Editor’s note: Crystal Miller-Spiegel has a Master of Science degree from the Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. She is a policy analyst for the American Anti-Vivisection Society and is the author of numerous papers, articles and reports on animal welfare issues. The opinion expressed here is her own.

Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel: Soledad O'Brien and a vet with a Bulldog

An April segment of HBO’s Real Sports, aptly titled “Unnatural Selection,” focused on the inhumanity of show dog breeding. The widely discussed segment was initially available only to subscribers, but clips have been popping up on dog-related sites across the Internet since it aired.

The HBO segment highlighted one breed in particular, the Bulldog, and described the various physical features that have been altered by selective breeding to fit the American Kennel Club’s “breed standard.” In essence, some Bulldogs struggle to breathe and exercise because of artificial selection through breeding to meet the standard. The “desired” traits of an enlarged, foreshortened skull and an undershot jaw are so unnatural that they can become lethal. In fact, Real Sports reported that Bulldogs are not usually capable of natural reproduction. Females are often artificially inseminated because the dogs might overexert themselves when mating, and puppies are usually removed via cesarean section for improved survival and because the size of their heads often makes natural delivery impossible.

Below is a short clip that HBO posted. More coverage of the show is available here.


Real Sports highlighted the debilitating effects of selective breeding on other AKC breeds as well, such as the German Shepherd, which suffers from more than 50 inherited diseases, including hip dysplasia. The most saddening footage featured a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel screaming in agony because of syringomyelia, a condition in which affected dogs do not have enough space in their small skulls for their brains. In some dogs, this can result in tremendous pain, and the only cure is surgery to remove portions of the skull and first vertebra. While not all dogs affected by the condition suffer as much as the dog in the HBO clip, it is a serious genetic disease prevalent within the breed. Extreme inbreeding among purebred dogs is also common and is not prohibited by the AKC. In fact, Banana Joe, the Affenpinscher who won Best in Show at the 2013 Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, is the offspring of a father-daughter mating.

Historical and Modern Bulldog split

A High-Profile Dissenter

The HBO segment did highlight the change of heart by one man, Wayne Cavanaugh, who went from being vice president of the AKC to president of the rival United Kennel Club. In his new position, he tries to educate judges and breeders about breeding “for health” and is opposed to inbreeding.

The AKC spokespeople — a digital marketing expert and a veterinarian — who were featured on the HBO show barely deserve mention, as they could not come up with any sound argument for their breed standards and how detrimental they are to animals. They were astonishingly weak as they stayed on message by repeatedly using the phrase “happy and healthy” to describe animals bred to adhere to AKC standards, regardless of whether the interviewer’s question was about Bulldogs who can’t breathe, Pekingese who need to sit on ice packs at indoor shows or the kind of father-daughter inbreeding that is apparently necessary to produce a Westminster champion.

While I appreciate Cavanaugh’s willingness to walk away from practices that he opposed — and HBO’s willingness to feature this important topic on a sports program — the show fell short in describing how to effect change. But perhaps that task falls to those of us who watched it.

In recent years, I have tuned out issues related to dog breeding and instead focused on the promotion of adoption, spaying and neutering and avoiding puppy mills where dogs are kept in deplorable conditions for large-scale pet breeding. I ignore televised dog shows and am largely unfamiliar with dog breeds. Many dog lovers like myself tend to live in this more mundane world that is detached from the high-stakes arena of show dogs.

The Real Sports segment, however, shows just what the cost is in terms of tragically unhealthy purebred animals who not only populate the show arenas but also wind up in average pet-loving homes. It also shows how the issue might be worthy of more attention.

From my perspective, it’s important not to get caught up in defensive positions. Anyone who loves dogs — and that includes mutt owners and breed fanciers alike — would have to be concerned about the issues the segment raises. It’s time for breeders, owners, handlers, judges, veterinarians and AKC officials to question what the breed standards are driving them to produce. It may also be time for the general public to think about what it is they are falling in love with when they seek out a particular animal. Can a Bulldog, Pekingese or Cavalier King Charles Spaniel bred to meet healthier standards still be a great, cute and loving companion without some of the freakishly exaggerated features that AKC standards, dog shows and judges are rewarding? And regardless of what kind of dog they are adopting, pet owners should make sure they are fully informed about any health concerns they may face with a potential new pet.

The suffering is obvious. It’s time for dog lovers everywhere to wake up and stop being complicit in breeding dogs to death.