The pursuit of breeding perfection leaves a trail of destruction

At Best Friends, we don’t really dwell on the breed of a dog. Whether a dog is a purebred golden retriever or some jumble of breeds, we think each special doggie personality is what really counts.

You may remember our guess-the-breed contest that we did for our beloved Teddy. The outcome of the contest mattered very little to my wife Silva and me. Teddy is a wonderful family member regardless, and discovering his lineage was just a fun thing to do.

Dog fanciers obviously care deeply about certain breeds. Likewise, thousands of people devote their lives to carrying on the “winning” genetics that mean big bucks down the line, as litters are churned out and puppies are sold to those who find some sort of satisfaction in owning such an animal.

A serious issue facing the breeders and show-sanctioning organizations is coming to a head in a big way. The “desirable” traits that dogs must have to be a “winner” are often indicators of acute medical conditions — the kinds of things that defy logic as to how anyone could see them as positive. In truth they are quite the opposite, and they should give pause to those who think that appearance-based genetic modification of any species, including humans, is a good idea.

The Kennel Club in the United Kingdom recently released the results of an enormous 2014 study on the average life span of many dog breeds. Included in the study were 385,000 owners of dogs registered through the club, and almost 50,000 dogs representing 191 breeds were in the final tally. Overall, the results were not good, although the official press release from The Kennel Club doesn’t really say that. In fact, the club does a nice job of downplaying the incredibly sad difference reflected in these 2014 numbers, compared with those in 2004.

The bottom line is that many breeds are living much shorter lives, and in some cases, the differences are dramatic. A U.K. blogger did her own analysis of the data, and she says it best: “The numbers are jaw-dropping.”

This is not an issue that is confined to Great Britain. Breeding dogs for show involves a deliberate effort to breed for looks rather than health. While a German shepherd’s severe back line and hips may bring home the ribbons, that "preferred confirmation" also inclines the breed to suffer from hip dysplasia, a condition that produces tremendous suffering for dogs and their human families.

At what point does the ethics of this drive to win come into question?

Sadly, this is not a new crisis. In past decades, breeders (with the complicity of show judges) bred collies with heads so narrow that they had no room for brains, bulldogs with brachycephalic syndrome, and pugs who can only give birth by C-section, as well as frantic Irish setters and blind and deaf Aussies. It's why the border collie community has assiduously avoided the “beauty show” circuit.

We’ve long called for the American Kennel Club and other organizations that register breeds to take a stand — not only to improve the health of the many breeds they gleefully and haphazardly register simply to boost their coffers, but also to play a collaborative role in helping to save the lives of animals, who are being killed by the thousands daily in shelters. Though these breed groups are not solely responsible for this crisis, their promotion of looks over substance has absolutely created demand and over-supply issues that lead to more killing in shelters across the country.

Together, we can Save them All.

Francis Battista