoolkids," snorted Cuddy, "rushing about in order to be seen to be doing something. But they've missed the point. All they've come up with are some words on the page, carefully diluting their previous hard-line prescriptions about how breeds should look. But they're giving the judges the power to interpret their words, which is absurd – the judges are breeders too. It's like putting a lot of shoplifters in charge of a tribunal about theft."
Some breeders were horrified by the new "breed standards," which seemed to be trying to produce a non-standard race of animals. In the case of the bulldog, the Club changed no fewer than 58 specifications about how the dog should look. Future bulldogs, to be judged perfect specimens, will need to have a shrunken face, a sunken nose, longer legs and a lean body. But if the British bulldog of the future doesn't look like a classic British bulldog, what's the point of breeding it at all?
It's a question that's bothering Vicky Collins-Nattrass, a Derbyshire-born, Lincoln-based dog-lover who, with her husband John, has been breeding pedigree bulldogs for 17 years. They have eight adult dogs, a breeding bitch, a shi-tzu, a chihuahua and a parrot in a large cage. The animals waddled about their small TV room, crammed with prize cups and cute ceramic dogs, occasionally peeing forgetfully on the floor. A certain awestruck dignity descended on the room with the arrival of Artemis and Preston, the enormous show dogs. You look at their huge heads, outraged expressions, massive wide shoulders, Davenport legs and high-ridged bottoms, and it's hard not to think them amazingly beautiful. Can they really be suffering inner deformities that will shorten their lives? Is this what a mutant freak show looks like?
"All bulldog breeders are fanatical about the breed standard, because the bulldog's was the first in the world," said Collins-Nattrass. "It's older than the Kennel Club itself, so you can imagine how shocking is the idea of anyone trying to alter it." The bulldog breeders got together with the Kennel Club back in 2004, when bulldogs had been identified as having "health issues". They discussed what might be done to curb "exaggerations" by over-enthusiastic breeders – such as having too much "skin-fold" on the dogs' Churchillian, jowly face.
"My first thought, when we had the Club's new interim breed standard thrust upon us – with 58 changes in the wording, one of the biggest changes in breeding history – was, 'My God, it's not going to look remotely like a bulldog any more'. I was very upset. I looked at other breeds that had been criticised in the BBC film, like the King Charles spaniel – there was just one alteration, saying 'The white of the eye shouldn't be shown'. Not a word about altering the size of its head."
The 18 member groups of the British Bulldog Breed Council held an emergency meeting. "Initially we said NO, we were not going to accept these drastic changes just like that. We want the dogs to look like bulldogs, not like boxers or cross-breeds. Then, of course, we agreed to talk to the Kennel Club, who said it was 'only an interim'."
So what about Crufts? The dog show faces a conundrum: how can you judge breeds of dog according to brand-new criteria, when the actual dogs have been bred to old, outdated, criteria? "All the dogs going to Crufts have qualified under the old standard," said Collins-Nattrass. "You can't change the standard of a dog overnight. It takes 15 to 20 years to change physical characteristics by selective breeding. I've a got a dog, Artemis, that I can enter because he's qualified. But he can't possibly win."
Collins-Nattrass doesn't blame the Kennel Club entirely; she concedes that bulldogs have become an "at risk" breed. But she laid the blame on the Crufts judges. "The breed has become more exaggerated, and it's the fault of the judges who pick dogs with exaggerated features. When they do, people look at the winners and think that's what the breed should look like now – and so it's perpetuated." Crufts judges, she pointed out, have a lot of power. Only one judge is allocated per breed, and since they're invariably breeders themselves, their personal, subjective notions of breed perfection carries the day.
Collins-Nattrass will go to Crufts next week, but reluctantly. "I'll take Artemis, to support the Crufts mechanism – and to remind people that this is how bulldogs used to look. Rather naughtily, I suggested we should all go and stand in the ring with our dogs just to make a point, but nobody was very keen on that idea."
The 118th Crufts show will go ahead as planned on 5 March. About 28,000 dogs will feature over the four days. Despite the BBC boycott, the Kennel Club has arranged for the proceedings to be broadcast online. The former Blue Peter presenter Peter Purves will talk viewers through the events from "Heelwork" and "Music and Agility" right through to "Best in Show". But the events of the past six months have left a nasty taste in the dog-lover's mouth. Breeders are blaming the Kennel Club for the adverse publicity. Some blame the breeders, some blame the judges. An anti-cruelty demo by a vegetarian pressure group is planned outside the NEC, Birmingham, where the show is held. Breeders will glare at each other more suspiciously than before. Judges will try to select winners from dogs that barely resemble the new judging criteria. Bulldog owners will attend, if only to express their disapproval of how the Kennel Club has mucked about with their dog. "We're running a gauntlet of nastiness and comment," said Collins-Nattrass. "In all the years I've taken bulldogs out for walks, I've never had anyone say anything derogatory to me before. Now everybody comments. A woman in the vet's said one of my bulldogs was breathing noisily. She was just panting. Lots of people have had nasty things said to them in the street about 'mutant freaks'..."
Wherever you look, it's a tough time for canophiles, and it's been a long time coming. "It's simply been brought home to pedigree dog owners," said Cuddy, "that the pursuit of perfection is destroying what they love."
Bad blood: The breeds most at risk
Today's bulldog is almost unrecognisable from the fighting dog of the 19th century. Bred for their abnormally sized heads, small faces and short muzzles, they suffer from breathing problems and most have to be born by Caesarean because their massive skulls and narrow hips mean that bitches cannot give birth naturally.
Bred to have huge floppy ears and a heavy body on unnaturally short legs, basset hounds are known to suffer from bone and joint problems, limited leg motion and problems in communication with other dogs. Their heavy flaps of skin can easily become infected.
Their flat faces mean that pugs are unable to pant properly and thus control their body temperature. Their abnormally large eyes predispose them to dislocation and infection.
Cavalier King Charles spaniel
Selected for their baby-like facial features, these long-eared dogs suffer from syringomyelia, a painful condition caused by the animal's skull being too small for its brain.
Pekinese are bred to possess perfectly flat and shortened faces but some – including the dog anointed Crufts Best in Show 2003 – have needed soft palate resection surgery to enable them to breathe properly. They also have difficulty controlling their body temperature.
Like the basset hound, the Neapolitan mastiff is intentionally bred to have an excessive amount of folded, wrinkled skin, which predisposes them to eye problems, skin infections and problems communicating. Like other overly large pedigree dogs, they suffer from painful joint problems.
With its elongated body perched on tiny legs, the dachshund can suffer from serious back problems and tissue breakdown due to excessive physical stress on the vertebrae. They can suffer from inherited epilepsy and deafness. Jamie Merrill