On Tuesday, April 22, 2014, HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel aired a segment called “Unnatural Selection.” According to a teaser for the show on Facebook and the HBO website, this segment was an “examination of the world of competitive dog shows and the sport’s repercussions on dog health, in and outside the show ring.”
Real Sports correspondent Soledad O’Brien, mainly focusing on the Bulldog breed, interviewed former Bulldog owner Mike Sears, veterinary surgeon Nick Trout, UKC President Wayne Cavanaugh, AKC’s Assistant Vice President, Social Media Outreach/Communications Chris Walker and theriogenologist veterinarian Dr. Cindy O’Connor.
The Bulldog was said to be plagued by many health issues, including breathing problems, back and hip problems, overheating, breeding and whelping problems, and the report discussed purebred dog “inbreeding” in general. Soledad O’Brien, in addition to citing past Westminster winners as having health and breeding issues, used language including the words “dysfunctional,” “exaggerated” and “caricatures” when discussing purebred dogs, and called breed standards “the standard of beauty.”
A bias was evident from the start. In his intro to the “Unnatural Selection” segment, Bryant Gumbel said, “Although we refer [to] them as man’s best friend, our treatment of them has left a lot to be desired … With the rising popularity of dog shows in recent years, breeding dogs for looks alone with little or no regard for their health has resulted in some sad and disturbing consequences. Our Soledad O’Brien has the troubling report.”
Much of the interview with Walker and O’Connor, which was taped in November of last year, was cut out of the 15-minute-long segment, and they were first quoted 10 minutes into the 15-minute-long segment. You can watch the AKC’s response with portions of the interview that did not air on HBO.
After the segment aired, much of the dog fancy, including the American Kennel Club and the Bulldog Club of America, commented on the piece.
The AKC said in a statement: “While we were assured a ‘fair and balanced’ story by producer Jason Samuels with topics to include the tradition, growth and evolution of the sport, our 30-minute interview was little more than an agenda-driven interrogation focused entirely on every ridiculous half-truth and bias associated with purebred dogs and the role of breed standards … When HBO tried to put words in our mouths we fought back with the truth, delivered with respect … AKC is going to promote what we do every chance we get. We are going to respond to every unfair claim about breeders, every inaccuracy about purebreds, every criticism of the standard and every falsehood about canine health. And we call to you – our breeders, constituents, dog lovers – to join us in standing up for our work, our mission and our dogs.”
Chris Walker later stated to Dogs in Review Editor-in-Chief Allan Reznik that the AKC is “determined to promote good breeders, educate uninformed breeders and eliminate bad breeders; protect the parent clubs and defend their standards; work on improving the health of all dogs and never put health tests in the ring [and instead] focus on getting all dogs healthy.”
On the Bulldog Club of America website, the BCA states: “The Bulldog Club of America believes [Real Sports] presented an unprofessional view of our breed that lacked journalistic integrity … The show selectively ignored parts of our standard, the health care testing performed by quality breeders who are members of our club, research findings by the veterinary and scientific community and the active work by the AKC and BCA to support the breeding of quality, healthy, purpose-bred dogs.”
Dennis O’Connor, a respected Bulldog breeder, exhibitor and handler, also commented, saying, “After watching the segment on HBO regarding the AKC, dog shows and certain breeds, in particular the Bulldog, I am alarmed at the spin and the constant attack on purebred dogs and responsible breeders. We need a united front now more than ever when dealing with the extremists and activists who would see an end to purebred dogs and shows. Responsible breeders who breed toward the Standard of Excellence will have typical dogs that are healthy and sound. This fallacious argument pushed by extremists that type and health can’t coexist is ludicrous. I would like to thank the AKC and their efforts to stand up for responsible breeders and their respective Parent Clubs. Keep fighting the good fight.”
Dogs in Review’s Editor-in-Chief Allan Reznik says, “Watching the footage of Chris Walker and Dr. Cindy O’Connor that wasn’t used in the segment and hearing the interviewer pull out words like ‘massive’ from the breed standard and take them out of context, it was clear this was not intended to be a balanced debate but simply a series of low blows aimed at the AKC and all breeders. The segment made no distinction between dedicated Breeders of Merit and irresponsible dog producers who simply capitalize on the breed’s popularity with no thought given to health.”
The AKC urges participants in the dog fancy to contact Real Sports by phone, email and social media (find contact information here) to tell them how they feel about the segment.