At this point, I have to confess that I used to work there. It was 20 or so years ago and in quite a minor role. It may sound like hindsight, but I did try my best to warn them that there might be a tidal wave approaching. I grew up at dog shows, and even then, it occurred to me that the concepts of pedigree dogs and kennel clubs were relatively recent in historical terms, and no one seemed to have a plan for what to do as the gene pools shrunk ever further.
One of the studies referred to in the documentary was a groundbreaking Imperial College, London, investigation into inbreeding by Calboli, Sampson, Fretwell and Balding (“Population structure and inbreeding from pedigree analysis of purebred dogs.” Genetics 179 [May 2008]: 593–601). The researchers studied 10 breeds and found that these breeds had lost more than 90 percent of the genetic variation they had had 35 years ago. Decades of overuse of popular sires and linebreeding (breeding of dogs who share a common ancestor) had led to the sort of genetic erosion that made the giant panda look like a much safer bet for avoiding extinction than the Pug.
World-renowned geneticist Professor Steve Jones at the University College, London, was the voice of doom on the film. “If the dog breeders insist on going further down that road, I can say with confidence, really, that there is a universe of suffering waiting for many of these breeds—and many, if not most, of these breeds will not survive. They will get so inbred that they will be unable to reproduce and their genes will come to a dead end.”
Earlier in its history, the KC seemed to have gotten off on the right foot. Their hip-scoring scheme was revolutionary and promised to help the growing problem of hip dysplasia (HD) in many breeds. But when the scheme was still in its infancy, the KC made a decision that, on the face of it, made no logical sense. In breeds with significant HD problems, they decided not to make these tests a condition of using the registration system, while at the same time, opting to publish all the results—even the failures. Previously, they’d only publicized the successes; if anyone made a false claim about a dog that had failed, there’d be trouble.
World hip expert Dr. Malcolm Willis, senior lecturer in Animal Breeding and Genetics at Newcastle University, told me at the time that he thought it was madness. The number of breeders testing did indeed drop steeply—sadly, it’s human nature. If testing weren’t mandatory, why would all but the most altruistic breeders risk a very public failure with a winning dog?
Thankfully, elsewhere, others were thinking more deeply and strategically. In no time at all, the KC was getting left behind. Case in point: the Swedish Kennel Club—a nonprofit association of regional clubs, founded in 1889—which I visited back in 1992. I recall noting at the time that it lacked the pomp of the UK version but rather, felt very forward-looking and modern.
For a start, it was refreshingly democratic—anyone who owned a Swedish KC registered dog was a member—and it was welcoming to mongrels as well as pedigrees. Even back then, it was very customer-facing, employing lots of people to give advice over the phones. It offered a 24-hour helpline for lost dogs, one of the perks of having a registered dog.
But the real difference between the Swedes and the English was in their registration system. Long ago, the Swedish KC decided to make health testing mandatory. For example, back in 1992, 80 particularly afflicted breeds had to have both parents hip-tested if the breeder wanted to use the KC registration system; they’d already seen huge improvements in Newfoundland hips. They also decided to simplify the scoring system so it was clear to everyone how to interpret the results. They created three bands to encourage improvement: If your dog scored a grade 2, you couldn’t breed on. If your dog got a 0, you could choose a mate with either a 0 or a 1 score. But if your dog had a 1, he/she had to be mated to a dog with a 0.
It was the organization’s first step toward making its registration a mark of quality rather than a mere record of parentage. As more and more health tests became available, they were slotted into the existing system and again made conditional for breeders using the system. It seems so obvious now that this was in everyone’s best interests and provided a firm framework for improvement.