March is the unofficial peak of the dog show season. Last week, Crufts, known as "the world's largest dog show", took place in Birmingham, with over 20000 dogs being exhibited. Meanwhile, the Irish Kennel Club has its own flagship championship show this coming weekend, followed by a Dog Expo for the general public at its National Showgrounds near Swords on St Patricks Day.
It's been a tricky seven years for dog shows: the 2008 BBC documentary "Pedigree Dogs Exposed" shone a harsh light on animal welfare aspects of the breeding and showing of pedigree dogs. The programme shouted out what many people, including vets, had been saying quietly for years: when dogs are bred purely for their appearance in the show ring, their health tends to suffer. Dogs with cute-looking short noses and bulgy eyes often have serious breathing difficulties, and they're prone to scratches and ulcers on the surface of their eyes. Animals that have an odd -looking, slopey gait that may impress some dog show judges can have a higher incidence of abnormal hips causing arthritis at a premature age. Dogs with wrinkled faces that give them an adorable appearance, oozing with personality, are prone to painful skin infections.
There are also "under the surface" problems associated with the level of in-breeding that's common in many dog breeds. The incidence of some cancers is much higher in some breeds (e.g. Flat Coated Retrievers are particularly prone to a type of malignant cancer). Allergic skin disease is common in other breeds. West Highland White Terriers suffer from itchy skin so commonly that vets often just refer to it as "Westie Skin Disease". Almost every dog breed, has a list of inherited diseases that are known to be an issue.
There are also many positive angles to pedigree breeds. When you buy a pedigree puppy, you have a good idea about what you're getting into. The adult version of the dog is predictable: you can choose a small dog or a big one, placid or bouncy, long furred or short haired. There's always going to be some variety and unpredictability, but compared with choosing a random cross-bred animal, there's a lot less uncertainty.
Furthermore, there has been progress in addressing many of the problems. The UK Kennel Club has changed the breed standards that are used to judge dogs in the show ring, favouring health over appearance far more than in the past. Many genetic tests are now available to screen dogs for inherited diseases before breeding. And online computer programmes are available to help breeders choose the most appropriate genetic mates for their breeding animals, to keep the level of inbreeding to a minimum. Critics still maintain that more should be done, but at least things are moving in the right direction. I'd still recommend that new dog owners consider a rescued dog first, and there are even breed rescue groups for people who are determined to choose a pedigree dog. But there's still a place for pedigree puppies, and when people do choose this route, it's important that they do it properly.
The most important advice I'd have for anyone considering a pedigree animal is to do plenty of research beforehand. Don't just look at cute pictures of your chosen breed on the internet: go to a dog show, and meet the adult versions of the breed you are considering. Many dog shows now have breed enthusiasts at stalls designed to pass on information about the breed of their choice. At Crufts, there is an entire hall dedicated to the "Discover Dogs" exhibition, with over two hundred stands, showing off almost every available breed of dog.
When I qualified as a vet thirty years ago, I was expected to be able to recognise every breed of dog. Since then, the number of strange and exotic breeds has increased dramatically. There are now breeds whose names I don't even recognise, never mind manage to identify by sight. Breeds like "Cirneco dell Etna" and "Basset Fauve de Bretagne". It's as if people revel in having the most unusual creatures with esoteric names, gaining brownie points for owning a rare specimen.
When I visited Discover Dogs at Crufts last week, most of the breeds had magnificent, healthy specimens on display. From Irish Wolfhounds to Border Terriers to Irish Water Spaniels, I saw dozens of dogs that I'd love to take home with me. I also met some peculiar creatures that leave me baffled: why would anyone deliberately breed a creature with such a bizarre appearance, and why would anyone want one as a pet? There were two breeds that I found particularly hard to appreciate: the Komondor and the Hungarian Puli. These dogs are born with poodle-like non-shed coats, meaning that their fur grows longer and longer, rather than moulting in the same way as a Collie or Golden Retriever. For some traditional reason, their coat is not combed, primped and preened like a Poodle: instead, it's allowed to develop into long strings of matted fur, like dreadlocks in a human. There's no doubt that this gives the animals a distinctive appearance, but I find it impossible to see any other benefit to this peculiarity. What would make a person choose to have a pet like this? What sort of mess would be created if the dog rolled in a muddy puddle, as my own pets love to do?