A Terrible Beauty

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

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The AKC does not need to resort to intimidation, however, to have an overwhelming influence. It sponsors most of the nation's dog shows, events that reinforce the insidious notion that beauty is a dog's paramount virtue. It also keeps track of purebred pedigrees, yet it requires no proof of good health to certify an animal. All it takes to get AKC certification is proof of pedigreed parentage. Says Fox: "The best use of pedigree papers is for housebreaking your dog. They don't mean a damn thing. You can have an immune- deficient puppy that is about to go blind and has epilepsy, hip dysplasia, hemophilia and one testicle, and the AKC will register it."

No one at the kennel club denies this. AKC certification "is absolutely not a Good Housekeeping seal of approval, unfortunately," says Mandenville. "It's acquired a lot of these trappings because the idea of 'AKC- registered' is so widely known."

Or, to be blunt, because it has such snob appeal. The American Kennel Club was founded 110 years ago by a group of American bluebloods who pledged "to do everything to advance the study, breeding, exhibiting, running and maintenance of purity of thoroughbred dogs." At the time purebreds were status symbols, owned exclusively by the wealthy and prized for their strength, skill and intelligence as much as for their looks.

But during the 1940s, as the middle class sucked in vast numbers of new members with aspirations of gentility, these Americans began to insist on purebreds too, and their popularity took off. In 1944 the AKC registered 77,400 dogs; that jumped to 235,978 in 1949, and by 1970, the club was issuing papers on a million dogs a year. (The total last year: 1.4 million.)

The number of AKC-sponsored dog shows has increased just as dramatically. In 1894 there were a mere 11 all-breed shows. By 1954 there were 384, and last year a total of 1.3 million dogs competed in 1,177 different exhibitions. Then as now, the idea was to show off the owners' prize breeding stock.

But the concept of what makes a dog valuable for breeding has changed. While obedience and field trials were once considered at least as important as beauty contests, the canine equivalent of the swimsuit competition has all but taken over. Historians have yet to explain this ideological shift, but the AKC has one idea: "You could almost say this venerable institution with its great credibility and history has been infiltrated slowly by the type of people it was not intended to deal with," says Wayne Cavenaugh, the group's spokesman. Whatever the reason, animals with names such as Rainbow's Maggie Rose O'Koehl and Jrees Buddy Holly are brushed, hairsprayed, beribboned and otherwise tarted up before going in front of the judges. Says Buddy Holly's owner, Jan Smith of Wichita, Kansas, a longtime exhibitor of Great Danes (and herself the runner-up for Miss Congeniality in the 1965 Miss Arkansas pageant): "When the ears are too flat, we use cement to make them perky. We use chalk to color the legs, which is fine as long as you don't use copious amounts."

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