Looking for a New Pet? Avoid These Breeding Tragedies

Story at-a-glance

  • Dr. Becker attended a recent United Kennel Club Premier show in Michigan and sat down for a fascinating discussion with Wayne Cavanaugh, president of the UKC. Thanks to the efforts of Mr. Cavanaugh, UKC shows have evolved very differently than traditional dog shows. They feature several competitive events like dock diving and lure coursing, and all dogs are welcome to participate. The show ring is the only activity reserved for purebred dogs.
  • Dr. Becker and Mr. Cavanaugh agree that many dog breed standards are suffering from extreme exaggeration of certain physical characteristics. The arching backs of today’s German Shepherd Dogs and the inverted muzzles of Pugs are two examples. Neither of these breeds, nor several others, have benefitted from these exaggerations. Many GSDs can barely walk, and many Pugs can barely breathe.
  • Registration papers, whether from the AKC, the UKC or another registry, do not guarantee the health of a dog. This is a fact too many dog owners overlook. In today’s world of puppy mills and online puppy storefronts, a “papered” dog means nothing in terms of how the animal was bred, it’s health, talents, or temperament.
  • Drastic narrowing of the canine gene pool has created generations of sick, debilitated purebred dogs. Golden Retrievers are a heartbreaking example. Since the inception of the breed, only a handful of sires have been bred. This in large part has contributed to the astronomical rates of cancer in this breed, who are now often referred to as “cancer retrievers,” or “golden tumor dogs.”
  • If people understood more about where their pet store or online puppy really came from – what conditions it was bred in – we could put a quick end to the factory farming of puppies. A good rule of thumb: if you can’t meet the parents, don’t buy the puppy. That is the best way to stop supporting the monstrous business of puppy mills.

By Dr. Becker

Today, I’m attending the United Kennel Club’s Premier show in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and I have a very special guest I’m interviewing. It’s Mr. Wayne Cavanaugh, president of the UKC, and I have so many questions for him!

I’ve been to AKC (American Kennel Club) events, but this is my first UKC event. As I drove in, a saw several amazing different dog breeds, all sniffing each other’s butts, pooping on the grass and having a grand old time! I also saw a few games of Frisbee going on, some practice sessions in the dock-diving tank, and a Dalmatian completing a lure coursing event.

Wayne added there were also English Cocker Spaniel and King Charles Cavalier lure coursing events going on as well.

I’ve really never seen anything like this! It’s like a crazy party with all kinds of dogs doing all kinds of activities. This was exactly Wayne’s original vision for the Premier show. As he explains it, one night he simply woke up with the concept in his head. He said to himself, “I want real dogs for real people.”

Wayne wanted dogs to be able to do stuff. He said he thought it would be a great way to get dog owners, trainers and handlers interested in doing events to test the dogs’ conformation while also showcasing their health, trainability and temperament in performance events. So that’s what the Premier is about – it’s a “Woodstock for dogs,” according to Wayne.

What makes Premier unique as a dog show is that rather than just walking dogs around in a circle, there are performance events. It’s not that dog “beauty pageants” are bad, it’s just that it’s not possible to test the resiliency of a dog’s hips, how well he runs or does the job he was bred to do by simply walking him around in a circle.

Wayne's Vision: Changing the Face of Dog Shows

I asked Wayne how he became president of the UKC (he has held the position for 13 years). He replied that he worked for the AKC for six years and was also involved with the Animal Planet. He started working for Animal Planet full time in his role as executive producer, writer and technical consultant for the Breed All About It feature. He worked from home, and his wife got fed up with the arrangement!

Wayne got a call that the UKC needed a president. He visited Kalamazoo and fell in love with the area. And he thought to himself, “This is an opportunity to shape a registry,” which had long been a dream of his. He wanted to make some changes to the industry. He wanted to change the overall concept of what the UKC looks for in a dog.

His vision was for dog shows full of healthy, happy dogs that did more than just look good walking in a circle. He envisioned them competing on the same day in events like dock jumping, agility, rally obedience, lure coursing, weight pull, nose work, and barn hunts, as a way to test dogs’ instincts, trainability and temperament – all off lead.

Most of this is foreign to dog shows. And Wayne wanted the dogs to come into the ring as well, just as they do in traditional shows. His idea was to have UKC shows test dogs in a variety of areas, and also make them fun events.

Given the extreme formality of AKC dog shows, I asked Wayne what kind of backlash he received for his unorthodox ideas for the UKC.

Wayne replied that while he has the utmost respect for the way the AKC runs their dog shows, he found the events to be too limiting for the majority of the dog world that isn’t all that serious about competing at a very high level. He wanted to run events that regular people would feel comfortable attending.

Wayne’s concept really took off, and these days the UKC has events all over the country, in Japan, and even recently in Hungary.

Breed Standards Enter the Realm of Extreme Exaggeration

I asked Wayne to talk about dog breed standards and how, over the last 50 or 100 years, our ideas about what “healthy” means have become quite skewed. Wayne responded that he thinks we’re seeing the result of our world of exaggeration. The more exaggerated something is, the better. In dog shows, the evolution was quite slow and subtle – it grew in increments. For example, in the case of brachycephalic breeds with short muzzles, the muzzles had to get shorter. And shorter again.

According to Wayne, most breeders are very well-intentioned people who are so close to the situation they don’t notice the incremental changes that ultimately destroy their dogs’ lives.

The exaggerated look of many breeds also affects their performance. Canine events that involve running, pulling weights, agility trials, dock jumping, rally obedience, terrier racing, and so forth, require that the animals have a sufficient muzzle and nostrils. They need to be able to breathe normally to compete. They need to have four working legs, a strong heart, and good hips.

Wayne says his club loves the formal health testing they do. He believes it’s absolutely essential, along with temperament testing. They want to promote well-rounded, whole dogs. Wayne and I agree that it’s also essential to do DNA testing.

People come up to Wayne at the UKC shows and talk about their dog being a show champion and also a lure coursing champion, or a field champion and a weight-pull champion. And he thinks, “Yes! That’s what we’re all about.”

Wayne explained that the previous night, the dog who took second in the gun dog group was one of the highest-awarded retrievers in history in all three registries. He says his goal is to see that type of dog win in a show ring, with a show judge, against show dogs. It pulls it all together – health, temperament, performance, conformation, and looks.

What Registration Papers DON'T Tell You About a Dog

Next, I asked Wayne to talk about how we’ve reached the point where national organizations like the AKC are registering puppies bred in puppy mills or by other types of contemptible commercial breeders. People who buy these puppies assume they are getting healthy animals because they have papers, but in many cases, nothing could be further from the truth.

Wayne replied that his biggest concern about registration papers, whether they are from the AKC, the UKC, or another registry, is they guarantee absolutely nothing. All a UKC registration guarantees is the dog will be allowed to compete in UKC events. It’s a ticket to compete in events and allows the UKC to keep track of that information.

Wayne and I agree it’s difficult to get it across to the general public that buying a puppy from a pet store or online is a really bad idea. A terrible cycle exists wherein dogs go from puppy mills to distribution centers to pet shops to owners, all in eight weeks. There’s trauma and stress to the puppies, and who knows where they actually came from and under what conditions? But people fall in love at the pet store and believe the existence of registration papers means the animal is healthy and the cost of their poorly bred dog is justified.

But there’s a simple solution for people who are truly interested in purchasing a healthy pet. Simply insist on meeting the parents. It’s a good, basic standard to go by. If you aren’t able to track down both parents and communicate with their owners, don’t buy the puppy. When you go to meet the mother dog, especially, you’ll be able to see her living conditions. You may be able to meet other dogs related to her. Does she live in the house? Is she part of the family?

This is where UKC registration can come in handy. If you’re able to see, for example, that a parent has a title in lure coursing, dock jumping, dog shows, or some other pursuit, at least you know the owner spends time with his or her dogs. And the dog did earn titles, so it is trainable. It has the health and temperament to get those titles.

Having this information may give a prospective owner a little better idea of the quality of the puppy, although there is still no guarantee the dog was bred for the right reasons.

The Many Problems Created by Breeding Dogs Only for Looks

I asked Wayne to discuss the narrowing canine gene pool and the idea that there’s only one way a dog should look, and any deviations are unacceptable.

He replied that these days, the only intact dogs are show dogs with show titles – not functional titles like obedience or agility. These dogs “look right.” They also look very similar.

Wayne explained there’s a desirable breed similarity that helps to identify what kind of dog you’re dealing with, and what types of behavior to expect.

The problem arises when dogs are bred identically strictly for show purposes. In contrast, dogs bred for obedience, agility and other talents, as well as for looks, are more balanced and will make better companions and pets.

One horrible example of breeding exclusively for a certain look is what has happened to German Shepherd Dogs in the last 10 years. Today’s GSDs are bred with a sloped back and lower neck, and the result is a grotesque perversion of what was once an animal built to function normally.

Fortunately, Wayne has rewritten the GSD standard and is retraining judges. The standard for the GSD is “straight back with a slope.” But in the world of ever increasing exaggeration, that slope has turned into an arch that is creating spine and hip problems in these beautiful dogs. What the UKC is doing is re-emphasizing the standard and the need for a “straight back.” They are instructing the judges that, “If these dogs are exaggerated to this degree, you can excuse them from the ring.” The UKC also requires judges to attend seminars where footage is shown of the suffering these dogs endure. The judges leave nauseated and with a better understanding of how these small, incremental exaggerations can destroy a dog’s health and quality of life.

The seminar the UKC judges are required to attend is two full days. It covers how to judge anatomy and structure from a functional and historical point of view. Breed standards are also reviewed from the perspective of what was intended when they were written.

The final part of the seminar covers the future of dogs, and it really hits home with the judges. It takes the approach of, “Hey, let’s look at what we’ve done.” If we don’t take a step back and realize how crazy standards have become, we’ll be carrying best in show winners into the ring on ice cushions.

I asked Wayne to explain the genesis of the ice cushions remark. He prefaces the story by saying he personally knows the man who bred and handles the champion dog in question, and there is no bigger dog lover. He is dedicated to the breed. But once again… exaggerations have slowly accumulated. He kept winning at shows, and with each win, the nose of his dogs got a bit shorter. Then one day, the nose was “pushed back,” as it’s called, which means it is inverted. No muzzle. Tiny nostrils. It actually became acceptable to use an ice cushion in the ring to keep the dog cool because he couldn’t pull enough air into his “pushed back” nose.

I think it’s strange to call a dog “beautiful” when it’s not functional. It can’t breathe. And as Wayne points out, so many Pugs must undergo breathing flap surgeries to correct stenotic nares. Maybe we should just let their muzzles be a little bit longer. He sees beautiful Pugs with a fold that doesn’t cover the nostrils, who look very breed-typical, running around at UKC events.

Wayne has received a lot of unfair criticism and been accused of radically changing breed standards, when all he’s trying to do is promote the breeding of functional dogs. He says, “We never want to lose the essence of the breed. We want you to look at it and say, 'Yes, that’s a Pug.'”

Wayne says since the changes in breed appearance are incremental and develop slowly, they can be undone the same way. He says he doesn’t think people realize that 80 percent of the breeds we see today were created in just the last 100 or so years. We’ve been in the midst of a genetic experiment. But it also means that we can change the way a breed looks very quickly – within a couple of generations. And that’s good news, because we’ve really ruined a number of breeds.

Creating New Breeds for All the Right Reasons

Wayne makes the point that many of the breeders of non-functional dogs are very dedicated and are doing most things right. They’re simply too close to the situation to see that a trait they are deliberately breeding for is causing pain. He says these people are not being intentionally cruel – they just have no “artistic distance” from the situation. However, when you’re producing a dog that’s destined to be sick her whole life, it IS cruel.

One of my frustrations as a veterinarian is hearing a breeder say, “It’s a flaw in the line. It can’t be fixed.” So instead, they’re going to perpetuate the flaw in future generations. They’re going to breed the epileptic poodle. They’re going to breed the fourth-generation autoimmune hypothyroid Tibetan Mastiff. Then I hear from breeders that, “All Tibetan Mastiffs are hypothyroid.” Really? Or, “All Dalmatians have high uric acid and will develop bladder stones.”

This just isn’t true. As Wayne explains, “One cross, simple recesses to a pointer, and the flaw is gone.” These crosses must be respectful and responsible of the essence of the breed – its history and function. Breed experts, responsible geneticists and veterinarians can present the cross they want to make. It has to improve health. It can’t be done on a whim. If it works, then it may be used to help future generations of that breed.

Fortunately, there are breeders and breeder organizations that are trying to create functional AND beautiful dogs. Wayne was approached by the International Silken Windhound Society. They wanted to create a smaller sighthound with the coat of the borzoi. They found a long-coated whippet with gorgeous, silky hair. They created the breed by mixing these breeds together with some Sheltie and other influences to make it healthier and more balanced.

So they created a smaller version of a sighthound. It’s not a small borzoi, and it’s not a large whippet with long hair. It’s truly a separate breed. And it can race. Every one has to pass all health tests and be DNA tested before he or she can be recognized by the UKC.

That’s really a very stringent breed standard right there. And in a created breed. Owners of the breed have their dogs compete in a variety of events in addition to racing. The dogs are using their instincts as a desert breed and a sighthound. The breeders want to hone that peripheral vision – they want their dogs to sight-hunt, not scent-hunt.

Wayne believes it’s really amazing what they’ve created. This breed could be very long-lived. It’s a great size. The dogs have a wonderful temperament. They’ve been selected for all the right things. They’re beautiful in the show ring. And they also hang out outside the ring, fetch Frisbees and have a good time.

A Tragic Example of Narrowing the Gene Pool: Golden Retrievers

I asked Wayne if we could return to the subject of the narrowing of breed gene pools, for example, the Golden Retriever.

Wayne replied that this is a particularly sad example. He has a dog show catalogue from an AKC show in 1926, and there were no Golden Retrievers in that show. Golden Retrievers didn’t exist in 1926.

I asked him how one breed could grow so quickly. He explained that in the 1970s there were two very popular sires. He was personally familiar with one of them. The dog had a great temperament – the best temperament he’s ever seen in a dog. He won the group at Westminster. He was bred to a lot, as was the other sire. According to records, one of the sires, Misty Morn’s Sunset, has over 96,000 registered descendants.

That’s REGISTERED descendants, and typically, only half the puppies in a litter get registered. So if we double the number of registered puppies, that’s 180,000 dogs from one sire.

And according to Wayne, there’s also Gold-Rush Charlie, an even more popular sire, who’s responsible for another quarter million puppies. So you have around a half million descendants from those two dogs. And both those sires developed cancer. Both died young.

And while there’s no unequivocal evidence that cancer is an inherited trait, we do know the rate of cancer in the Golden Retriever population is astronomical.

Goldens are a tragic example of one DNA pool being ruined. Dr. Greg Ogilvie calls them the “golden tumor dog.” You’ll never get a better temperament in a dog, but statistically, they’re all going to die of cancer. It’s just overwhelming. And we’ve created this disaster in less than 60 years.

Commercial Breeding of Puppies Is Big Business

Wayne calls it the “popular sire syndrome.” He says he can walk down the street, see a Golden coming his way, and say to the owner, “I’ll bet you I can name your dog and your dog’s pedigree.” Owners are stunned, but Wayne says it’s not that hard to do because there are only a few sires that get used. Less than five percent of males ever get used as sires. That’s a very, very small gene pool.

Because so few purebred dogs are used as sires and dams, it became difficult about 20 years ago to find purebred dogs. In 1992, when limited registration went into effect, the gene pool had shrunk dramatically, and the old school backyard breeders were no longer around.

But a new type of breeder stepped in to fill the void and has become the source for most purebred dogs. This is painful for me, personally, because as a veterinarian, I’m seeing some of these puppies in my practice.

Online purebred puppy sales are big business. These operations have beautiful websites loaded with pictures of meadows, flowers, children playing, etc. What people don’t realize is most of these puppies are being supplied by a national puppy distributor. Buying a puppy online means you could be getting a puppy mill dog or a puppy bred in a chicken coop in someone’s backyard. These dogs are bred and born in horrible conditions.

Yet people buy them online using a credit card or PayPal. They arrange to meet the puppy at the airport, where it has been flown in from somewhere. People seem to like to say, “I got my puppy from Indiana,” or “I got mine from California,” or some other distant location. Somehow the puppy is better if it comes from far away.

Little do these people know the lovely website was a front for a puppy mill.

Wayne says in his opinion, even worse are puppy mills that go through proper commercial breeding channels to get to pet shops. In the early 1990s, right after limited registrations were implemented, there was an explosion of pet distributors. He mentions one in Missouri that is a $10 million dollar, immaculate facility. They have veterinarians on staff, and every puppy receives vaccinations, deworming and grooming. The distributor calls these pups “window-ready.”

But the places where these dogs started life are often a very different story. They only stay at the distributor’s facility for four or five days, sometimes less. How are they getting socialized? These pets come from commercial high-volume breeders. Now, maybe these breeders also have lovely, immaculate facilities… or maybe not.

I think if people really knew where their dogs were coming from, they would stop supporting the factory farming of puppies. Again a good rule of thumb is if you can’t meet the parents, don’t buy the puppy. That is the best way to stop supporting the heinous business of puppy mills.

As Wayne points out, there’s tremendous value in pet owners having a relationship with their dog’s breeder. In those situations, the dog owner can call the breeder’s vet if necessary. They can ask to see the dog’s health certificate. They can find out if the pedigree has championship titles in performance events.

UKC Dog Shows Are Open to Everyone

Wayne wants obedience and performance groups to be represented in the show ring. He says his dream – which is slowly coming to fruition – is that every dog at a UKC show will need a performance title and a health certificate to get in the show ring. Wayne makes the point that in 10 years the organization has grown from 200 entries to 8,000 entries.

He says the UKC shows are a venue for responsible breeders to meet other people who think like them. It’s a place where owners can learn about events their dog might enjoy and be good at. The owner of an English Cocker Spaniel said she’d never even dreamt of lure coursing with her field trial-titled dog.

Wayne says the weight pull event has been controversial, but he wants everyone to know that the UKC does not recognize Most Weight Pulled as an award. Other registries do. “Weight pull is in harness. If the dog doesn’t want to get on a harness or do it, then we don’t want to do it. They only have to pull a multiple of their weight,” he said.

Wayne said a Chihuahua actually qualified earlier in the day pulling weight! And a Toy Poodle won three years ago. At 10 pounds, he pulled a hundred pounds, which is a multiple of his weight. And he was happy doing it. You can’t do that with dogs with bad hips, floating kneecaps, CCL injuries, heart disease, epilepsy, etc. Those dogs should not be trained for weight pull events.

Nose work is another fabulous event at UKC shows. K9 nose work allows dogs to discover their innate sniffing abilities. This activity is purely about what the dog’s instincts tell her to do – what she wants to do. Participation in this type of activity can actually give a dog a “purpose” in life. It can create positive personality changes.

Wayne wants to make it clear that mixed breed shelter dogs, three-legged dogs, spayed and neutered dogs – can all compete in UKC performance events. He wants to see them there. Dogs don’t have to be perfect to compete. They don’t have to be at breed standard. These dogs can’t compete in the show ring, but there are seven other events – which will increase to nine very shortly, and more by next year – in which any dog can participate.

Wayne explained that earlier in the week, a woman brought an AKC-registered Newfoundland to the UKC show. However, the dog was a color that is genetically impossible for a purebred Newfie, so they registered it instead as a cross-bred dog so it could join in the fun and compete at performance events. Wayne asks, “Why wouldn’t you do that? Why wouldn’t you give this dog a life? Otherwise, it can sit on the couch.”

He wants dogs to come out and play, and meet other dogs. One of the best tests the UKC does at their shows is an off-leash test to see how well-mannered and social a dog is. There are many intact dogs at the shows, but everyone is appropriately socialized and able to engage in group play. There are no dog fights. Even dogs known as “vicious breeds” run loose, interact, play and compete at UKC shows.

Criticism of Wayne and His Approach

Wayne has a fresh, new perspective on dog shows that is far removed from the traditional.

He wants to make clear that he may be wrong – his way of doing things may not be the right way. And it’s not the only way. One of his main interests is getting people to do things with their dog, whether it’s participating in UKC shows or some other activity.

People criticize him for being a “purist” because he isn’t anti-breeder or anti-dog show. Some even call him a “dog show snob.” But then on the other hand, he’ll hear himself described as an animal rights activist because he wants German Shepherds to be able to walk. So Wayne is a bit of a lightening rod for criticism in the dog show world as well as the animal welfare world.

But he doesn’t care. The thing is, he loves dogs. I love dogs. We all love dogs. How you define that can be very different from one person to the next. We shouldn’t bash each other on the ways that we love dogs or how we express that love. If our hearts are pure, we will try to improve the health of animals. If people are going to breed dogs, why not help those breeders be wise and educated?

People looking for purebred dogs come to UKC shows. Maybe they want a Collie because they had one as a kid. Maybe they want a herding breed because they have a farm. We can help them find a dog that will herd.

UKC shows also give people the opportunity to find a healthy puppy to add to their family. That is something else Wayne is criticized for, but the bottom line is if people are looking for purebred dogs, we might as well work on breed standards to create the healthiest purebred dogs possible.

What we’ve been doing instead is creating generations of sick, debilitated animals as a result of very poor breeding practices and discrimination.

Wayne believes time will tell how successful the UKC’s efforts are. He believes in the last few years he’s seen evidence of healthier dogs being bred, which is an indication the organization is making some progress. He doesn’t pretend he can solve all the world’s problems, but he can make a little bit of difference.

And so can you. Meet your prospective puppy’s parents. Do something with your dog. Get him moving. Find an event or an activity he likes to do!



By continuing to browse our site you agree to our use of cookies, revised Privacy Policy and Terms of Service.