Crufts attracts over 20,000 competitors alongside hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. This year’s Best in Show was a lovable Flat Coated Retriever called Baxer; who beat six other finalists to claim the show’s top honour. Baxer was the winner of the Gun Dog group earlier in the show. With the typical friendly character of Flat Coats the retriever immediately grabbed his winner’s rosette in his mouth to proudly show it to the world. 

The owner was visibly emotional after the win, hugging Baxer; such demonstrations of the human animal bond are the essence of what we want Crufts to be about. The joy of dog ownership, the rapport, the laughs and silliness, and of course showing off the ‘best’ from a variety of wonderful dog breeds. But there was a dark side to Crufts 2022 as well.

The wrong winner?

Unfortunately, it wasn’t all waggy tails this weekend. Among those showing dogs who have been bred to better the health and welfare of their animals; we sadly experienced a setback in dog health education attempts.

The Best in Breed for Bulldog this year was “The Crown of The Bulldog Carte D’or”. (You can see his photo here). 

Ironically, it is not long since Oslo District Court ruled that certain English Bulldog Breeders were no longer allowed to breed; following failed attempts to better the health and welfare of the breed. Sadly, the breed, along with other brachycephalic dogs, suffers a range of health issues that are intrinsically linked to its body shape. Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome (BOAS); dermatological and skin fold issues; spinal malformations; and ocular (eye) issues to name but a few.

So, this year after repeated education attempts from animal welfare groups and veterinary professionals alike it would have been wonderful to see a Bulldog win ‘best in breed’ who didn’t exhibit multiple traits that not only are against breed standards but that will physically cause this individual dog issues. This wasn’t the case. This year’s Bulldog ‘Best of Breed’ showed off a large over the nose wrinkle and his teeth were extremely visible!

Snowball effect

The Kennel Club Bulldog Breed Standard states that the teeth should be ‘not visible’. And ‘over nose wrinkle must never adversely affect or obscure eyes or nose. Heavy over nose roll are unacceptable and should be heavily penalised.’ 

It’s not only this individual dog’s health that will be affected, this win will perpetuate the general public’s desire for these dogs with exaggerated looks. It has allowed a continued culture of acceptance of poor health. If a Crufts judge thinks it’s ‘best of breed’, then it must be fantastic and healthy, right?

This is not the first or the last time this show will come under scrutiny for making poor decisions with regards to animal health and welfare. In 2015 research found that one in four dogs competing at Crufts were overweight. In 2016 a German Shepherd with visibly sloping back won best of breed. Thankfully there has also been some positive news coming from the ringside. Namely one spectator felt they had heard much less audible breathing in the ring suggesting breeders may be taking health more seriously. It is a shame that this effort was undermined by choosing a winner who had very visible issues.

Uphill struggle

It is a huge task to start changing the societal attitudes towards brachycephalic dogs (and other breeds whose physical form is linked to health concerns) in order to raise enough awareness as to their suffering, and ultimately reduce the breeding of dogs with such exaggerated conformation. 

Owners of brachycephalic dogs’ often value the aesthetic appearance of their dogs; along with their behaviour and ability to fit into a sedentary lifestyle. But this comes at the expense of the dog’s longevity and health. The market is already flooded with unethical breeders who do not attempt to improve the health of their dogs, but continue to breed for desired traits. Even at the detriment of their health. 

However, we cannot place all the blame on these ‘backyard’ breeders if we continue to give a stage to those Kennel Club breeders who also continue to breed for an unhealthy conformation. Over time, the desire and market for these breeds, including the Bulldog, has led to an acceptance of health issues as ‘normal’ for that breed.  Many owners do not recognise these concerning signs as an issue. This year’s ‘Best of Breed’ Bulldog may only fuel this normalisation of poor health standards.

Support breeders who value health

Although Flat Coated Retrievers are sadly known for increased neoplasia (cancer) risk a redeeming feature was the overall winner of ‘Best in Show’ Baxer. A dog with a normal muzzle; a good body condition score; a unique and loving bond with his owner and an affectionate personality to match. 

Many breeders are attempting to better the health of their dogs. We can only hope that the dedication of these breeders to continue to support their breed through rigorous health testing, breeding for health not aesthetics will not be undermined. We should all want to achieve a common goal – a healthy, happy dog.

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