Judging for health should not be controversial – “Best of Health” July 2021

The recent Our Dogs “Question Time” feature on vet checks at Championship shows for Best of Breed winners in Breed Watch Category 3 got me thinking about the role of judges in protecting breed health.

It’s hard to believe that it’s 9 years since vet checks were introduced at Crufts 2012 for what were then known as “high profile breeds”. The plan for these checks had been announced by the KC during 2011 but its significance had probably not been realised until the show in 2012. It’s worth recalling that these checks were introduced in the period following Pedigree Dogs Exposed and at a time when there were attempts to shame Crufts off our television screens completely. Pedigree dogs were in the spotlight and the KC was arguing that dog shows had the potential to be a force for good in demonstrating fit and healthy purebreds. Professor Patrick Bateson, in his 2010 report on pedigree dog breeding, had also referred to the influence of dog shows on dog welfare:

“I was persuaded that showing and judging constitute a powerful lever for change. That has been demonstrated clearly in the past in the documented and undisputed changes in form that have taken place in many breeds. My concern therefore is that this powerful lever should be effectively applied to achieve the desired improvements in welfare.” and…

Judging is not an exact science but it needs to be informed by recent advances in knowledge. It would be improved with a mechanism for re-training or updating judges over time (what in other circles would be termed continuing development). It would also be enhanced by the introduction of a mechanism for singling out judges who manifestly upheld welfare principles and kept themselves up-to-date.”

At the time, the vet checks were hugely controversial among the show community and made headlines because 6 of the 15 Crufts Best of Breeds failed the examination and were unable to enter their Group competitions. Social media responded with new groups set up in protest at the KC’s actions. That year’s KC AGM also had some heated discussion but a proposal to halt the vet checks was not supported.

The veterinary press, unsurprisingly, took a different perspective and were generally supportive of the vet check process. In a letter to the Vet Record, the 2 Crufts vets (Alison Skipper and Will Jeffels) wrote “The fact that the KC gave two ordinary general practitioners the authority to overrule the decisions of internationally famous judges at the world’s biggest dog show, and trusted us to make impartial decisions about the dogs we examined, is a great mark of confidence in the integrity and ethics of our profession. We should not let them down. We very much hope that many other vets will support the KC by volunteering to carry out these checks at a championship show.

In contrast, the following year all the high profile breeds passed their Crufts vet checks and proceeded to the group competitions. 

Breed Watch

The concept of high profile breeds has now been incorporated into the Breed Watch scheme with those breeds being in Category 3. The fact that there are now just 9 Category 3 breeds is a reflection of the progress made by those that have been moved to Category 2. Vet checks remain as a reminder to both judges and exhibitors that health points of concern that are visible to the lay-person should not be acceptable in the show-ring.

Whether vet checks should be extended to all breeds prior to group competition is debatable. Personally, I’d have no issue with it and, if the dogs are fit and healthy, judges and exhibitors should have nothing to fear. The logistics of it could, however, be quite challenging and with more vets involved they would clearly need to have been fully briefed on their role. On balance, I think vet checks are proportionate for Category 3 breeds. The onus is on those in Category 2 not to allow unhealthy exaggerations to creep in that would result in them being moved to Category 3.

Breed Watch health reporting for CC judges of Category 2 and 3 breeds is mandatory but voluntary for Category 1 breeds. Honest reporting of any concerns can only be beneficial if we are serious about shows being a showcase for healthy pedigree dogs.

The tail wagging the dog?

It’s also easy to argue that judges and vets completing visual assessments at Championship shows is the “tail wagging the dog”. If the first time that a judge has to make any comment on the health of a dog they are assessing is when they first award Challenge Certificates, then we’ve missed a huge part of their apprenticeship. First time CC judges will have spent a minimum of 7 years on their journey of education, mentoring and hands-on judging. Awareness of health matters should be baked into that process. How many people realise that Breed Watch is embedded into the introductory section of every Breed Standard?

“Breeders and judges should at all times be careful to avoid obvious conditions or exaggerations which would be detrimental in any way to the health, welfare or soundness of this breed. From time to time certain conditions or exaggerations may be considered to have the potential to affect dogs in some breeds adversely, and judges and breeders are requested to refer to the Breed Watch section of the Kennel Club website here https://www.thekennelclub.org.uk/events-and-activities/dog-showing/judging-dog-shows/breed-watch/ for details of any such current issues.”

As such, aspiring judges should be learning about Breed Watch and how its principles are meant to be applied, throughout their education. I wonder how much time is spent at Breed Appreciation Days discussing how to assess for visible health concerns compared with how to assess length of ribbing or turn of stifle. Similarly, how many mentoring sessions involve a discussion of visible points of concern as well as discussing dogs’ hind angulation? It really shouldn’t be too much of a stretch to do this because, in some breeds, the visible points of concern are closely aligned to faulty construction or movement. Surely we should be encouraging education and assessment of Breed Watch aspects throughout a judge’s career.

I have to declare an interest as I am a member of the KC’s Breed Standards and Conformation Group (BSCG), a subgroup of the Dog Health Group. The BSCG sets policy for Breed Watch and reviews the reports submitted by judges. Opinions expressed here are my own and not those of the BSCG.

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