This week, the dog world’s biggest shindig, the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, has descended on New York City with much fanfare and fur-primping. Parts of the show will be broadcast live on TV, but I won’t be watching, even though I love dogs. Actually, I won’t be watching because I love dogs.
Westminster and other dog shows are simply overblown beauty pageants. I know because I’ve been to dog shows—many of them. I’ve lost count of the shows I was trundled off to when my dad was showing our family’s Great Pyrenees in obedience trials. She earned her Companion Dog (CD) certification and won a big silver bowl that our cat liked to sleep in. As a young adult, I entered dogs in a couple of conformation shows myself, but I quickly became disenchanted by the intense seriousness with which people took these shows, which I, in my naïveté, thought should be fun.
If there’s anything more zealous than an ex-smoker, I suppose it might be an ex–purebred dog fancier. Looking back, I can’t believe I was so obsessed with having a certain type of dog—to the point that I would go to dog shows and talk with breeders for hours on end. I was a “well-educated” dog buyer—I knew better than to go to a pet shop, which even 30 years ago were notorious for being fronts for puppy mills—but I wasn’t educated enough to know not to buy from any breeder at all.
All the purebred dogs I’ve had—and I’m ashamed to say there have been many—came from so-called “reputable” breeders (one even shows dogs at Westminster), and all the dogs had serious health or behavioral problems. Our Great Pyrenees had crippling hip dysplasia that eventually killed her. Our borzois all had serious aggression problems, mostly toward other dogs, but one had to be euthanized after he tried to remove the babysitter’s face. Our sweet, gentle Irish wolfhound died at age 7 from cardiomyopathy, a common ailment in wolfhounds and other large breeds.
In fact, it is estimated that one in four purebred dogs is afflicted with serious congenital defects. Labrador retrievers—America’s most popular dog—are prone to bone disease, hemophilia and retinal degeneration, and nearly 60 percent of golden retrievers suffer from hip dysplasia. A recent British TV documentary on the issue caused an uproar when it revealed that even top prize-winning dogs were found to be suffering from life-threatening inherited diseases.
The ensuing public outcry spurred the BBC to stop airing the Crufts dog show, which is the British equivalent of Westminster. Public pressure has even caused the Kennel Club (the AKC’s British counterpart) to issue new breed standards in an attempt to stop “encouraging features that might prevent a dog breathing, walking and seeing freely.” For example, the standard for bulldogs will no longer call for overly large heads, short, bowed legs and flattened faces.
Inspired by the BBC’s example, PETA is calling on USA Network to stop airing Westminster. We’re also urging sponsors to pull their support, just as Pedigree dog food’s U.K. division has with Crufts. Westminster may seem like good, clean family fun, but in reality, its message is that dogs are status symbols to be dressed up and shown off. It promotes deformed, inbred dogs who will break their guardians’ hearts—and their bank accounts—when they develop one of the dozens of inherited diseases that even the most popular breeds are afflicted with. I’ve learned my lesson—my current dog is a shaggy mutt who was rescued from an animal shelter. There’s no guarantee that he won’t eventually develop a serious disease, but, just as with people, a bigger gene pool lowers the risk of inheriting a fatal defect. So far, his only defect is a pair of big, expressive brown eyes that all too often succeed in conning me out of my last bite of burrito.
Alisa Mullins is a senior writer for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; www.HelpingAnimals.com.