The 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea have produced drama beyond the athletic exploits they intended to showcase. Many in the press proved to be suckers for North Korean propaganda, continuing a shameful tradition of U.S. media promoting brutal communist regimes. Shaun White won his third gold in the halfpipe, cementing his status as the greatest snowboarder ever, but still got blasted by online outrage mobs for letting an American flag drag on the snow.
Also, the vicious practices of the Korean dog meat trade have provoked worldwide revulsion, despite attempts by Korean officials to cover them up during the Olympics. Athletes have also brought attention to the issue, with Canadian figure skater Meagan Duhamel making headlines not only for winning gold in the team event but also for having adopting a dog rescued from a puppy-meat farm.
Concurrently, the Westminster Dog Show offered a spectacle at the other end of the canine spectrum, with a parade of pampered pooches of all shapes and sizes — many with hair more styled than an ’80s glam-metal band. None of these dogs will be tortured to death in a superstitious attempt to boost the revitalizing potency of a dog meat stew (oh, those quaint folkways and Eastern alternative medicines). The indignities of a show dog’s life are nothing compared to the suffering on a Korean dog-meat farm, which is itself dwarfed by the human anguish in gulags and torture chambers of North Korea.
But though the scale is small compared to such horrors, the dogs shows of the American Kennel Club and its affiliates do perpetuate real suffering. The AKC has been harming the welfare of dogs in two significant ways. First, by promoting standards that have led to overbreeding dogs, resulting in significant health problems for many breeds. Second, by effectively mandating that dogs be surgically mutilated in order to compete in events.
These misdeeds are minor compared to those of Americans running underground dog-fighting rings, or abusing and abandoning dogs in heartbreaking numbers each year. However, it is because AKC members genuinely love dogs that they need to step up and remedy the harm they are causing. Science has increasingly confirmed what dogs lovers have long known — dogs are emotionally tied to us. They can read our moods, learn our habits, and feel genuine pleasure in our company. They are more emotionally bound to us than any other creatures in existence, and we should love them for who they are, not because of their conformity to a ridiculous aesthetic ideal.
That overbreeding in pursuit of human ideals of canine beauty has caused major health issues for some breeds is indisputable. The loveable bulldog has become the unfortunate poster dog for this phenomenon, with a host of problems linked to the physical extremes that breeders have selected for. Those wrinkled, squashed faces may be cute, but they are not healthy. Many other breeds also struggle with problems arising from inbreeding and breeding for the extreme aesthetic ideals of dog shows. And the examples set in the show ring tend to trickle down to those buying from backyard breeders and pet stores, creating financial incentives for these sellers to breed unhealthy dogs.
A related abuse is the practice, often effectively mandated for show dogs, of surgically mutilating dogs in order to meet an arbitrary breed standard. Miniature Pinschers, for instance, are required to have their tails docked (i.e. chopped off), and their ears are often cropped too in order to make them stand straight up in a point.
There is no real purpose to these mutilations, except to make Mini Pins look more like their distant (and much larger) Doberman Pinscher cousins, who are also surgically altered in order to look fiercer. In addition to the risks and pain that surgical amputations inevitably involve, these AKC-mandated mutilations deprive dogs of important communicative capabilities. Making it harder to read canine body language can put both dogs and humans at risk. It’s impossible to read the tail-wag of a dog without a tail.
While there were some legitimate historical reasons for docking the tails of certain working dogs, these justifications almost never apply today. Consequently, many nations have restricted or banned the practice of docking dogs’ tails and cropping their ears, but these practices are unrestricted in the U.S.
The AKC and its affiliates lack legislative authority, but they could use their status to end, or at least reduce, the needless mutilation of dogs for cosmetic purposes. Rather than penalizing dogs with natural tails and ears, thereby effectively requiring that show dogs be surgically mutilated, they could decree that no dog be penalized for having a natural tail or ears. If they really wished to end this abuse, they could penalize show dogs, except those born before the rule went into effect, for having a docked tail or cropped ears. Breeders could still have their dogs needlessly mutilated, but they would lose points for it in the ring.
If the AKC, the top dog in the American canine world, implemented these changes, they would probably have a significant influence among all breeders. A renewed emphasis on breeding for health, rather than extreme physical characteristics, would likely also percolate through the entire industry.
Unfortunately, while the breeders at the top of the American dog world love their dogs, they also love the unhealthy physical extremes and pedigrees that win shows. And while these are small problems compared to the horrors of the dog-meat industry that shames South Korea, or even the extensive abuse and cruelty many dogs are subjected to in the U.S., they are problems that could be easily addressed.
In this world cruelty will never be eradicated from human hearts, but those who love dogs can and should allow them to be dogs, rather than treating them as living statues that must conform to an extreme aesthetic ideal. This is not among the great issues of our time, but doing what is right in the little things is still important. If we cannot even behave decently to our dogs, who offer so much love and loyalty in return for so little on our part, how can we hope to behave decently to our fellow men and women?