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4 min read

Are Dog Shows Ethical?


By Leslie Ingraham

Published: 07/29/2021, edited: 08/10/2021

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Published: 7/29/2021 

Dog shows have become the subject of discord recently about whether they’re ethical, with some people insisting they be stopped. The theory that dog shows cause unhealthy inbreeding, flourishing puppy mills, and danger to dogs has been debated in the press, in online blogs, and among animal rights activists. What’s all the fuss about? Let’s find out.

What Are Dog Shows All About, Anyway?

Dog shows first surfaced in England in 1859. The most prominent dog show in the U.K. is the Crufts, but other famous dog shows include two American events: the Westminister Dog Club Show and the National Dog Show. They were developed to identify dogs that most closely adhere to the physical and other attributes that are ideal for their breed. Today, they also provide a resource for people who breed dogs, bringing them together with the best of the best.

A lot of time, money, and effort is invested in training show dogs, and pedigree and breeding are often utmost in the minds of owners and trainers. Dogs who compete in these shows are looked upon as breeding stock, and cannot be spayed or neutered. They receive the best health care possible throughout their lives, and intense ongoing training determines their stance, their facial appearance, and how they should behave among lots of people and other dogs.

An owner’s or handler’s commitment is important in ensuring a dog has a happy life as someone’s pet regardless of whether they earn Best in Show. When that commitment falters, a dog’s quality of life can suffer.

What Are the Problems with Dog Shows?

Animal rights activists have spoken out about the dangers of dog shows for several reasons. These include:

  • As handlers and groomers prepare the dogs for competition, the dogs are sometimes treated badly. Hair-pulling for styling or to position a dog’s head, applying various makeup products, and tight tethering to prevent movement are just a few of the alleged grooming behaviors activists see as cruel. 
  • Dog shows by their nature cull out imperfect samples of a breed in the search for perfection. When a representative of a specific breed is named Best in Show, increased public interest spurs overbreeding by puppy mills, sometimes resulting in inbreeding and unhealthy puppies. This creates an unhealthy canine hierarchy.
  • Dog shows contribute to overpopulation because shelter dogs that could be given a loving home are overlooked by seekers of a status dog. Without dog shows, it’s believed there would be less demand for pedigreed, sometimes unhealthy or unstable breeds.
  • Purebred dogs can be subject to genetic abnormalities that strengthen with inbreeding. Mixed breed dogs have been shown to be healthier overall than their purebred cousins.

What About Those Who Think Dog Shows are a Good Idea?

Dog show lovers see shows as educational and entertaining. Some people are exposed to breeds they’ve never seen before, while others who are thinking about getting a dog can gain an idea of what to look for and may lean toward a breed they never thought of. The National Dog Show, which is held on Thanksgiving morning right after the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, has become a family tradition for many. 

Breeders advocate dog shows because of the information they can collect about the dogs and their value. There are also opportunities for networking and advertising. 

And those who participate in dog shows, especially those whose pup wins, may achieve a certain status in a particular section of society. Dog show planners say that they are improving “survival of the fittest,” but their breeding for certain qualities is not the same as Darwin’s theory of evolution.

What’s the Difference Between a Puppy Mill and a Show Breeder, and Which is Better?

In general, puppy mills are believed to be undesirable for a number of reasons:

  • They overflow the market with puppies that have likely not had tests and evaluations that show they will be good choices as pets.
  • They sometimes sell sick puppies, and may not agree to take them back or have them treated.
  • They breed their males and females without constraint or care about future genetic problems.
  • They sometimes encourage sales of breeds with inbred deformities that prevent them from leading a natural, normal dog life. Take the bulldog who once had a pointy nose, but now is bred to have a flattened nose that causes many breathing difficulties. Due to this deformity, females have to be artificially inseminated as they can't bear the weight of normal breeding, and always need to give birth by C-section.

In contrast, dog show breeders will routinely test their dogs for a variety of genetic and other markers of disease and temperament that will affect their success as family dogs. They usually provide contracts that describe their preventive measures, sometimes requiring that the dog is spayed or neutered for their health if they’re not going to be bred. Most will mandate that if the new owner cannot keep a dog that they be returned to the breeder to ensure ethical consistency.

So What's the Verdict? Are Dog Shows Ethical?

When trying to decide if dog shows are ethical, it may be more effective to consider reform around how they are run and what happens to the dogs that compete, rather than eliminating them entirely. The commercial and social aspects of dog shows can be changed in favor of the dogs’ welfare and the breeds’ future, while celebrating each dog’s unique traits. Understanding how dog shows affect dogs, and how happy show dogs may or may not be could also factor in to your own views of dog shows and the culture surrounding them.

Be sure to visit Wag! for more on these topics and other informative dog wellness articles.

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