“The dogs are falling apart!” The controversial new BBC One documentary Pedigree Dogs Exposed shouts into your face. Then, before you can relax, you’re visually assaulted with footage of a boxer dog in the throes of an epileptic fit, bone-crunching surgery and dogs staggering around like drunks on the veterinary room floor. Welcome to the world of Pedigree dogs: prepare to feel moral outrage.
Passionate Productions’ Jemima Harrison is determined to expose health and welfare problems in pedigree dogs resulting from years of in-breeding and the quest for aesthetic perfection. In other words, she’s challenging the rules dictated in the Kennel Club’s ‘bible’, Breed Standards, a set of specifications - from the height to the ‘furnishings’- which each recognised breed should meet. (“Furnishings?” Asks Jemima, in a rare moment of confusion. “The loose skin,” replies the blasé breeder, prodding at a Basset’s folds.)
“Basically the film makers have sieved through the eclectic mix of people that you’d find at a dog show, and zeroed in on the one barmy old dear who doesn’t think it’s wrong to talk about quietly killing a dog”
“The brain is like a size ten foot that has been shoved in to a size six shoe –it doesn’t fit,” impassions Dr Clare Rusbridge, a Veterinary Neurologist. She is just one of the many plausible voices opposing this kind of breeding and it’s hard not to agree with her after you’ve seen a Cavalier King Charles spaniel screaming in pain. In fact, I was ready to get my burning torch out of the rack so I could charge down to the Kennel Club’s London HQ at only four minutes in. Imagine what Jemima could do with a whole hour.
The handy segment on what the breeds looked like over a hundred years ago when showing dogs first became popular includes before and after pictures that we can gasp and grimace over. Especially when they show a computer generated reconstruction of what hundreds of years of breeding has done to a bull terrier’s skull to the sound of someone blowing up a comically shaped balloon. Still, I’m not entirely sure on the genetics of dogs, but as far as I know, there has been nothing natural about their evolution. Otherwise there’d be wolves in the show ring (come to think of it that might be something to actually watch Crufts for).
By this point the cynical part of me was crying ‘sensationalist, sensationalist!’ But it was soon quashed by the next scene of bandy-legged German Shepherd Dogs, trying to make their way around a show ring like geriatrics hobbling for a bus.
Jemima and co do raise some very valid points throughout the running of the documentary. It seems clear that there are health problems involved in in-breeding (really, Jemima?), and that in some cases, fulfilling the ‘Breed Standard’ seems more important than the health of the dog, but they do make one crucial mistake. They compare the Kennel Club to the Nazis.
They follow this up with an interview that took place at Crufts 2008, of an elderly lady who comes from a family of breeders. This woman is an absolute treat, laughing sweetly and speaking ever-so correctly. I found myself nodding along until I caught the word ‘culling’ – wait a minute, maybe the Nazi-comparison wasn’t too far fetched after all (just kidding, of course, as millions of people haven’t yet died). Basically they’ve sieved through the eclectic mix of people you’d find at a dog show, and zeroed in on the one barmy old dear who doesn’t think it’s wrong to talk about quietly killing a dog.
Then it’s finally time for the opposition to step up, like the pantomime baddie that everyone is warned about before they appear on stage. So much so that when Ronnie Irving, the Chairman of the now infamous Kennel Club appeared I assumed he’d be accompanied by a loud bang and a cloud of smoke.
Now Jemima really gets serious, and slightly terrifying, as the disembodied voice barking the questions. Ronnie Irving has clearly been taken out of his comfort zone, unlike the previous speakers, and seems at worst an ordinary man in an uncomfortable interview. I would have liked to have seen the film-makers strolling onto the home-turf of their favourite voice of dissent, Chief Vet Mark Evans, demanding whether he’d put down members of his family like they did with Ronnie Irving when they asked if he’d have sex with his own daughter.
So, are we really breeding our dogs to death? Will our pedigree dogs soon become so inbred that we can no longer rely on them to reliably inform us of the latest well-related tragedy? To paraphrase Eddie Izzard in his stand-up, Dress to Kill: ‘Pedigree dogs are all inbred, you take their grandmother and nephew... And they're all next to each other in the genetic pool. They look good but they just go, "Er... woof”. Whereas the mongrel with a black patch on a white face - that one nicks your credit cards and drives to the Bahamas.’
I do think that it’s a real shame that the makers of this documentary weren’t more impartial and I’m not sure how much change it’s going to produce once the fervour dies down, after all, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks (sorry). Personally, I hit a mental block at Nazis.