When did Overweight Labs Become the New Normal?
Last week we posted a provocative article regarding what we viewed as overweight Labradors representing the breed in the Westminster Dog Show. We have gotten lots of feedback on the post, from Veterinarians and Lab owners supporting our view and some folks, mostly breeders and show dog owners, telling us how wrong we are.
Given the firestorm and strong feelings on both sides, we decided to take a step back and look at what the real issue is – not whether those particular dogs are overweight or not, but what has happened to the AKC Standard for Labradors and is it healthy for the dogs. And let’s be clear, it’s not just Labs who are impacted by a drift from the standard, other breeds are as well (i.e. German Shepherds, Bulldogs and Sussex Spaniels just to name a few.)
Labrador Retriever Standard
The Labrador Standard as it exists today was updated and approved by the The Labrador Retriever Club of America in 1994. There is only one standard in use by the AKC and The Labrador Retriever Club and this is the standard used to judge the entrants at Westminster. Contrary to some of the comments we received regarding our post, there is no ‘English’ Standard or ‘American’ Standard – there is one Labrador Standard. Yes, admittedly, there’s controversy over this and advocates on either side state there should be different standards for the different types. Maybe so, but as of now, there is only one breed and one standard.
We spent the weekend looking back at Labrador Champions over the years. Since a Lab has never won at Westminster, we looked at Best of Breed, Best in Show (BIS) and Best of Opposite Sex (BOS) Champions at Westminster and other shows around the country. There are many great Labradors throughout the years, and several that are considered foundation dogs because of the success of their progeny in both the show ring and the field. One of them is Champion Shamrock Acres Light Brigade, born in 1964 and known as Briggs. He sired 94 champions, making him the Top Sire in the breed. His personal record was twelve Best in Show, 45 Group Firsts, 30 Group Placements. It would be hard to argue that this is not a fine specimen of a Labrador. Here’s a photo of Briggs (on the left) in his prime alongside the Westminster 2014 Breed BOS winner.
The differences in these dogs is obvious and marked. If we are judging to a ‘standard’ then it appears the ‘standard’ has somehow skewed to shorter, stockier and heavier. Our question is why?
Many of our readers breed and show their dogs. Many have decried the state of judging and the rewarding of ‘substantial’ or over-conditioned dogs and it is not just Labs, they are just the most apparent and prevalent example. They tell us they are often instructed to put more weight on their trim and fit dogs and it is the heavier dogs that win the prizes. Competing in dog shows is expensive and you need to win or place in order for your dogs to be in demand for breeding, so you do what you need to do in order to win. In order to win, you look at who won last time and try to emulate that dog and if the dog was heavier, well, you make your dog heavier. Sad but true.
Rewarding Extremes in Dogs and Humans
There are parallels to this phenomena in other competitive arenas. Look at competitive body building. Back in 1950’s, body builder and movie star Steve Reeves was the standard for male competitors. He was big, but look at him compared to the competitive body builders of today. At least he looks fit, functional, and even healthy. Judges started awarding trophies to the bodybuilders that showed up with more and more muscle, and so naturally, more bodybuilders started doing whatever it took to get bigger.
The opposite has occurred in modeling. When Twiggy came on the scene in the 1960’s, people were appalled at her slight frame. Twiggy’s size is the new normal for modeling. It’s the opposite body composition, skinnier and skinnier, but the same problem.
We have allowed the extremes to become the accepted and lost sight of the normal.
Who Cares if the Labrador Show Dog is “Stocky”?
Why are we so concerned about this? What difference does it make if show dogs are overweight or not? The fact of the matter is, we don’t care if these dogs are to the ‘standard’. If that is the standard, however, then the standard is wrong. A dog of that size is overweight.
What truly concerns us is that the health and longevity of these dogs are negatively impacted and, more importantly it sets a bad precedent. The average viewer watching the show views these dogs as the epitome of the breed, and naturally they think that this is how their Lab is supposed to look. So, they feed Buster another scoop of food at dinner or toss him more and more treats in order to pack on a few more pounds, or they just deny it when their vet says their dog should lose a few pounds thinking that Buster looks like the dog in the dog show.
Pet obesity is a REAL problem in this country and denying it or excusing it by saying that an overweight dog meets the standard is just perpetuating the myth that Labs are supposed to look like that. They aren’t. They didn’t in the past and there is no sound or sane reason that they should now, just as there is no sound or sane reason that body builders should look like that guy on the right.
According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, 53% of dogs in this country are overweight. For Labs, it is even worse with an estimated 60% being overweight. People are literally killing their dogs by feeding them too much. A lean dog lives up to two years longer than an overweight dog. A lean dog is less susceptible to a multitude of orthopedic issues brought on by carrying extra weight. A lean dog is also less susceptible to weight related health concerns such as heart disease, some forms of cancer, hypertension, respiratory problems, and kidney disease.
Humans can make their own decisions about what they do with their bodies. If they want to starve themselves to be thin, or eat too much and be overweight or obese, or pump themselves full of steroids to look like an over-stuffed sausage, that is their choice. But dogs don’t make these choices. They rely on the human and it is incumbent upon us to feed them the proper amount of a healthy and nutritious diet, to keep them fit, trim and in shape so they can have a long and active life. Pets can’t change the trend toward obesity, only their owners can.
Whether you are a breeder or just a Lab owner as we are, don’t be deluded by the appearance of these show dogs. That is NOT how a healthy Lab looks. That’s how an over-conditioned, beauty pageant dog looks. A healthy Lab looks like what the AKC Labrador Standard says: “LABRADOR RETRIEVERS SHALL BE SHOWN IN WORKING CONDITION, WELL-MUSCLED AND WITHOUT EXCESS FAT”.
Or they look like this Dual Champion that is actually pictured in the AKC Labrador Standard Booklet.
Debating whether or not the 2014 Westminister Labs are to the standard or not isn’t the point. Every Lab owner, in fact every dog owner, should do everything in their power to make sure their dogs are the healthiest they can be.
We certainly don’t have any illusions on impacting a change to the judging and breeding practices employed by the current dog show industry. Although seeing the Labrador entrants resemble the functional and athletic looking winners of the past would set the right precedent.
In the meantime, regular Lab owners should enjoy the dog shows for what they are and not as an example of what our Labs should look like.