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.
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“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 Post, ARTnews, Stagebill, Town & Country, Barron’s, The New Criterion, and Animal Fair.