It's hard to believe that it's already five years since the BBC documentary, Pedigree Dogs Exposed, was first broadcast. The programme stirred up unprecedented controversy about the practice of breeding and showing pedigree dogs in the UK. In the aftermath, the BBC cancelled its long standing high profile coverage of Crufts, and major sponsors backed out of supporting the Kennel Club's flagship event. Promises were made that "things would change", investigating committees were set up and reports were issued.
Five years is a significant period of time, so it's an appropriate benchmark to pause, and to ask the question: are things better than they were? After all the talk, have things improved?
Perhaps predictably, the answer to this question depends on one's perspective.
Jemima Harrison, the producer of the documentary, has continued to campaign for the Kennel Club to make more changes, more rapidly. She is clear about her opinion: “Five years on from Pedigree Dogs Exposed, the Kennel Club is still in denial about the extent of the problems. It is unethical to continue to breed dogs like Pugs and Bulldogs which have such flat faces that they cannot breathe – and yet the Kennel Club registers these breeds in their growing thousands and these dogs continue to be celebrated at Kennel Club shows. The Kennel Club has done too little to tackle the suffering these and many other breeds endure, despite an increasing amount of science which both articulates the issues and offers solutions. The dogs continue to pay a huge price.”
The RSPCA seems to take a more conciliatory stance, acknowledging the progress made by the Kennel Club and dog breeders, including the development of DNA and health screening tests for hereditary diseases and the introduction of veterinary checks on ‘high profile’ breeds but the charity still believes that much more should have been done. The charity is running a "Born To Suffer campaign and petition", calling for breed standards to be changed even more than they have been to date, "so that they prioritise the health, welfare and temperament of a dog over its looks."
Meanwhile the Kennel Club itself, on its own website, disagrees, maintaining that "for many years, the Kennel Club has devoted itself to improving the health and welfare of dogs and is committed to ensuring that every dog's life is as healthy and happy as it can possibly be." Furthermore, "the Kennel Club has introduced a large number of initiatives to help improve the lives of thousands of dogs and continues to develop new programmes and educational resources to progress dog health in the future."
Is it possible to find a middle ground viewpoint? The Advisory Council on the Welfare Issues of Dog Breeding should surely be listened to: this independent group was set up specifically to analyse the issues brought to the fore by Pedigree Dogs Exposed. The Advisory Council has released a statement that is worth reading, giving a detailed update of progress that has been made, acknowledging that while some of the RSPCA's "wish list" should be addressed, others ( such as the RSPCA's call for a ban on registration of dogs born from a dam’s second caesarean) would be a step too far.
By the way, I don't want to accuse Jemima Harrison of being over-critical of the Kennel Club: in a recent blog post she even acknowledges that it could be "half-true" that the Kennel Club is now seen "as part of the solution". She does give credit when she believes credit is due. In her latest blog post, published this week, Jemima compares the situation in the UK with that in Germany, where the second anniversary has just taken place of the airing of the German equivalent of Pedigree Dogs Exposed. She explains that the German programme "did not provoke the reform in Germany that Pedigree Dogs Exposed triggered here in the UK", and that the follow up programme, broadcast last week, "holds up the UK Kennel Club as something of an exemplar".
So while it would be very wrong to be complacent, and while the world of pedigree dogs may sometimes still seem bleak in the UK, it's perhaps at least somewhat reassuring to reflect that it could be much, much worse.