A Terrible Beauty

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

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The AKC insists that it is not at fault: the breeders are. Asked why club- sponsored shows put much more emphasis on appearance than health, Mandeville responds that "this is America. If this size is good, this size is better. We reflect, unfortunately, the breeding of dogs ((that)) people register with us. Are there genetic problems? Absolutely. Are there temperament problems? Absolutely. Are there people making poorly informed breeding decisions? Far too many."

The club is just a registry, he says, so "don't rely on a registry to make an informed decision for you." Why don't AKC registrations carry health and temperament requirements -- as comparable certification does in Germany and Sweden? Says Mandeville: "It's the Big Brother argument. At what point does regulation of the individual for the greater good step on the individual's toes?"

$ Mandeville also claims that any attempt by the AKC to limit registration would trigger government sanctions. "We would like to be able to say, 'I'm sorry, we're not registering your dog,' but we would be in court faster than your head would spin. The Federal Trade Commission has rules and regulations in this country about restriction of trade."

Plenty of dog owners reject this sort of reasoning -- and shun the blessings of American Kennel Club membership as well. The U.S. Border Collie Club is vigorously resisting AKC efforts to add border collies to the 137 breeds it formally recognizes (there are more than 300 breeds worldwide). The border- collie owners and breeders are convinced that AKC recognition would create pressure to breed the dogs for their looks at the inevitable expense of their intelligence and herding instincts. "We are concerned that the working ability of our dogs would be completely lost," says Donald McCaig, a breeder in Williamsville, Virginia, and a spokesman for the club.

The Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Club voted overwhelmingly last May to reject AKC recognition for another reason: their conviction that the AKC values its own revenues over a dog's welfare. Cavalier breeders do not allow the dogs to be sold in pet stores, which are infamous for buying animals from shady sources, including puppy mills. In fact, most dog experts routinely warn buyers not to deal with pet stores at all. The AKC insists, though, that the Cavalier club drop its prohibition as a condition of affiliation. Why would it take such a position? Perhaps because some 7% of the group's $21 million in dog-registration earnings comes from pet-store sales. "They simply want to gain as many registrations as possible because money is power," says the Humane Society's Fox.

Greed cuts both ways, of course. Six Labrador retriever breeders say they have filed a class action against the AKC and the Labrador Retriever Club Inc. for changing the breed standard to favor slimmer, longer-legged animals over the traditional stockier, shorter ones -- thereby devaluing the out-of-date model. And some owners of a relatively rare dog called the Havanese, which arrived in this country from Cuba in the mid-1970s, are actively seeking AKC recognition, despite worries by other owners that they are inviting overbreeding and genetic problems.

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