Top dogs of doubtful breeding: We expect only the best at Crufts. But the public is being sold a pup, says David Hancock

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The Independent Online
WHEN Crufts dog show opens today, admiring visitors will assume they are seeing top-quality dogs. For more than 20 years, however, serious misgivings have been voiced by breeders, veterinarians and top judges about the standard of the dogs that reach our premier show dog event.

These are some of the comments made in recent years by Crufts judges. On deerhounds: 'I was very disappointed in the quality . . . How do they qualify?' On Great Danes: 'I did frankly wonder how some of the dogs there had even managed to win a first prize . . . the lowering of the general quality of the hounds coming into the ring is only a long continuation of the process that respected senior all-rounders and our own experienced breed specialists have been warning us about for years.'

Crufts in 1993 attracted 20,000 'top' dogs, as well as 80,000 visitors from 44 countries. Its global appeal is gratifying. But behind the glitter is a clear need for a review of standards, both in dogs and judges. At the moment, show judges are selected by recommendation of the breed clubs, not by a system of formal examination, as happens on the Continent. Yet their highly subjective judgements are crucial to the progress of dogs to the top of their breed, and subsequently their pedigree breeding potential. A best-of-breed male can go on to sire hundreds of litters.

The fact is that poor-quality animals are all too evident at the shows which act as qualifiers for Crufts. Here are some judges' comments from those shows: Irish wolfhounds - ' I feel bound to say I had a bad shock . . . many of the younger hounds, puppies and some novices were really quite shattering.' Welsh terriers - 'Somewhere along the line things have gone wrong in the breed.' Whippets (club championship show) - 'I was appalled by many of the exhibits . . . each time I judge makes me fear for the future of the breed.' Cairn terriers - 'I have been worried at the number of really poor specimens that have been winning lately . . .' And Cavalier King Charles spaniels - 'It gives continued rise for concern to genuine devotees of the breed that quality and soundness in depth are lacking, this breed having paid the price of its popularity.'

And gun dog owners should not assume that their pedigree stock is any better. One judge has said of Gordon setters: 'Unless something is done quickly by the top breeders, I see no hope for the breed, because the puppies were so bad.' And of Labradors - 'I would like to mention incorrect mouths - I have never come across so many variations before and some were quite severely wrong.'

Such comments may dismay those expecting quality in the dogs that make it to Crufts. But the problem is not just 'wrong' conformation; movement and temperament are causes of increasing concern.

Many hound show judges assess breeds mainly on movement, pointing out that hounds are functional animals and that sound movement indicates sound construction. But here are some judges' comments on movement in pedigree breeds: Staffordshire bull terriers - 'First movement was almost universally bad.' Dalmatians (championship show) - 'Movement is still causing concern . . . quite a few exhibits could not place their front legs, and particularly feet, down correctly . . .' At one show the judge gave a badly limping dog the championship certificate, stating that he had seen the dog at other shows]

Comments on temperament - so very important for a family wishing to own a pedigree dog - are, if anything, even more shocking. On West Highland white terriers - 'What has happened to the temperament of our breed? . . . I was very disappointed with the overall standard.' Chow- chows - 'I found that temperament is going from bad to worse.' On boxers - 'For the first time in many years I feel that we now have a problem with temperament and for the first time ever in this country a boxer has attempted to bite me and meant it. A number of animals would not be handled.' A judge from Germany thought so little of the exhibits at the Irish Boxer Club's championship show in Ulster that he withheld six first prizes.

At Battersea Dogs' Home between 1990 and 1992, 697 dogs of the Staffordshire bull terrier type were destroyed as being of 'unsound temperament - not advised as family pets'. This breed is not banned under the misguided Dangerous Dogs Act. It is doubly worrying when huge dogs are reported as having a suspect temperament. Here are just two judges' critiques on the larger breeds: Bloodhound (club show) - 'I was terribly disappointed in the dog hounds . . . I was also concerned by the amount of snarling' and Irish wolfhounds - 'At Leeds, there was quite a bit of rumbling and snapping round the ring, which never used to be the case, and especially in a giant breed should never be the case.'

These quotations all come from the dog show judges themselves, not from antagonistic hypercritical types outside the 'dog game'. The implication for the future of our pedigree breeds is frightening.

One way to remedy the situation might be for the Kennel Club to introduce formal training for all dog show judges, with examinations. This is the only way to set consistent standards at all levels. In time, consistency of judging should bring an improvement in our pedigree stock.

A discussion document published by the Kennel Club last year entitled The Exhibition of Dogs stated: 'Everyone is aware that judging of dogs is subjective and opinions regarding merit of a particular animal vary . . . It is necessary therefore to consider whether . . . a system of formal testing prior to a judge being passed for championship show status awarding challenge certificates should be instituted.'

Sad though it is to say, the association in the public mind between quality and Crufts is not now justified. There is a lack of quality in our pedigree breeds and suspect temperament - and these are the dogs from which future show dogs will be bred. If even some of our top dogs are earning the kind of comments quoted above, what must the worst be like? They are the ones that end up in the pet market. So be careful when you buy your next dog.

The writer is author of 'The Heritage of the Dog', published by Nimrod.

(Photograph omitted)