The Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show Finally Enters the 20th Century. Go Mutts!

Wild Things
Slate’s animal blog.
Feb. 12 2014 11:35 AM

Mutts Finally Compete at Westminster

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A mixed-breed, or, ahem, "All-American" dog, runs an obstacle course during a promotion for the 138th Annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. Watch out, Welsh corgis.

Photo by TIMOTHY CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

In four-legged Olympics this week, mutts were finally given the chance to vie for doggie glory. The organizers of the premier Westminster Kennel Club dog show, held in New York City’s Madison Square Garden, reversed a tradition in place since at least 1884 and finally allowed mixed breeds to compete. Lest you think the move is too progressive, mutts were welcomed only into the agility trial this year, with the prestigious Best in Show award reserved for purebreds. (Last night, that award went to Sky, a 5-year-old wire fox terrier, who bested about 3,000 of her competitors.)

Politely called “All-American” dogs, the mutts generally held their own in a contest where they’re judged on accuracy and speed as they navigate various obstacles off-leash. Roo!, a husky mix hailing from San Francisco, won the agility contest for the 24-inch category, and also took home the trophy for best mixed-breed dog. Another mutt, named Panda, took fourth in the 20-inch category. The underdogs (sorry) were unable to seize the gold, however, with purebred border collie Kelso winning the overall agility prize.

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The Kennel Club’s policy reversal is likely due to growing pressure from animal rights activists, who have long contended that dog breeding is unethical. As PBS points out, efforts to accentuate certain characteristics can result in physical disabilities.

The excessively wrinkled skin of the Chinese Shar-Pei causes frequent skin infection; Bulldogs and other flat-faced (or brachycephalic) breeds such as the Pekingese have breathing problems because of their set-back noses and shortened air passages; Bloodhounds suffer chronic eye irritation and infection.

A host of other problems, including immune diseases, blood disorders, heart disease, and cancer plague some pedigrees. Moreover, almost 60 percent of dogs in shelters are euthanized, according to the American Humane Society, prompting many advocates (PETA protestors among them) to stress the importance of promoting mutts’ image as desirable pets.

Seeking Platonic ideals, the Kennel Club has historically encouraged a dogmatic (too much?) and rigid breeding culture that’s often downright detrimental to the animals themselves. Breeders consult what’s been called a “eugenicist's handbook” to determine standards for certain pedigrees, standards that have been slow to change even in light of emerging health problems.  It’s nice to see the athleticism of all dogs celebrated, of course, but the real achievement at this week’s Westminster show was a gradual moderation of traditional views on what constitutes a prestigious animal.

Anna Newby is a Slate intern.