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Does the AKC Deserve the Bad Press?

Once again, the AKC is getting bad press.  This time our leading authority on dogs stands accused of supporting, encouraging, or at least turning a blind eye to the illegal mass-production of sickly, traumatized animals for sale as pets in homes across the country.  The only thing I find more annoying than the recent Today show interview is the AKC’s official response.

A carefully worded press release says Today “disregarded the important facts that should have been told.”  But which “facts” are being “disregarded”?

The AKC wants to be seen as a poor, misunderstood victim of animal rights extremists like the Humane Society, award-winning scientists, and investigative journalists who forget to mention the AKC’s stellar achievements in “canine health research”—for health problems they themselves created by backing dogs into a genetic corner and endorsing items churned out like sausage links to set standards—approved and regulated by them—on shape, size, and color rather than health, temperament, or function. 

The AKC suggests they’ve been minding their own business all these years like babes in the woods, that clients pay those registration fees to them “voluntarily,” and that they contribute to “kennel club inspections” (by a skeleton crew of just nine inspectors for the whole country).  They also say there are, technically-speaking, no such entities as “AKC Registered Operations” or “AKC Registered Breeders”—because it’s a free country and nobody’s forcing anyone to seek the AKC’s imprimatur for those vast numbers of sickly, traumatized animals to be sold as pets? 

The AKC implies it has a purely passive role, almost as an innocent bystander, in the current pedigree health crisis and puppy mill scandal.  Meanwhile, they say they’ve taken a proactive role in “educational programs for responsible dog owners” who buy pitiful creatures wrapped in papers that seem more meaningless by the day.

“Facts” are easily missed or dismissed when someone’s playing word games, as in:  “The belief that mixed breed or mongrel dogs are more vigorous, healthy, or well-adjusted than properly bred purebred dogs is a myth.”   Of course there’s no guarantee that every or any one single dog will turn out healthy and balanced, but it’s a fact of nature that, on average and with vast numbers of AKC-registered puppy mill dogs tipping the equation, a tenth-generation mutt has better chances in life than a “purebred” or even a first-generation cross.  Ask any evolutionary biologist.  The fact is, and the AKC should know this because they write the grants that fund the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals, the annual list of “Top Ten” breeds—which the AKC just happens to announce each year on the eve of Westminster and which they actively promote—is top-heavy with hip dysplasia and other musculoskeletal defects (and a long list of other health problems) in percentages far higher than the average dog and many breeds.

Minding their own business?  The real “education” would be an exposé on the AKC’s training of legislative liaisons to get out there and play with words some more in courts across the country.  Campaigns are under way to limit the legal definition of “puppy mill,” to protect the rights of breeders to keep inbreeding for as many defects as the show-ring judges demand, and to stack their products in cages for as long a shelf life as the law will allow.  Compared to the AKC’s history of working against the interests of dogs and the people who love them, “DNA testing” begins to look like puppy store window dressing.

And yet however shocking or unbelievable any or all of this might seem, there’s really nothing new about puppy mills or passing off inferior products as superior.  This is the way dogs have been bred, packaged, and sold since the early twentieth century when the AKC incorporated, assumed control over breed standards, and targeted an emerging consumer market. The AKC, and the entire dog fancy, was built on puppy mills and unsound breeding practices.  If anything has changed, it’s society’s feelings on what, exactly, “humane” treatment of animals means, and how far we have a right to go in expecting pets to please us. The AKC, show-ring judges, breeders, and associates are just doing business as usual, only they’re not used to being challenged and are acting like dogs backed into a corner.  But what’s on trial here isn’t so much an archaic institution, its misplaced priorities, or its shady friends. The real bad guy is a bankrupt tradition of valuing companion animals for pedigree and for standardized shape, size, and color—and the belief that’s it’s alright to produce them in large numbers to meet these whimsical demands.

Not only is it not alright, the results have been disastrous.  Time for the AKC to join the 21st century or go down with the rest of them. 


Editor's Note: See our other post on this issue too.


Michael Brandow is the author of New York’s Poop Scoop Law: Dogs, the Dirt, and Due Process (Purdue University Press, 2008).  His upcoming book, Dog Snobs: The Myth of the Purebred Dog, will be published by Beacon Press in 2014.  He has written on society, the arts, and canine culture for The New York Times, New York PostARTnewsStagebillTown & CountryBarron’sThe New Criterion, and Animal Fair.




Michael Brandow is the author of New York's Poop Scoop Law: Dogs, the Dirt, and Due Process (Purdue University Press, 2008). His upcoming book, Dog Snobs: The Myth of the Purebred Dog, will be published by Beacon Press in 2014. He has written on society, the arts, and canine culture for The New York Times, New York Post, ARTnews, Stagebill, Town & Country, Barron�_s, The New Criterion, and Animal Fair.
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Submitted by sam the cat | May 10 2013 |

Mr. Brandow raises an interesting point. The problem isn't that the AKC isn't doing enough inspections, it's that it supports the idea of breeds in the first place. Even if they claim to support responsible only breeders, by propagating the idea the there is some cachet in owning a "purebred," the AKC ensures that there is a market for the puppy mills' products.

Submitted by Dina | May 11 2013 |

Has everyone forgotten about the numbers of puppy mill dogs who are mixed breed designer dogs? Just wondering, because in my neck of the woods it is shi-poos, doodles etc.

Submitted by Michael Brandow | May 13 2013 |

Exactly. It’s more about changing people’s unreasonable expectations of dogs than forcing old-schoolers to do things they may not even be able to do. “Reproductive uniformity” and hyped-up lineage have been the main selling points for “purebreds” from day one in the dog fancy because English folk wanted to be seen with the same pets as aristocracy. Whether present-day purists purchase their cachet from a puppy mill, a backyard breeder, or some “reputable” one, nobody on the street is going to know the difference so long as a Bulldog limps like a Bulldog should and a Pug gasps for air like a proper Pug.—Michael Brandow

Submitted by mpw | May 10 2013 |

Mr. Brandow, you say that the AKC should join the 21st century, so what steps do you propose they take to do that? Should they merely relax breed standards -- or do away with them entirely and find some other raison d'être?

Submitted by Michael Brandow | May 13 2013 |

You can’t have a breed without a standard and papers to prove it. The Swedish Kennel Club has managed to improve dogs somewhat while keeping “breediness.” Their standards are more forgiving and a judge’s decision must also take into account health and functionality. Still, the conformation part is always a distraction from any plan to improve.

Standards at Westminster are pure esthetics. Not only do they decide which dog becomes the next popular stud, the judge’s latest ruling on “correct” conformation becomes the model for breeders around the country. Recent studies have shown that hundreds of health problems in dogs are directly or indirectly due to these arbitrary, increasingly extreme beauty pageant ideals.

I vote to do away with breed standards, and with breeds as we know them. People are too hooked on looks, and by mixing the races dogs might be bred for function once again. Genetic diversity and health would be the only standards, and perhaps some practical, no-nonsense concerns like size and energy level that individual pet owners think they can handle. That’s assuming that pet dogs should be bred on any kind of large scale, because without a better way to monitor what goes on in kennels, and considering how many get dumped, maybe they shouldn’t.—Michael Brandow

Submitted by going to the dogs | May 11 2013 |

The reason why the AKC gets away with torture and eugenics, if not at times outright murder, is that they have succeeded in breeding out the initial wolf-like temperament of most dogs, creating mentally unstable and physically weak, unhealthy animals who can't really fight back. I'd like to imagine a Jurassic Park scenario where kennels try to breed raptors down to a manageable size and desirable decorator color--how quickly would the market react then to their products? Bravo, Mr. Brandow, for pointing to the "science run amok" antics of the AKC!

Submitted by Michael Brandow | May 13 2013 |

Interesting what you say about rendering dogs helpless. In my upcoming book I suggest this is exactly what happened to the Bulldog.

The first standardized breed to have its own specialty club devoted to furthering its “interests” in England, the Bulldog had a shady past in the fighting and baiting pits, not a selling point for “good” Victorian families. The repackaged Bulldog became a favorite in finer homes on both sides of the Atlantic where wealthy trend-setters bought these reformed fighters because it was the fashionable thing to do. But bulls weren’t fully trusted at first and were on a sort of trial period for decades.

I think the reason for crippling Bulldogs, slowing them to a snail’s pace and making heart attacks so common was to make them less threatening as house pets. This repackaging has not been innocent or without damage to the dogs themselves. This year the Bulldog is officially the most expensive breed in terms of veterinary care, but the poor things were a mess from the moment they were standardized and thrown into the ring back in the nineteenth century. The Bulldog just got bumped up to no. 5 in the AKC’s “Top Ten” most popular breeds, so I guess this means they’re “good with children.”—Michael Brandow

Submitted by jlj | May 11 2013 |

I note the author has a book coming out titled "Dog Snobs...". I'm sorry but he is the one who comes off as a snob. I am not a breeder and have no affiliation with the AKC. However, recently, after 40 years of strays, shelter dogs and rescues (including on dog who was the product of a puppy mill, with all the expected temperament and health issues) I chose to add a purebred dog to my family. But first, I did research including reading AKC materials about how to choose a responsible breeder and healthy dog. I bristle at the idea that responsible breeders or the very concept of purebred dogs are the reason so many dogs are euthanized each day. People who do not spay and neuter and carelessly let their dogs breed, backyard breeders who do not take the care to have a structured breeding program, people who want their dogs or kids to experience birth these people are far more responsible for flooding shelters with dogs (and cats). The concept of a purebred dog goes far beyond "status" or the mere appearance of the dog. It's about predictability. When I select a purebred dog, I know what size it expected to be as an adult, I know what it's personality traits should be, I know whether it tends to be a barker, a chewer, a runner. Dog are individuals, but a properly bred dog will be true to type - not just "pretty". I chose the breeder of my dog carefully. I found many pretty websites that were clearly interested in breeding to make money. I also met many breeders who stressed that their breeding program considers minimizing health problems and producing dogs with a sound temperament as priorities (including those who health screen the breeding stock). I've never gotten such assurance with my shelter dogs. It is also important to note that a quality breeder will require an owner to return the dog to the breeder if they should become unable to provide appropriate care. Such breeders also require their dogs to be altered if they are not show dogs, and if they are to be shown, the breeder retains partial ownership. Most such breeders are even more selective about placing show candidates. Are their bad breeders? Yes. Are their puppy mills? Yes. The potential owner needs to take responsibility as well and understand that the less expensive puppy is less expensive for a reason. Do I hope for a world where every dog is purebred? No. But I do hope for a world where every dog is selectively bred and whose breeders take responsibility to make sure the offspring are healthy and sound, and will not be abandoned to a shelter.

Submitted by Anonymous | May 12 2013 |

I’m sure you have deep and abiding love and respect for all dogs regardless of breed and status appeal.  But at the point of purchase, you were motivated by snobbish impulses and I’m sorry to hear that.  A woman I know did something similar, reminding me we’re all a bundle of contradictions and nobody’s perfect.  She’d been kind enough to rescue two Pugs (among the most inbred and unhealthy breeds on the market whether they come from puppy mills or “reputable” breeders), but then went against her nobler impulses and bought a third because, and I quote: “I felt I’d earned it.”

Yes, I agree that dogs are “individuals,” but as such they don’t need to be “true to type.”  In fact “predictability” has been a sales pitch used by breeders, breed clubs, and kennel clubs for years to makes us believe, as they do, that you can manufacture animals not only for standardized appearance but for stylized skills and temperaments in the same way GM builds cars for “performance” on the assembly line.  Not quite the same things.

Remember that dogs were first segregated into commercial breeds using a primitive understanding of coat color genetics and blunt cross-breeding for some “desirable” head shape.  Only later, as an afterthought, were all the standard advertising clichés like “loyalty,” “intelligence,” “nobility,” &c., added to each breed which had stopped being bred for behavior the moment it stepped into the show ring.  Yes, it’s possible to generalize about descendants of ancient fighting, guarding, herding and hunting landraces—not breeds—and terriers tend to be harder to handle than Collies.  But I myself have lived in close company with hundreds of dogs in every shape, size, and color, and it has been my experience that owners of the “purebreds” first fall in love with an individual dog, then backtrack and rationalize all the distinctive qualities unique to their brand-name favorites.  Breeding for “predictable” skill or temperament is difficult enough in lines actually bred to perform useful tasks. In fact there’s a distinct trend toward cross-breeding service dogs because many of the “purebreds” are becoming too “pure” for their own good (and ours).

I see nothing to admire in a breeder who devotes more care to placing “show” dogs in good homes than dogs that don’t meet the AKC’s list of beauty pageant ideals.  Also, allowing only potential prize winners to remain intact is a major reason why breeds became so sick in the first place.  Every new champion marks the beginning of a new wave of “popular sire effect” which further decreases the genetic diversity and health of dogs.—Michael Brandow

Submitted by Dina | May 12 2013 |

Wow, you claim to know her exact feelings at the point of purchase. Seriously, who is being the snob here? A definite case of reverse elitism.

Submitted by Melissa | May 12 2013 |

The AKC doesn't always know what is going on at these places so in my opinion no. Now the thousands of people that support the people by turning their head when they see these sickly animals and those that buy them are supporting these people. Put the blame where it's due. And as long as their is a demand for people to have dogs with papers there will always be a majority that uses it for profit without care of the animal.

Submitted by Michael Brandow | May 20 2013 |

O.K., so the AKC doesn’t guarantee health in the animals it endorses for purchase. On the contrary, it publishes a disclaimer relieving itself of all responsibility. If the AKC’s stated role is to provide “education,” then it’s doing a miserable job of that, because a large number of the dogs it awards papers come from puppy mills.

So who, exactly, should the buyer beware of, if not the AKC itself? The “education” it does provide can be extremely misleading, and this I would call propaganda.

The AKC’s role should be, at the very least, an exemplary one, which it is, and the AKC is fully aware of the weight it still has even with the puppy mill and pedigree health scandals nipping at its heels. By publishing the list of “Top Ten” breeds each year on the eve of Westminster, promoting these breeds on its website, and awarding them prizes in the ring without mandatory health tests and with disclaimers on health (even though both pet and show dogs with AKC papers are naturally assumed to come from “reputable” breeders), it takes an ACTIVE role in misleading consumers to believe these dogs are quality products, not only better than the average street mongrel, but better than other breeds because … well, because if everyone’s buying them and they’re getting prizes, then they must be good.

The AKC has traditionally relied upon the snob appeal of “purebreds” to override all other concerns of otherwise educated and thoughtful people. The same person who wouldn’t buy a car without reading a consumer report gladly buys a Bulldog—among the most sickly breeds, and likely THE most expensive breed in term of veterinary care— because it’s the no. 5 most popular breed ( based on AKC registrations).

Currently, five of the “Top Ten” most fashionable dogs to be seen with on the sidewalk also have the honor of being in the top ten for cancer:

Cancer is but one example among many other defects in not only the “Top Ten” but the “Top 25.” And yet Westminster judges go on awarding prizes to dogs without mandatory health tests—dogs that will breed prodigiously if they win prizes, thus passing on their defects to untold numbers of animals— because the AKC does not guarantee health and so buyer beware.

So what is the AKC’s role and what are its responsibilities as an accepted and trusted authority on dogs? The AKC has been playing both sides for a long time, only now people are wising up to its tricks.

Submitted by Russell Hartstein | May 13 2013 |
Submitted by Jen Brighton | May 13 2013 |

I am looking forward to reading Mr. Brandow's book. I've only owned shelter dogs of unknown mixed breeds that are lumped in with the bully breeds, but when comparing my shelter dogs to many friends' purebred dogs, they are overall healthier, no allergies, skin problems, joint problems, neurological problems, etc.

As to the elitist concept and what I consider the Westminster snobbery, and by no means do I mean everyone with a purebred is a snob, I was recently told on another blog that my dogs were just "mutts," from which I inferred my dogs somehow weren't as worthy as purebreds. I love all dogs. I personally have no problem with healthy, purpose-bred dogs where maybe one or two litters are bred in a year where the most important aspect on the part of the breeder is the dogs' health and temperament. I also like to see people that do acquire purebreds use them for what they were bred for (hunting, herding, agility, service dog). However, it seems often purebreds are simply a showpiece for folks. In that case, I feel rescuing a shelter dog is more humane. Just the cost for a breeder dog is often ridiculous, especially as Dina points out, all the doodles are really mutts if you want to look at it that way. Even the creator of Labradoodles, Wally Conron, says he regrets what he unintentionally started with the doodle craze and the irresponsibility and capitalization of breeders pumping out these so-called designer dogs with no care for their health, temperament or concern for the homes they are placed in.

Submitted by Brigitte Reed | May 15 2013 |

That was scathing! I absolutely LOVED it! Thank you for writing this.

Submitted by TND | May 16 2013 |

You say: "approved and regulated by them—on shape, size, and color rather than health, temperament, or function."
I am under the impression that the AKC does NOT set standards and that it is the responsibility of the individual breed clubs (NOT controlled by the AKC) that set the standards an the AKC only makes sure that the standards are only written in a precise format for easy comparison between breeds.

You say: "Of course there’s no guarantee that every or any one single dog will turn out healthy and balanced, but it’s a fact of nature that, on average and with vast numbers of AKC-registered puppy mill dogs tipping the equation, a tenth-generation mutt has better chances in life than a “purebred” or even a first-generation cross."
The reality is that health problems are seen in mixed breed dogs as well as pure bred dogs and that rates of certain diseases and disorders are HIGHER in mixes than certain pure breeds and lower than other pure breeds because of selective breeding. For example, mixed breed dogs are LESS likely to develop DM than a Miniature Schnauzer but MORE likely to develop it than German Shepherds (one of those top 10 breeds you mentioned). The same selective breeding that cause higher incidences in one population also significantly reduces the risk in other populations. What selective breeding does allow you to do is narrow the number of common disorders in the group and therefore you are able to develop breeding programs aimed at reducing the risk of those conditions and doing breed-specific education so that owners are aware of signs/symptoms of common disorders - you cannot do that with a mixed breed dog. For more examples of conditions, please visit: http://cynoanarchist.wordpress.com/2012/09/22/are-mixed-breed-dogs-healt...

"The real bad guy is a bankrupt tradition of valuing companion animals for pedigree and for standardized shape, size, and color—and the belief that’s it’s alright to produce them in large numbers to meet these whimsical demands."
Consistency is a whimsical demand? Hogwash. Consistency is what allows people to research and choose the puppy that will most likely grow into the dog that they want/need.

The AKC also has a program called the Breeders of Merit in which members must be actively involved in events and follow breed club health testing recommendations, etc. (again, not controlled by the AKC) so that puppy buyers are able to AVOID the puppy mills. This is beneficial to the AKC because these breeders are entering AKC sanctioned events - conformation, agility, etc. - and therefore if demand for these dogs increase, then more people would enter events and the AKC's revenue would increase from entry fees. Puppy mills are not entering these events.

They also provide a list of questions that you should ask your breeder and to avoid people that show no interest in the dogs welfare or placement (like puppy mills) and they suggest seeing the parents of the puppy you are considering purchasing when at the breeder's home.

All of the information on how to find a responsible breeder is available on the AKC site and more detailed breed specific information is often found on the parent club website. The problem isn't that the AKC and the parent clubs aren't putting the information out there. It's that the puppy buyers aren't taking time to research. I work for a rescue but when my family wanted a pure bred dog we took the time to research, went to the home of the breeders, met mom (dad was away at a tournament), got the results of the health testing of the parents, were able to ask questions and were able to stay in contact with the breeder. I know he came from a good place and he is exactly what we would expect from his breed - his conformation is not extreme and his health is no better or worse than the mixes/rescues we have had.

Submitted by Michael Brandow | May 17 2013 |

So your solution is to go on inbreeding dogs to a degree that’s illegal in some states for humans to do? And to maintain some imaginary ideal of how dogs should look? This is how so many health problems in “purebreds” came about in the first place. You might be able to put a Band-Aid on one defect (the result of inbreeding), but continuing down this path is sure to create many more in the process.

I was amused to see you provided, as evidence, a link to Desert Wind Hounds and an article I read some time ago. This is the site of a woman who cross-breeds dogs with no concern for show ring conformation. I was going to say something, but I guess she already has:

Submitted by Rebecca | May 16 2013 |

This article reads like a rant on an amateur blog. So much bias with such broad, generalized statements and no supporting facts offer nothing to the reader. It was a complete waste of my time. If a writer is going to defend a stance on an issue, they should put a little work and research into it. The title of the article led me to believe that this was going to be an unbiased piece examining both sides of the argument. I was disappointed to find that it wasn't. Please note this is coming from a reader that is not for or against the AKC.

Submitted by Michael Brandow | May 17 2013 |

I admit this is an emotional topic but a “rant”? Could you be more specific about where I’m over-generalizing?

Submitted by Ellen P | May 19 2013 |

Once again another animal rights person, paints the world of purebred dogs and the American Kennel Club, with a paint mixed with biased emotion, and untruth. It is obvious that Mr. Brandow has never bred a dog and has zero knowledge as what goes into a happy healthy puppy. First of all , the AKC, does not set the standards, on how to breed dogs, the parent clubs own the standards to each breed, and it's members decide on how the standards are written. The AKC is a registry. They provide a number on a piece of paper, that says what breed it is, it's name and the name of the breeder. This allows a dog to compete in AKC sanctioned events. To say the AKC and the fancy is based on unsound breeding is an outright lie. There are thousands of caring people out there, that put their heart and soul into each and every puppy, and spend many dollars making sure they are bred well and wind up in good homes. The fact is Good breeders do genetic testing, and do breed out diseases. Mixes have just as many issues , but no one has any way of tracking it. It is so easy to point your finger at the AKC, but learn the truth, maybe get to know a breeder of merit, and you'll see that it is not what the uneducated, and biased animal rights would like you to believe.

Submitted by Michael Brandow | May 22 2013 |

I’d like to dispel a few more of the myths repeated to the point that people believe them.

First: You don’t need to be “another animal rights person” to be against the AKC and puppy mills. I eat meat. But I do care about dogs (though I don’t eat them) and I’ve taken part in raising and training a great many. Would I ever breed dogs? Certainly not when so many are being dumped and need homes.

You also don’t need to be a breeder to know some important facts about genetics and poor health in pedigree dogs. Breeding within strictly closed registries (as the AKC and dog fancy demand you do) to maintain the whimsical traits we’ve come to accept as normal, to stay true to an archaic belief in “pure” blood (pure eugenics), or even to take a long shot at breeding for behavior, is not sound breeding. Never has been. Never will be. On the contrary, mixed-breed or out-crossed dogs have, on average, fewer health problems (ask the pet insurance companies) and they lead longer, better quality lives (read the many peer-reviewed scientific studies made public in the last decade and easily found on the Internet, or wait for my book). You can “track” congenital defects as long as you want, but it was the breeding within strictly closed registries that brought alarmingly high numbers of these about in the first place. This is why, strictly speaking, mutts are, on average, healthier than “purebreds.” Picking and choosing the illnesses and deformities you are willing to tolerate in each breed (to “breed out diseases,” as you say) is playing a dangerous and irresponsible balancing act (heard of recessive alleles? founder effect? popular sire effect?) that eventually leads to the sort of health crisis we’re now seeing on both sides of the Atlantic.

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