Judging for health should not be controversial

A 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.

An insight into brachycephalic dog health from The Kennel Club

The Kennel Club has hosted a unique webcast to discuss brachycephalic health and what can be done collaboratively to ensure a healthier future for dogs. Chaired by Kennel Club Chairman, Tony Allcock OBE, the webcast panel comprised Dr Jane Ladlow, European and Royal College Specialist in Small Animal Surgery and leading BOAS researcher; Bill Lambert, Head of Health and Welfare at the Kennel Club; and Charlotte McNamara, Health and Welfare Development Manager at the Kennel Club.

The panel discussed brachycephalic health, approaches across Europe, the need for a collaborative, evidence-based approach, including how the Respiratory Function Grading Scheme can help protect and improve the health of brachycephalic dogs now and in the future, and the importance of data collection and ongoing research into the complex Brachycephalic Obstructive Airways Syndrome (BOAS).

Further information about brachycephalic dog health, what the Kennel Club is doing and which tools and health screening is available to breeders can be found at: https://www.thekennelclub.org.uk/flatfaceddoghealth

To donate and support further research into brachycephalic dog health and BOAS, visit: https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/charity-web/charity/displayCharityCampaignPage.action?charityCampaignUrl=BDH

International Canine Health Awards 2019

The International Canine Health Awards returned for the seventh year to celebrate some of the world’s finest researchers and scientists whose work has had a positive impact on the health and wellbeing of dogs.

The 2019 awards were run by the Kennel Club Charitable Trust and included substantial cash prizes donated by Vernon and Shirley Hill of Metro Bank, to go towards new or continued research.

The awards ceremony took place on Thursday, 30th May in Windsor at the start of the 4th International Dog Health Workshop. Professor Steve Dean, Chairman of the Trustees, was master of ceremonies and offered apologies from Mr & Mrs Hill who were unable to be in Windsor, although they (and their dog Sir Duffield) sent a video message to all the attendees. Mr Hill said “We are proud to support these important awards again, to fund research that may transform canine and human health by encouraging the same visionary thinking and innovation that Metro Bank champions. At Metro Bank, ‘Dogs Rule’”.

The four categories for the International Canine Health Awards were:

  • International Prize in Canine Health for outstanding contribution in the field of canine health and welfare with a prize fund of £40,000 for future projects. The award was presented to Dr Danika Bannasch who is Professor of Population Health and Reproduction at the University of California, Davis.
    She has made significant contributions to our understanding of of the genetic basis of many genetic disorders. She has been responsible for the development of DNA tests for 7 canine diseases including hormonal defect hyperadrenocorticism and chondrodystrophy.
  • Lifetime Achievement Award with a £10,000 prize fund was won by Associate Professor Gary Johnson from the Department of Veterinary Pathology at the University of Missouri. The award citation said that Gary Johnson is proof that it isn’t necessary for a vet to wield a scalpel or dispense a medicine to make a difference to animal health. His work on canine genetic diseases is reckoned to have saved the lives of many more dogs than most practising vets will manage during their careers. His lab was one of the first to adopt whole genome sequencing and, from 153 whole genome sequences, has identified 83 heritable diseases.
  • Student Inspiration Awards were split into undergraduate and postgraduate, with a prize fund of £10,000 for the post-graduate and £5,000 for the undergraduate winner. The post-grad winner was Adrian Baez-Ortega from Cambridge University who has been working in the field of bioinformatics – the combination of biology and information technology. His recent work has been on the evolution of canine transmissible venereal tumours. The under-grad winner was Nivan Mamak from Edinburgh University. In 2018, her vacation project was an investigation of paroxysmal dyskinesia in a family of Golden Retrievers. These student prizes aid further education costs, the development of these young people’s careers, or support a further project.
  • Breed Health Coordinator Award – with a £1,000 prize fund, went to Liz Branscombe (Flat-coated Retriever BHC). Liz is a registered veterinary nurse and, as well as acting as BHC, is also one of the KC’s team of BHC Mentors who spends time helping other breeds with their breed health improvement work. As well as working with her breed, Liz says an important part of her role is to pass on information from the breed community to the vet profession, which she has done as an author of articles in the vet press and as a regular public speaker.

After the final award was presented, it was great to see one of last year’s students, Alice Denyer, return to talk about how her prize had helped with her studies and research over the past year. Proof indeed, of the impact these awards can have in the real world!

Steve Dean concluded the presentations with further congratulations to the winners and thanks to the awards judges and KC team who staged the event. He then invited the assembled International Dog Health Workshop attendees to stay for a buffet dinner and celebratory drinks.