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Breeding Paradox

Yet, some still say the response pales in comparison to the problem, and that, on top of research, some reinvention may be called for — of dog shows, of our ideas surrounding the “purity” of purebreds, and even of the venerable American Kennel Club.

The AKC sent no official representative to the April conference, though two people who had served on AKC boards or advisory panels attended. Traditionally, the organization has sidestepped most media inquiries on the topic. (AKC officials declined requests for interviews for this story, providing instead a copy of its “Canine Health Fact Sheet.”)

“Both in Europe and here, kennel clubs are doing a very fine job of putting their heads in the sand over this and hoping, if they keep a low profile, people will ignore it,” James Serpell, director of the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society based at the University of Pennsylvania, said in an interview before the conference.

Serpell, who helped coordinate the event, said the AKC declined invitations. “Considering the goal of the conference, it’s really rather shortsighted,” he said in an interview. “The conference is not about banning pedigreed dogs, as some extreme blogs are suggesting, but ways of improving the situation, which is causing a lot of animal suffering and a lot of owner suffering as well. When you in good faith buy a puppy that becomes ill down the road, that’s a terrible experience. It is shattering, emotionally gut-wrenching and enormously expensive.”

The nonprofit American Kennel Club, founded in 1884, has among its core values to “protect the health and well-being of all dogs” and “advance canine health.” It notes that since its founding in 1995, the AKC Canine Health Foundation has provided $25 million to more than 560 research projects at 75 vet schools and research institutes worldwide to improve the health of all dogs. It has also, in conjunction with the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals, established the Canine Health Information Center to encourage health testing by breeders and improve breeding programs.

But it’s the steps not taken and the traditions unchanged that concern those who see the organization as contributing to the problem even as it contributes to research.

What more could it be doing? Critics say the AKC could mandate health testing, rather than encourage it; work with breed clubs to establish standards that emphasize health and vitality; impose restrictions on inbreeding, prohibiting the mating of immediate relatives; and, anathema as the idea may be to some, consider permitting “crossbreeding,” or mating purebreds with dogs outside the breed, to broaden the gene pool and improve health.

On top of that, some suggest fundamental changes in dog shows, transforming them from “beauty contests” to more performance-based events that honor the various breeds’ disappearing working heritage. At such shows, dogs who exhibit extreme physical characteristics would be penalized rather than rewarded. And dogs who are paying for their “look” by living lives of discomfort — as was apparently the case in the UK with the 2003 Crufts champion, a Pekingese who had to be photographed sitting on ice blocks because he was so prone to overheating — should have no place in them.

The view that AKC policies are adding to the problem of genetic health issues in purebreds has kept some breed clubs from pursuing AKC recognition. The Jack Russell Terrier Club of America is one of them. Jack Russell Terriers are not one of AKC’s 173 recognized breeds, and the club doesn’t want them to be.

The club is “emphatically opposed to recognition of the Jack Russell Terrier by any kennel club or all-breed registry,” according to its website. “Recognition, it is believed, will be detrimental to the preservation of the Jack Russell as the sound, intelligent strain of working terrier it has been for more than 100 years … Inbreeding and breeding for the show ring will change the physical and mental structure of the dog. It will lose its purpose and its original character, as well as its mental and physical soundness, and will become something entirely different … whatever suits the whim of those controlling that variant of the terrier.”

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