The Cruel Cost of Extreme Dog Breeding

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Take a look at an old photo of the iconic German Shepherd, Rin Tin Tin, who died in 1932. Now look at a photo of another of the breed, a German shepherd show dog of today. Notice the difference?

The second photo shows a German Shepherd with a sloping back and legs splayed apart. Some people call today’s German shepherds “half-frog dogs” because of the position of their legs.

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Rin Tin Tin (left); modern show dog (right)

Today’s dachshunds and basset hounds also look amazingly different from those bred as little as 50 years ago. Their legs are shorter, their bodies are longer, and their bellies almost drag on the ground.

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Basset Hound from UKC in the 1980s.

And Pekingese and pugs have flatter faces. Both have trouble breathing because of their pushed-in noses.

Pekingese

Breathing is harder for Pekingese dogs that are bred with flat faces. (Photo from UKC.)

These remarkable changes stem from an obsession among dog breeders to create the perfect dog—perfect that is, according to the standards for purebreds competing in dog shows like the annual extravaganza of the Westminster Kennel Club. This breeding is slowly disfiguring, often in unbearable ways, the very animals that dog show fans claim to love.

Now, a number of concerned animal-welfare people, along with allies in the dog-show crowd, are trying to change the way breeders manipulate the genome of these animals.

No breed has suffered more from the quest for “exaggerated” features than the Pekingese—a breed once favored by the Emperors of China. Back then, the animal would have looked very different than the show dogs of today. In the last thirty years, Peke show dogs have undergone troubling changes.

“A Peke actually had a nose in the 1980s,” says Wayne Cavanaugh, president of the United Kennel Club (UKC). “It was pronounced just enough to give them an airway. Today’s Pekingese winners are photographed sitting on blocks of ice because they are overheated and are just barely breathing.”

Peke faces didn’t go from two inches to one overnight. They changed gradually. “We are talking about a fraction of an inch here and there over time,” explains Cavanaugh. “These changes are becoming acceptable, and there is a trickle-down effect because I’m seeing it on the street.”

Two different clubs: American Kennel Club versus United Kennel Club

Both got their start in the late 1800s.  One major difference between the two organizations is that UKC focuses on the Total Dog, which means that all dogs must compete in agility courses. Proponents and animal welfare advocates boast that—unlike the AKC—dogs that compete in UKC events don’t have pushed in faces, short legs that can’t run an obstacle course, and other exaggerated features. By contrast, in some AKC events, dog owners can enter their animals for competition based on looks alone, although they do have agility for some breeds.

Cavanaugh is no stranger to the American Kennel Club. He was its vice president, before leaving the organization to take over the UKC. He told WhoWhatWhy that he has made a number of enemies speaking out against extreme breeding standards, often hearing criticisms in a workshop he leads for UKC judges. “The first day they are mad at me,” he explains. “Then they get it.”

They “get it,” Cavanaugh says, because he’s been there—having served as a judge at the Westminster Dog Show. “I did it too. And now I understand how we let this go on. You see when you are in the show ring, and are judging 10 Pekingese all lined up next to one another, your eye tends to be drawn to the one with the more exaggerated features. That is the one that you tend to choose as the winner.”

Searching For Super-Dog

Sherry Woodard, animal behavior consultant at Best Friends Animal Society, is seeing many purebred dogs with health issues at animal shelters around the country.  “Anytime a breed is highlighted at a major show like Westminster, people run out to get that breed. About 20 percent of the dogs at animal shelters are purebreds.  Purebreds are great. However, we are seeing more of them at our shelters, and many have health problems.”

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Westminster Dog Show

Breeders regularly mate father/daughter, grandfather/granddaughter, mother/son, and grandmother/grandson with the expectation that desired genes will be transferred to the next generation. Unfortunately, such inbreeding (within limited gene pools) ensures that unhealthy traits and behaviors will also be passed down.

The pressure to create these perfect dogs comes from AKC standards, the official guidelines by which dogs are judged at dog shows. Each AKC-recognized breed has a national parent club whose members write the standards. Standards can specify everything from a breed’s eye color to the curvature of the dog’s tail.

“For bulldogs,” says James A. Serpell, a professor of Animal Ethics and Welfare at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine, “the distance between nostrils and the stop (that is the base of the forehead) should be as short as possible.” The result is not just disfiguring, he says—it’s dangerous to the dogs. “That is asking breeders and show judges to push that dog’s nostrils back into its head, and that is what they have done for the bulldog, Pekingese, and the pug,” he says. “These dogs have trouble breathing.”

While the problems created by inbreeding are most acute among show dogs, Serpell says, they are also showing up among some companion animals:

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“Nowadays, many breeds are highly inbred and express an extraordinary variety of genetic defects as a consequence: defects ranging from anatomical problems, like hip dysplasia, that cause chronic suffering, to impaired immune function and loss of resistance to fatal diseases like cancer,” says Serpell. “The only sensible way out of this genetic dead-end is through selective out-crossing with dogs from other breeds, but this is considered anathema by most breeders since it would inevitably affect the genetic ‘purity’ of their breeds.”

Hoping to reach breeders so that they would change the standards, Serpell organized a conference between leading scientists, veterinarians, and others interested in the health and well being of animals. He invited breeders to attend the conference, hoping to start a dialogue between the different groups. But it never happened. After learning the event would be hosted by the Humane Society of the United States, an animal welfare group, breeders balked.

“AKC breeders sent out emails requesting that everyone boycott the event,” Serpell told WhoWhatWhy. “We just wanted to share information about the well-being of dogs and the negative effects of inbreeding,” he says. “Unfortunately, they didn’t want to listen. It was a great event with lots of helpful information. However, the scientists, veterinarians, animal welfare people, and others who are concerned for the dogs’ welfare would have liked to have shared this information with breeders who can make these changes, which are beneficial for the dogs.”

Form Follows… Fashion?

“It used to be that dogs looked a certain way based on what they were bred for,” says Dr. Stephen Zawistowski, science advisor at the ASPCA. “ “Today, because of these exaggerated features, a basset hound in the show ring with short legs and an elongated body would never be able to get through the fields after a rabbit. People who have lived with a basset hound will most likely purchase another basset hound after the first one dies—even if they are aware that the breed comes with specific health issues. They love their dogs and expect that their next dog will have similar traits. Common sense doesn’t always rule.”

Function is still paramount, however, among working dogs, such as seeing-eye dogs or K-9s for the police. The Seeing Eye organization breeds German shepherds that work with the visually impaired. “Our German shepherds are quite different from show dog German shepherds,” explains Peggy Gibbon, director of Canine Development.

In consultation with a geneticist, Gibbon selects the sires and dams and evaluates them for structure, temperament, and health. “Some inbreeding occurs because we work from a closed gene pool of select dogs. A certain amount of line inbreeding can be helpful because we are looking to develop and continue good traits in our dogs. We watch this closely, and I shop around for dogs from other breeders to increase the genetic diversity of our gene pool.”

The Dog’s Best Interest

Animal welfare groups have called for joint efforts with breeders to ensure that the animals’ health and well-being comes first. But many commercial breeders worry that animal shelters are hurting their bottom line by promoting the adoption of “rescue animals” over buying purebred dogs.

Sheree Moses, co-chair of the German Shepherd Dog Club of America, is one breeder who thinks the two sides have plenty of incentive to work together. “No one wants to breed a litter thinking half the puppies will have health issues or will die,” says Moses, who, with her ex-husband James, has shown champions at Westminster. She has had German shepherds since 1967 and is devoted to the breed. “As in every industry, there are responsible people and bad ones. We need to have the dog’s best interest in mind.”

“Total Dog”

One solution is to follow UKC’s Total Dog concept that focuses on dogs that are bred without exaggerated features. The idea is to favor animals that are close to their original forms, and those that are able to run agility courses. It’s a model that animal welfare workers want more breeders to follow. But if the quest to breed the so-called “perfect” dog continues, we will see a lot more animals with physical and behavioral problems.

If you’d like to learn more, watch this nine-minute video, The History of German Shepherds. It shows changes in the German and American breeds of the dog from the 1940s to the present.

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0 responses to “The Cruel Cost of Extreme Dog Breeding”

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  2. Teresa says:

    I have what they call “working bred” purebred shepherds – they would never be allowed in a show.. their backs are straight, their rear legs are under their hips when they stand, their tails do not touch the ground. their heads are held quite high above their shoulders. We have one female and one male – they are siblings and I am thrilled to have working dogs! What show breeders have done to this breed is disgraceful!!

    • LaTrish says:

      Sounds like you have real German Shepherd Dogs. My husband and I have owned (and bred on a small scale) working line (from European imports) GSDs for years. Sadly, it seems that even many of the working line GSDs have begun to have health issues. Our last GSD crossed the rainbow bridge

    • LaTrish says:

      (Oops, accidentally hit “enter” button before I meant to)
      Our last GSD crossed the rainbow bridge just a couple of months ago. We don’t plan to own any more GSDs at this time, the health issues have just become too heartbreaking. We now own working-line Border Collies that are NOT registered with the AKC, only with the American Border Collie Association (which revokes your registration if you put an AKC conformation title on your BC).

      I have to admit though, that I will always have a soft spot for the GSDs and miss our beloved companions.

    • M.A.N. says:

      Images and history of the German Shepherd Dog from the early 1900’s
      illustrate companion pets, working dogs, champions, and celebrities (like “Rin
      Tin Tin”) as specimens of grace, health, speed, and strength…..straight back,
      long straight legs, hunch sitting directly above gorgeous straight legs, head
      high, tail pointing to the ground, and it goes on…

      Unfortunately, the German Shepherd Dogs I see today (including police, search
      and rescue, etc.) have curved backs with low hunches; so, unhealthy to these
      magnificent creatures.

      How can we get the AKC, Westminster, German Shepherd Dog Club of America, Inc.,
      breeders, etc. to adhere to the original German Shepherd standard from the
      past?

  3. mariekteresa says:

    This is really disgusting. How can they possibly think they are improving the breed? Small heads and a sloping back? Come on………. give us the old breeds back and quit messing with nature! Dog breeders and show people! You’re ruining the animals. The bad thing is; the man or woman on the street is told to spay/neuter. I agree with that. But then the only animals you have reproducing are these weirdly modified ones the breeders have. Wrong.

  4. You don't need to know says:

    Is there a way I can get a German Shepherd that looks like the original ones that they were and has the athletic ability and intelligence they are meant to have? Don’t the working dogs like the police ones or the military German Shepherds still look like the original German Shepherds and have the strength and intelligence and straight back they had? Are they still like the original ones?

    • mariekteresa says:

      I’m sure you can Malcolm. You will just have to look for a “lower” level breeder rather than those fancy ones. I bought a beautiful shepherd two years ago from a home breeder. He’s gorgeous. Straight back, big head, big dog period.

    • mariekteresa says:

      There are some around yes. I’ve never seen a shepherd dog that looks as weird as these show dogs do, and I’ve had three shepherd dogs in my lifetime. They all died of old age and all were really pretty dogs. Straight backs, big dogs; and smart. Like they should be. Look around, you can find them.

    • You don't need to know says:

      I doubted that there were really any as bad as the show ones. But I took my dog to the vet and asked about getting a GS and the vet said they have a lot of health problems and are one of the most unhealthy breeds. So that made me worry that I can’t find a good dog like I’ve always thought they were. But I’m sure there are still good ones out there. They are just less common and harder to find. It will involve being careful and doing more research and work before selecting a particular one.

    • cherokee517 says:

      You can find GSDs with correct conformation, gaits, temperament, etc it is just very time consuming. Unless you have a couple thousand to spend on an import. About 10 years ago I was looking for a puppy. It was about 10 yrs before that since my last puppy. I went looked at more than 200 dogs before finally finding 1 in America that had the qualities a GSD should have.
      During that process I came up with a list of questions to ask the breeders. (My family bred GSDs and we were very thorough vetting the families/people who wanted pups.) If they refused to answer any questions I moved on.
      I also stayed away from breeders that pushed their AKC registration. That didn’t matter to me. They will reg any dog w/o any real proof that the dog is purebred (other than parents being reg and that’s very easy to falsify.) AKC has no interest in the health of the dogs or the any other important qualities. Now I intentionally won’t get a dog from a breeder that uses that registry.
      Another thing to look for is a breeder that has hips certified by an org like OFA. Make sure they guarantee the health & temperament of the dogs. Try to visit the breeder and check out the parents. See where & how the pup is taken care of.
      It takes a lot of time, research, leg work to find a GSD as its supposed to be. To me it was so worth it.
      Be aware that should you get a true GSD they will require far more that what you may be used to seeing. They are a working breed that requires a lot of mental stimulation and exercise. And you must always be thinking 3 or 4 steps ahead. They will come up ideas and do things you can’t even imagine possible for a dog. They are the most brilliant of all dogs.
      Sometimes you can get a dog that doesn’t make the cut as guides or service dogs. You can get a great quality and healthy dog and already trained that just doesn’t quite meet the high standards for those jobs, but would be perfectly fine for the million other things GSDs are great at.

    • MuttsRule says:

      Look at mutts in shelters. I have a GSD mix (thinking Doberman and Husky in there, too). She’s healthy as a horse, agile, and smart! And her back is totally straight.

  5. Katie says:

    I freaking hate all you damn dog breeders. What is wrong with you people? Why in the hell are you making more dogs when wonderful dogs die in shelters every second? You don’t love dogs, you love yourselves. I hope someone puts YOU in a garbage bag and leaves you on the side of the road to get run over by a truck. The world would be better off, and more importantly, so would “man’s best friend.” Go to hell.

    • Suzie says:

      I hate to break it to you, Katie, but if there were no breeders out there… where would the future of every dog breed go? Instinct, that’s where.

    • RDEF says:

      Suzie, breeders took the wolf and turned it into a teacup chihuahua – instinct is far more useful to the planet than greedy breeders.

    • Alafair Rey says:

      All dogs need to go extinct: while they are here humans will never stop being cruel to them.

    • sherrie says:

      Katie- I feel the same way. In fact, I came across all this as I’m looking to see any initiatives to start promoting BAN on dog breeding(or at least real restrictions).-using a meaningful criterion, such as “..until there aren’t X #/ thousands of strays…”

  6. KT says:

    This article generalizes way too much! I show, breed and do performance with my dachshunds. Yes some dachshunds I feel are too long and too low, but not all breeders are doing that!!!! Go to a dog show and you can see that not every dachshund is exagggerated. Most of these dogs are agile hunters!

  7. RDEF says:

    These poor animals look and are crippled, which coincides with the crippled, morally bankrupt people who breed these genetic monsters for vanity and profit. Their pain and suffering should experienced by these inbred backyard breeders, maybe that would get them to stop, but I doubt it because their motivation is money, not anything to do with the animals welfare, health, and ability to have a good quality life.

    • mariekteresa says:

      I actually don’t think it’s “poor Inbred backyard breeders” (which isn’t a nice characterization) doing this. I completely disagree. These are the fancy breeders that want to show the dogs, that are doing this cr*p.

    • Kirstin 'Honsey' McLendon says:

      These people are not “backyard breeders.” They breed the high-dollar show dogs. I know several people who breed dogs because they love their dogs (and, FYI, they don’t make a single dollar off of it either, when you factor in the cost). They don’t exaggerate like this and they breed with temperament and health in mind, before beauty. I know that there are lots of shelter dogs out there, and I think adopting them is great – I’ve had several myself. However, sometimes people are looking for a dog where they can more likely predict temperament, coat type, and full-grown size, and where they can know the dog’s family, which will be a good indicator of his/her behavior. Not all breeders are the scum of the earth.

  8. Ric H says:

    I find it interesting that these modern shepherds now look more like hyenas than they do shepherds.

  9. Val Silver says:

    We bred, raised and showed German Shepherds for years and were very careful to NOT inbreed. We were never fans of the long backed American bred dogs with exaggerated features (very angulated back legs) and mostly imported and bred German dogs. This sometimes put our dogs at a disadvantage with judges who preferred the American look. Still we held true to what we believed were the best representations of the breed. Good temperament, health and ‘quality’ were at the top of the list. It’s very disappointing to read about all the inbreeding- history has proven time and again how damaging that is to breeds and individual dogs. (BTW- Jimmy Moses has shown for my family many times, and my niece has one of Sheree’s dogs.)
    Val Ambrosio Silver

  10. Al says:

    When I, as a veterinarian, find the pugs, bulldogs and basset hounds from backyard breeders and puppy mills to be healthier than the show lines – there’s a BIG problem….

  11. velodome shelters says:

    Good Article!!!

  12. mewillie says:

    Etbmfa’s response is kind of like shooting the messenger. I have been in purebred dogs going on 38 years – not the length of time of “etbmfa”, and certainly not with her background and credentials, but I have done plenty of studying in my time and witnessed a lot in the purebred dog arena and my view does differ from hers.
    I feel there are elements of this article that merit consideration. I’ve always felt that if the original intent and purpose for purebred dogs is bred out of them in the name of a perceived ideal, then that’s a tragedy for that breed. Sacrificing sound temperament, capability and structure for perceived beauty in the show ring affects the physical and mental wellbeing and original intent of all breeds.
    In some countries a dog cannot receive it’s champion title unless it shows it can pass performance as well as conformation competitions. Performance may include breed specific hunting, herding or other athletic events that challenge mental and physical capabilities. To keep strong genes and maintain good temperament and structure of our breeds in the way they were meant to be should be of prime importance. Name calling and challenging the writer’s opinion based on one’s own educational background without citing specifics can do more harm than good.

    • dogreason says:

      The original intent and purpose for a breed is why a breed was bred for certain traits. To limit championship titles to only dogs that pass performance tests is detrimental to a breed. Not all people can afford to show and work/hunt their dogs. However, one litter can have dogs that go to homes that differ in their activity of choice and the related dogs do well in those areas. The huge variety of dogs and purposes of dogs is wonderful and should be encouraged. What a sad day if these anti purebred dog people are allowed to convince the ignorant with their twisted views.

    • mewillie says:

      I would not advocate limiting championship titles to only performance dogs. However, the wise breeder could be one step ahead of the pack, if they were to compete in and complete performance as well as breed titles – especially for their breeding stock.

    • AL says:

      I disagree- strongly. If a breeds purpose was to track, they should have the ability to track, and prove both the ability of the nose, the mental stability to focus and the physical ability to move a reasonable distance. The only purebred dog I own is from a German Registry – they require the dog to pass two ability tests, a conformation test, and numerous health tests to acquire certification to breed from the breed club. Strict standards prevent the destruction of a breed – like the german shepherds, basset hounds, english bulldogs, pugs, and many others… I’d rather a dog have no papers at all than papers from a club like the AKC.

    • dogreason says:

      In the United States we are governed by the people and the people have formed breed clubs to best promote and guard the well being of their breed. We do not need or want the government that has a one size fits all attitude because of their lack of expertise in the breeds to dictate what is good for our dogs. People that care so much about the qualifications of a pure breed seem to tend to promote mutts that have absolutely no standards for health and well being. It is a crap shoot…….go figure SMH

  13. Ann says:

    I realize a picture is worth a thousand words, but I would love to see a comparison of these then/now dogs actually working and see if the slope has improved or hindered this breed.

  14. etbmfa says:

    Please state your credentials to offer an opinion on this
    subject. Where did you train? Do you have a degree in animal husbandry, animal behaviorial science or vet medicine? Do you have experience in dealing with MULTIPLE dogs and where did you get that experience? Owning a dog or two does NOT qualify someone to speak on owning multiple dogs, on the needs of different
    breeds and on the care and feeding of animals. “Loving dogs” does not
    make someone an expert on dogs belonging to other people.

    I am always willing to share my credentials. I am a Legislative Liaison to the American Kennel Club, a Delegate to the Virginia Federation of Dog Clubs and a member of the NAIA. I have FORTY NINE years
    hands-on experience raising, training and showing dogs. I have taken enough classes, workshops, seminars and symposiums to earn at least a Bachelor’s degree and while earning my five college degrees I have taken college classes in biology and genetics. I earned a national certification through NADOI as a dog obedience instructor. I have worked in vet offices, animal shelters, grooming shops and boarding kennels. I
    HAVE EARNED THE RIGHT TO MY OPINION ON ANIMAL CARE and I call a great big BS on this article.

    • jlw034 says:

      What great points you made! I appreciate it when you lay out a sound argument, and don’t just troll the comments section. I really think your ‘7 things you don’t know about puppy mills’ bit would have worked well in here. For those of you that don’t know what I’m talking about, click on her avatar and read her other comments. You’ll see what she’s really about.

      On a more serious note, all you did was call out the author without ever laying out what you don’t like about this article. While credentials lend credibility to an argument, please remember this is America. We have the God-given right to have an opinion.

      I’m guessing that a legislative liaison is a fancy name for a lobbyist. If so, congratulations, you are a part of the problem in this country.

      Anyone who truly cares about their breed, and what that breed can DO (and I’m not talking about winning shows), knows that a lot of AKC dogs are being breed for fashion and not function. This phenomena is hurting great breeds (the above listed as well as labs, WPGs, Goldens, etc).

    • Melanie Johnson says:

      Credential, shmedentials. This whole web site is founded on debunking the “experts” who think they know what’s best for us and everyone else. I will take the side of an average person who’s put some actual critical thought (and a bit of research) into a topic over an expert who runs to her credentials in lieu of proferring a rational position.

      What I would like to know here are the statistics on hip dysplasia and other issues with the GSDs. If we knew how much they’ve gone up over the years (and I’ve no doubt they have), then can’t we say with some certainty that there is an issue with the breeding choices the “experts” are making? I recently got a dog for the first time since I was a kid. I looked into the GSD because that’s what I wanted, and one statistic I found was that 40% percent (FORTY PERCENT!!) of the GSDs had hip dysplasia. This included the German bloodlines and those bred for police work. While this saddened me more than I can say, I also wasn’t going to spend thousands of dollars on a dog that had a good chance of being unsound. Instead, I chose a Jack Russell Terrier, whose breed standard requires more than just a pretty face. The JRTCA eschewed the courting of the AKC for all the reasons put forth in this article, for fear of ruining the breed. Protecting the health and temperament of the breed is as much a part of their breeding philosophy as conformation.

      Why all breed standards aren’t like this is both idiotic and tragic. The so-called experts are the problem here, not the solution.

  15. AnimalLawEnquirer says:

    Another hit piece on purebred dog breeding. If there was not a demand for these dogs, people would not breed them.

  16. dogreason says:

    AKC spends millions on canine health. Many large breeders quit AKC to go to lesser known registries because AKC rules were too strict. These are very sad times in this country when everything good is being made out to be bad by false claims and ignorance. Government does not know what is best for animals. People who have dedicated their lives with hand on experience know what is best for their animals. The laws proposed and supported by anti-animal groups proclaiming to be for the animals are not in the best interest of animals and are dangerous.

  17. UKC Exhibitor says:

    Revise the article as dogs are not required to compete in agility at UKC shows.

  18. Russ, thank you ALL, at WhoWhatWhy for this important piece!!!!

  19. Linda Szymoniak says:

    And the AKC is supporting puppy mills – fighting any laws that are being considered that would benefit the dogs there and reduce the number of dogs being sold at stores (and therefore helping to reduce the number of dogs dying in shelters). It’s a real shame. When I was little, we used to rent a cabin in Wisconsin. The family who lived full-time in the house just down from us had a beautiful German Shepherd who was a genetic descendant of the actual Rin Tin Tin. That dog was amazing, and beyond beautiful. I hate seeing what the breed has become.

  20. Lucianne says:

    I can’t even watch the Westminster Dog Show anymore. It’s turned into a freak show.

  21. Lea Johnson says:

    what will some people will do for “luxury”

  22. Smarter than Your Average Bear says:

    Absolute cruelty.