A Terrible Beauty

An obsessive focus on show-ring looks is crippling, sometimes fatally, America's purebred dogs

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Within the past century, though, and especially over the past 50 years, the most popular types have been bred almost exclusively to look good -- with "good" defined by breed-specific dog clubs and the American Kennel Club (AKC). "Form has been separated from function," says Brian Kilcommons, a dog trainer in Middletown, New York."Styles come in vogue. The competition at dog shows is geared almost exclusively to looks." This focus on beauty above all means that attractive but unhealthy animals have been encouraged to reproduce -- a sort of survival of the unfittest. The result is a national canine-health crisis, from which few breeds have escaped.

The astonishing thing is that despite the scope of these diseases, veterinary researchers know next to nothing about what causes them or how to cure them. Only 23 of the hundreds of known disorders can currently be picked up by genetic lab tests. Biologists know far more about the heredity of the fruit fly, in fact, than they do about canine genetics. That is because there are fewer than 100 canine geneticists in the world, working at just a handful of major universities -- and they are constantly scraping for funding.

The lack of research money is especially disconcerting when one considers that dogs are the nation's most popular pets. Almost 36 million households have them, compared with the 29.2 million that keep cats, according to the Humane Society of the U.S. More Americans spend more than $8 billion a year on their dogs, not counting the initial purchase. The AKC alone raked in $29 million last year, about three-fourths of it from the $25 or more it charges to register each pedigreed pup and provide a copy of its family tree. But the AKC annual report shows that the club cut its grants for education and research into the health of dogs from $1.675 million in 1992 to $575,000 in 1993.

Who is to blame for the shabby treatment of humanity's best friend? The AKC, with its focus on pedigrees and beauty pageants rather than canine well- being? Legitimate breeders, who supply customers with beautiful but sometimes damaged puppies? Puppy mills, which do the same but at much higher volume and in search of greater profits? Or the public, more insistent with each passing year that a mutt -- a "randomly bred dog," to be politically correct -- simply won't do?

They are all partly at fault. But it is hard to avoid putting the AKC high on the list. While the club is not the only dog registry in the country, it is certainly the biggest, best known and most powerful. It is because of this * power that the AKC has been largely unchallenged over the years. "Criticize the AKC, and there will be retribution," says one New York dog trainer. "Judges may find they are no longer getting assignments. Breeders might discover their dogs are no longer winning prizes." The AKC acknowledges that it is perceived as overbearing. "I think it's a fact of life that people have that fear, and it's unfortunate," responds John Mandeville, the club's vice president for planning.

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