This piece was unsatisfying to write, and may well be unsatisfying to read, as well, because it poses questions for which I have no answers.
Sorry about that.
Everyone probably has an opinion on the subject, however, and I blame Google Alerts for having reminded me of it.
“Google Alerts” is a content detection service that automatically notifies users when new material from virtually any source on the Internet matches a term selected by the user. It can generate hundreds of stories relevant to a keyword in a very short amount of time, especially if that word relates to a “hot” topic. Certainly heating up on the front burner is the dog fancy’s Super Bowl this month: Westminster.
In the past, notifications related to Westminster have typically been links to articles focused on the judges panel, a change in venue, or the debut of breeds newly recognized by the AKC. In 2014, the new breeds are the Chinook, Portuguese Podengo Pequeno, and Rat Terrier. By my estimation, however, scarcely a quarter of the alerts I’ve gotten thus far pertain to any of these topics.
The media, instead, has been besotted with one story line, and the sample headlines below are emblematic of the majority of them:
“Mutts Compete in Westminster Dog Show For First Time”
“Westminster dog show adds event with mixed breeds”
“Change to Westminster show celebrates the ‘every dog.’”
“Change to Westminster Dog Show gives stage to mixed-breed dogs.”
The first paragraph of one article with a similar headline went this way: “One of the nation’s oldest sporting events, the Westminster show had a few mixed breeds in its early days but soon became purebred territory. This year, more than 2,800 pedigreed, primped dogs are set to be judged on how well they fit breed standards that can specify everything from temperament to toe configuration. That has long made Westminster a flashpoint for the purebred-versus-mixed-breed debate.”
“Purebred-versus-mixed-breed.” That stood out for me.
It never used to be a “debate,” let alone a “flashpoint” until the animal rights movement gained steam and made it one. For an agenda intent on eliminating pet ownership altogether, the rarified world of show dogs with its breed standards, selective breeding and the element of privilege (read: money) made the dog fancy an easy target. The bad apples that exist in any sport or hobby (in the fancy’s case, lousy breeders and obnoxious exhibitors) made the task even easier. Adding insult to injury was the second wave of attack from groups involved in rescue, an activity breed clubs have been supporting long before it became politically correct.
I haven’t made up my mind about mixed breeds participating at AKC performance events once limited to purebred dogs. For some reason, however, when I do think about it, an old saying that I taught my children always pops into my head: “You don’t have to blow out someone else’s candle for your own to burn more brightly.”
In 1978, the Mixed Breed Dog Clubs of America was formed based on AKC Regulations. It offered titles in obedience, rally, conformation (huh?) lure coursing, retriever instinct, and versatility, but the club never really “took off,” and presently, there are no events scheduled on its website.
Why the club hasn’t gained traction among mixed breed owners, I don’t know, but as far as I can tell, mixed-breed enthusiasts been nosing around for AKC recognition of some sort for years. Why they insisted on inclusion with the AKC when they had the Mixed Breed Dog Club of America is anyone’s guess, but it’s hard not to think about that old saying I told my kids. Does the purebred dog owner’s flame need to be blown out for the mixed breed owner’s candle to burn more brightly?
It’s a moot point. Mixed breeds have been invited to AKC performance events since 2009, but I can’t help but wonder if the seismic shift in AKC’s policy was the second waft of air on the candle of purebred enthusiasts. The first would have been the AKC’s removal of the phrase, “For the Love of the Purebred Dog” from its masthead“ sometime in the last 15 years to be replaced by, “We’re more than champion dogs. We’re the dog’s champion.” Even that has become diluted. Today, the AKC’s tag line is: “Discover. Learn. Connect. Sharing more than 125 years of passion for dogs.”
If “purebred” has become a dirty word, “breeder” is tantamount to an ethnic slur. Take a look at the commercial Budweiser will be airing this Super Bowl Sunday:
I have to hand it to Budweiser for touching, even remotely, the prickly topic of breeding purebred puppies in this current climate. Evidently, however, as long as sales are referred to as “puppy adoptions,” it’s okay, and perhaps no one will notice that the puppies are all the same breed?
So let’s review. Who would have thought it possible that “breeder” would become a dirty word, “purebred,” would be removed from public billing on AKC material, and the AKC would include mixed breeds at its performance events all within twenty years? It reminds me of what HSUS CEO, Wayne Pacelle said: “…One generation and out. We have no problems with the extinction of domestic animals. They are creations of human selective breeding.” Animal People News, May 1993.
By allowing mixed breeds in its performance events, did the AKC cave to public pressure and political correctness? Or will the day come when we look back at the AKC’s shift in policy and realize how prescient it was to recognize that the fight wasn’t between mixed breeds and purebred dogs, but rather an epic battle to protect dog ownership altogether?
In that light, it seems rather silly to dig in our heels as dog fanciers to protect our right to ethically breed sound, purebred dogs, and preserve the legacy of their breeds. As one who appreciates history and tradition, and especially as a fancier, however, these goals resonate with me, and they do matter. They matter in little ways that make life worth living and connect me to my cultural past, but also in far bigger ways that implicate my rights in other areas far removed from dogs.
In the war of words to win over public sentiment, dog fanciers have returned to the roots of the sport by referring to our breeds as “purpose bred” dogs with predictable traits. The opposition’s counter-parry has been the charge that mixed breeds are healthier than purebred dogs, but this was disproved by a five-year study by the University of California-Davis which concluded that there is no difference between the two in the prevalence of common inherited disorders.
In a 2010 New York Times opinion piece, the author wrote: “Dividing the world into those who should feel guilty for owning a pedigreed pooch and those who can feel self-righteous for rescuing a mutt does little to solve the two major challenges domestic dogs face today: careless breeding and an antiquated shelter system.”
Now four years later, little has been done to address any of the problems the author identified – save one. Guilt is still a wonderful feeling to inflict on someone with a purebred dog purchased from a breeder, ethical breeders are still being blamed for an alleged overpopulation problem, and only now with the NAIA’s Shelter Model might we start seeing the beginnings of change in the shelter system. All that said, self righteous mixed breed owners remain self righteous, only now they have found validity and purpose in owning their “rescue dogs” that goes beyond companionship (which always seemed a good enough reason to me).
Enter AKC performance events. Stacey Campbell, a San Francisco dog trainer heading to Westminster with Roo! a high-energy husky mix she adopted from an animal shelter, said, “Wow, this is a really talented mixed breed that didn’t come from a fancy breeder.”
For those owners who found that companionship wasn’t enough, there’s a new “purpose” in town for their mutts: AKC performance events – action that an “every dog” can enjoy without its owner spending a fortune on a purebred dog (and without the stigma!)
It’s a reasonable question to ask, so I’ll ask it. So what if a mutt participates at an AKC show, who does it hurt?
Let’s turn the question around. Who gains from mixed breeds competing at an AKC event? Certainly the AKC realizes revenue from additional fees. Mixed breed dogs gain by having something they can do with their owners, and the owners gain not only by be able to compete with their dogs (and at Westminster!), but by earning an AKC title they got with their loveable mutt. “Purpose bred, my eye,” says “Missy,” an acquaintance of mine who owns a mixed breed dog. She’s won the canine lottery, as far as she’s concerned. She can do what dog fanciers do most weekends – compete. And furthermore, she’s advised me, she will never buy a purebred dog because she doesn’t see the point.
To drive home her message, she sent me the link to a newspaper article about agility at Westminster which read, in part, “The first mixed-breed dog chosen to perform in the agility demonstration is Alfie, a poodle/terrier mix from New Jersey whose owner bought him discounted at a mall pet store. Owner Irene Palmerini told the Associated Press she paid $99 for Alfie. She started her new pet on an agility course for the best reason — because the little dog was bouncing off walls and needed lots of exercise. Alfie — the politically incorrect, deeply discounted pet store mutt – now becomes a revolutionary symbol.”
This isn’t what we were told when the powers-that-be instituted the rule change about mixed breeds at AKC events. The thinking, they told us, was that fanciers would be given a perfect opportunity to explain to mixed breed owners the virtues of predictability and inheritance in purebred dogs. The thinking, they told us, was that by exposing mixed breed owners to purebred dogs at dog shows, these folks would want their next dog to be one of those purebred dogs.
“Missy” evidently failed to get this memo.
And what do purebred dogs and their owners get out of having mixed breeds at AKC shows?
I don’t know. My entry fees haven’t gone down. I don’t feel compelled to buy a mixed breed dog. I don’t sleep better at night, nor are my teeth brighter. As far as I can tell, any advantage to me at all isn’t as a purebred dog owner, but as a dog lover. When any dog bonds with his or her owner through any means, including working together in agility or obedience, it’s a good thing. It really is.
But couldn’t the same thing be accomplished under the auspices of the Mixed Breed Dog Club?
Not everyone is vigilant with their dog, nor does everyone spay and neuter their “just-a-pet” dog. No one is perfect, dogs will be dogs, accidents happen, and therefore, mixed breeds will happen, and probably always will. We can strive for prevention, but I tend to see the world as it is, not as a zealous rights activist wishes it was.
If, in fact, the battle with the animal rights movement ultimately morphs into an attack on all dog ownership, I will be blessed with perfect hindsight and view the AKC as brilliant in its thinking. There are moments, however, when I wonder just whose side it’s on. Mixed breeds have a nose under the tent, as they say. Will it be enough?