The woman called in to vet dog breeders

Martin Hickman meets the woman charged with bringing the canine world to heel after a succession of scandals
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The Independent Online

Two years ago an undercover BBC documentary caused an outcry by revealing that the Kennel Club, organiser of the world's largest dog show, Crufts, was encouraging the breeding of deformed animals.

"Pedigree Dogs Exposed", two years in the making, showed how the governing body laid down standards that required unhealthy features such as short faces, wrinkling, screw-tails and dwarfism.

A prize-winning cavalier King Charles spaniel was shown suffering from syringomyelia, a painful condition where a skull is too small for a brain, and boxers from epilepsy. Pugs had breathing problems and bulldogs were unable to give birth unassisted.

The resulting scandal prompted the BBC to abandon its 42-year coverage of Crufts, three separate inquiries and, yesterday, the appointment of a woman charged with cleaning up the mess left by Britain's newly troubled relationship with dogs.

Professor Sheila Crispin, 66, an experienced veterinary surgeon, will come forward with practical measures to end genetic flaws and two other problems, dangerous dogs and cruel puppy farms.

She will chair the new Advisory Council on Welfare Issues on Dog Breeding, an independent non-statutory body which will come into force later this year. Overseen by a part-time council, it will dispense advice on all matters relating to canine reproduction: breeding strategies, research, legislation and public education.

After the Dogs Trust announced her appointment yesterday, Professor Crispin said action was already underway elsewhere to tackle breed standards and dangerous dogs.

After initially providing an equivocal response to the BBC show, the Kennel Club has come forward with new guidelines for 78 of 209 pedigree breeds, including 22 acknowledged to suffer from abnormalities.

A private members' Bill is going through Parliament amending the 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act, which banned the pit bull terrier and other fighting dogs following a series of attacks in the late 1980s. Staffordshire pit bulls and other breeds exempt from the law are being used as "weapons" in increasing numbers in inner cities.

Widely perceived as a nation of animal lovers, Britain has 8 to 10 million dogs – but problems with their breeding have lain under the surface for decades. Many dogs are bought from large-scale commercial breeders, who have up to 5,000 animals in each "puppy farm".

In an independent inquiry into dog breeding which reported in January, Patrick Bateson, a professor of zoology, found a range of "welfare costs".

As well as exacerbating unnatural traits by in-breeding dogs, by, for instance, mating grandfather and grand-daughter, many fail to check for disease and care properly for puppies or socialise or exercise them properly before selling them aged six to eight weeks.

Some farms are so dirty that puppies die from Parvo virus, which causes dehydration, within days of arriving at their new homes.

Speaking shortly after taking up her honorary post, Professor Crispin told The Independent: "The problems with puppy farms are disease and socialisation issues. A lot of these puppies are removed from their mothers far too early and then they are isolated in pet shops and they don't socialise with their new owner."

She highlighted another problem – over-production of dogs by part-time breeders who see the business as an easy and lucrative sideline: a "labradoodle", a cross between a labrador and a poodle, fetches £500 to £700.

Amateurs often find the running costs of keeping dogs high and cannot find homes for them. As a result, many have to be rehomed or put down: some 100,000 dogs are brought into rescue centres each year, of which 10,000 are destroyed.

Professor Crispin, a past president of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, hopes her organisation will end some of the worst excesses through education: advising existing and potential dog owners about where and how to buy a puppy. She said: "Professor Bateson said what we need is a Joanna Lumley. We need someone who is more glamorous and handsome than me and who the public can relate to."

Her first job, however, will be to recruit fellow members of the council, who will work for a nominal fee and expenses.

She is looking for eight part-time members, including someone with knowledge of the law relating to dogs; a vet in a small practice; experts in genetics and canine reproduction; an epidemiologist; and two lay members of the public.

In time, Professor Crispin hopes the council – which she hopes will be funded by animal welfare organisations – will become complementary to the Government's Farm Animal Welfare Council, which sets guidelines for the care of the UK's 900 million or so chickens, turkeys, sheep, pigs and cattle.

Appointed by a panel including Professor Bateson, Professor Crispin has an impressive pedigree. She is an honorary member of the Kennel Club, a life member of the International Sheep Dog Society, and a visiting professorial fellow in the department of anatomy at Bristol University. She has two dogs herself.

Professor Crispin keeps a four-year-old border collie, Maisie, and Maddie, 16, a retired working collie, on a 28-acre farm on the outskirts of Kendal in the Lake District, from which she hopes to run the council from a converted barn.

She has never married, devoting herself instead to a "very fullfilling" career in veterinary medicine, which had now left her set in her ways.

She said she was wary of calling herself a "dog lover" because dogs should not be a substitute for humans. But, she said, she was "very fond of dogs".

Problems to solve

Three main problems will be dealt with by the new Advisory Council on the Welfare Issues of Dog Breeding

Puppy farms

Among the problems at puppy farms are in-breeding which produces genetic abnormalities, disease and poor socialisation. Many large puppy farms are unhygienic and some puppies costing hundreds of pounds die within days of being bought and taken home. An independent inquiry by Professor Patrick Bateson, which reported in January, pulled no punches in its depiction of the farms, some of which contain 5,000 dogs. Because they are given advance warning of local authority inspections, many escape punishment. This will be a key area for the new council, with plans for public education to help ensure owners know what to look for in a healthy animal.

Genetic abnormalities

Around 20 pedigree breeds suffer serious health problems as a result of decades of breeding designed to meet Kennel Club standards – essential for winning rosettes at shows such as Crufts. After the BBC's hard-hitting show Pedigree Dogs Exposed in August 2008, the Kennel Club, having initially been defensive, announced an overhaul of its breed standards. The need for an end to genetic abnormalities such as under-sized skulls was underlined by two reports on dog breeding last year, by the RSPCA and the Associate Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare.

Dangerous dogs

While attacks by dogs have always happened, police, community groups and ordinary citizens have become alarmed by the rise in 'status' or 'weapon' dogs in inner city areas, and particularly on rough housing estates. Police are powerless to act against the dogs unless they attack, because breeds such as Staffordshire pit bull terriers are not covered by the 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act. An independent inquiry into dog breeding chaired by Professor Patrick Bateson last year called for the act to be amended. According to Professor Crispin, chair of the Advisory Council on the Welfare Issues of Dog Breeding, 5,221 people (including 1,250 children) in England were treated in hospital last year after being 'mauled' by dogs.