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Unreal story –
The BBC bites dogs

PEDIGREE DOGS were the targets in a ‘hard-hitting expose’ of bad breeding practices in an investigative TV programme screened earlier this week.

The item was a 10-minute segment in BBC1’s ‘Real Story’ programme, broadcast on Monday, June 14th in which reporter Morland Sanders focussed on health problems in pedigree dogs, largely concentrating on Bulldogs and Dachshunds.

Vet Emma Milne, previously seen on the now-defunct programme Vets In Practice, was on hand to explain about the hereditary genetical defects suffered by "many pedigree dogs".

The TV cameras followed top Bulldog breeder Robin Searle from Doncaster, South Yorkshire as he and one of his young dogs took part in this year’s Crufts. The segment was intercut with clips of Emma Milne explaining that Bulldogs have been so extremely bred over the year as to become "mutants" that cannot breathe properly, the breed is genetically ill and that all such dogs should be outlawed. Ms Milne said: "Modern bulldogs can’t run, they can’t breathe, they can’t give birth. They have enormous problems with too much soft tissue in their mouth and it adds up to a dog that is struggling for air all its life".

Searle’s young dog had to be withdrawn from the Crufts ring because he was having a stress attack, causing him to pant uncontrollably for several minutes. However, he was shown to be running around quite happily at Searle’s home afterwards.

The programme explained that the Bulldog is on a hit-list of pedigree breeds that the Council of Europe wants to see banned in their current form under their Convention of Pet Animals: "Other UK favourites, like the Pekingese, St. Bernard and English Cocker Spaniel, are all down for what the Council terms ‘revised breeding policies’."

Robin Searle was quoted as saying: "I don’t know how they can tell me how to get rid of this breed, I wouldn’t tell them to get rid of the German Shepherd. What they want is some sort of Euro-dog".

The narration added that the Council of Europe’s recommendations may struggle to make it into the UK, as Ben Bradshaw, the DEFRA Minister, says he won’t be banning the bulldog and will work with the Kennel Club to improve breeding practices by breeders.

The programme was obviously slanted in such a way as to show the worst possible aspects of bad breeding and health difficulties with pedigree dogs, showing one owner’s Bulldog that had experienced a whole raft of problems, the latest of which was cherry eye, a condition which vet Peter Bedford described as having been inadvertently bred in with other selected traits, and which would now result in the dog having surgery to correct the fault.

Problems

Dachshunds were featured with emphasis placed on the problems that these short-legged, long backed dogs can suffer. Emma Milne likened them to a bridge with a long span but only short supports, placing an intolerable strain on the span, stating that she treated many Dachshunds with spinal problems caused in the same way.

One breeder was shown to be moved to tears when she related how one of Dachshunds was found collapsed in the garden having obviously injured her back in some way and being paralysed as a result, which meant that she had to be put to sleep.

Although the programme was explaining what could happen, far too little emphasis was placed on the many strides forward made to eradicate hereditary defects by the Kennel Club’s health screening programmes in conjunction with the various Breed Councils. Jeff Sampson, the KC’s Genetics Co-ordinator explained about the health screening programmes and pointed out that last year the Bulldog breed standard was amended in agreement with the Bulldog Breed Council and that all the amendments were health-based, to improve the welfare of the dog itself.

Crufts judge Liz Stannard, meanwhile, attempted to convey to reporter Sanders why people choose pedigree dogs, but suffered somewhat in the editing suite, by apparently likening it to Sanders’ hypothetical preference to go out with a good looking girl as opposed to an ordinary looking girl.

All told, the segment portrayed a very bleak picture of pedigree dogs and the pedigree dog fraternity, with much store being made by Emma Milne of the physical difficulties of the chosen breeds and the need for their breeding to be severely regulated. The KC’s own efforts to improve the welfare of breeds was largely glossed over in favour of the old televisual cliché of an uncaring elite – in this case dog breeders – who couldn’t care less what damage their actions in pursuit of leisure caused. And Milne’s final comment for owners seeking a healthy dog was predictable – "Get a Mongrel."

As a story it worked. As a portrayal of the facts, it was unreal.

AFTERWORD

Robin Searle spoke to OUR DOGS on Tuesday of this week, the day after the programme was broadcast. "You could say I’m rather disappointed," said Searle. "To start with they had the programme slanted to a vet who is a very young lady and who can’t have treated many Bulldogs in her time.

"They spent two hours filming me at Crufts – I even had to shove them aside to get into the ring. It was unfortunate that they showed my dog getting stressed at what was, after all, only his second show. He certainly wasn’t stressed a few days later when they spent one and half hours filming me, with me answering countless questions, none of which made it into the programme"

Searle was of the opinion that the KC should complain about the programme being so anti-pedigree. "Mind you, they don’t seem to sponsor pedigree dogs these days – everything in their literature says ‘dogs’," he added.

"The Bulldog Breed Council with help from the KC, have an annual health scheme for all breeding stock – a kind voluntary MOT, paid for by the Breed Council. We provide Bulldog breeders with a strict contract for the sale of puppies and this safeguards purchaser and breeder for any veterinary treatment the dog has, any faults it may encounter. To suggest that breeders don’t care is a very serious matter."

The programme’s producer Sharon Keatley denied that the segment was biased against pedigree dogs and breeders. "It was constructed in such a way as to present both sides of the argument," she said, admitting that it was designed "to be controversial and raise an issue for the public."

Positive

The KC issued a statement decrying the way their help to the programme makers had been largely ignored or sidelined, and the positive aspects of breeding and health screening overlooked. KC Secretary Caroline Kisko said: "The Kennel Club has been working hard to resolve problems in the very small number of breeds with inherited conditions. Over the past few years we have worked closely with the Bulldog breed clubs with regard to the health and welfare of the Bulldog. Following a meeting with representatives from the Bulldog Breed Council in November 2002, a number of changes to the wording of the Breed Standard were put forward and agreed by the Kennel Club, all of which aim to ensure the breeding of healthy dogs.

"When the Kennel Club was approached by the BBC prior to Crufts expressing an interest in producing a programme on the European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals, the Press Office sent the producer extensive information regarding this work.

"Relevant people were put forward for interview and a Crufts Press Office representative was with the crew while they filmed at the Show. The BBC interviewed Ben Bradshaw, the Animal Welfare Minister, who said that the government was happy with the way that the Kennel Club was working with breed enthusiasts and therefore had no intention of signing up to the convention." (This segment was not broadcast in the final edit of the programme).

Emma Milne came in for particular criticism from the KC. Kisko added:

"In the programme Emma Milne made huge assumptions and generalisations on the health of pedigree dogs, which were not based on fact. The KC Health Schemes and genetic research can give far greater confidence in the health of pedigrees but none of this was taken into account on the programme. The Kennel Club had sent Ms Milne all the information on the work of the breed clubs to date and in addition, Ms Milne has been invited into the Kennel Club on a number of occasions to discuss the facts but she has refused.

"It is disappointing that the BBC ignored the opportunity to promote all the hard work which the Bulldog and other breeds are carrying out to improve the health and welfare of their breed and chose instead to give a hugely biased and ill informed view of pedigree dogs in general."

Emma Milne hit back at the KC’s comments, telling OUR DOGS: "The BBC already had the programme underway. They then approached me and asked me to go to Crufts to interview various breeders, because they were aware of my interest in this subject.

"As to the KC saying they have invited me to meet with them, the fact is that they asked me once about three years ago to go to the KC and sent me leaflets on Hip Dysplasia. Since then I haven’t been invited.

"I did actually say in the programme that health schemes are run, but I feel they don’t go far enough. I would like to see health schemes and screening for breeds made compulsory."

Milne explained that she was not slating ALL dog breeders, as she "knew some very good breeders", but wanted the one-time breeders to be aware of what they needed to do to breed carefully, and that there should be better education provided for purchasers of pedigree dogs about the conditions that can affect certain breeds.

"There’s a general misconception that being a pedigree means being a healthy animal," said Milne. "Plenty of breeders I come across do health schemes, but lot of people get registered dogs and then think ‘oh, I’ll have a litter,’ and they have no idea what’s required. It often one-time breeders who cause the problems."

She added that she might have come over as very anti-pedigree due to the way the programme was edited. "I had no editorial control over the programme. They did a massive amount of filming and what’s broadcast then comes over as a generalisation. I know there are lots of good breeders out there. I just want the bad breeders to be isolated."

Milne added that she was aware that being a person in the public eye that much could be gained by working with the KC and that she would be pleased if they would contact her again.

Finally, Milne attempted to clarify her comments about mongrels being healthier than pedigrees. "I have to say that I do see mongrels with inherited problems," she said, "But these invariably have a close and very strong genetic link to pedigrees in their recent breeding history. However, genuine, nth generation mongrels, the real Heinz 57 dogs, are so much healthier and I tend to only see them for vaccinations, or injuries caused whilst out walking, never for genetical defects. Genetic law says they are more robust and that’s my complete personal experience in eight years in practice as a vet. So for the KC to say that greater genetic problems in pedigrees than mongrels is not based on fact is rubbish."