Westminster, American Kennel Club: Can the AKC survive in the 21st century?

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Feb. 14 2011 1:28 PM

Dog Fight

Can the American Kennel Club survive PETA protesters and uninterested pet owners?

Also in Slate, John Swansburg dives into the bizarre, wonderful world of American Kennel Club breed standards.

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Cynics claim these are all money-making schemes by a cash-starved organization. If so, the schemes could be working. The AKC recently trumpeted that overall event entries were up a bit last year, and the new Grand Champion title alone led to 40,000 additional entries and $1.2 million in fee revenue. Even if money is a motive, it's hard to see how introducing kids to the wonderful rainbow of dog-dom is entirely evil. And programs such as the AKC's Canine Good Citizen, which requires dog-handler teams to pass a 10-step test of good manners and grooming, have clearly made the world a better place. (Disclosure: My memoir about training my Marley-esque purebred dog for her CGC award will be published in April.)

Of all the group's new initiatives, however, none has been as controversial as its decision to allow mixed-breed dogs to compete alongside purebreds for some AKC titles. Starting in 2007, club members received a survey sounding them out on such subjects as launching a non-purebred listing service and allowing non-purebred dogs to compete in obedience, agility, and tracking events. The results of the survey were, well, mixed. While three out of four members agreed with the statement "mixed breed competition would not negatively impact public opinion of purebred vs. mixed breed dogs," about half thought it might "lead to animal rights activists joining clubs and influencing policy making." The AKC is nothing if not paranoid. And respondents were split evenly on whether mixed breeds should earn the same or different titles—that is, whether competitions should be integrated or "separate but equal."

In the end, to its credit, the AKC decided to integrate. In April of last year, it allowed clubs to open AKC-sanctioned obedience, rally, and agility trials to mixed breeds as part of its Canine Partners program. During opening weekend, a dog named Cheyenne became the first mutt-tastic winner with a commanding performance through the weave poles at the Somerset Hills Kennel Club Agility Trial in Freehold, N.J. Last year, about 2,000 titles were earned by mixed-breed dogs, which the AKC euphemistically calls "All-American."

What does this all mean for the health of the AKC? There is continual pressure for the club to be more aggressive in shutting down high-volume breeders, called "puppy mills," and to revise breed standards that may exacerbate health problems. In 2009, the British Kennel Club did just that, in part in response to a scathing BBC documentary called Pedigree Dogs Exposed, which claimed bulldogs often had trouble breathing and German shepherd dogs struggled to walk because of exaggerated, breed-standard skin folds and low-slung backs.

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It's clear the AKC should—and probably will—do more to safeguard the health of purebred dogs. But all it takes is a few hours with a responsible breeder to realize there is no group of people on the planet more dedicated to the well-being of dogs. Canines are their life. Heritable diseases are studied and invested against; animals with eye or hip problems are not bred. Breeding bitches and studs are treated much better than the average family pet.

Yet purebreds themselves face a constitutional crisis. Each dog breed was developed to do a particular task: Dachshunds hunted badgers; rat terriers hunted rats; retrievers went after fowl in the water or on land; Akitas guarded Japanese houses; and malamutes pulled Alaskan sleds. Today, police and service dogs are the rare animals that do actual work. The typical purebred pet is like a racecar that only gets wheeled out of the garage to take the kids to school.

As breeds get further away from their original intent, the need for elaborate registries and regulations begins to evanesce. Meanwhile, those of us with fondness for a certain breed, with all its faults and potential health problems—as I have for the beautiful Bernese mountain dog—know that our breed, at least, deserves to survive.

"One of the best things about purebred dogs is their relative predictability," says the AKC's Lisa Peterson. "You are more likely to know what you're getting."

Martin Kihn's Bad Dog: A Love Story will be published by Pantheon in April 2011.

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