I just finished reading a fascinating book called “What’s a Dog For? The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy, and Politics of Man’s Best Friend” by John Homans. Homans examines the dog’s role in human society throughout history. (It’s one of those books I had to read with a highlighter in my hand.) One of the things Homans writes about is how humans have changed dogs through the ages. And that opened up a big can of worms in my head, where the soil is fertile.
I’m already a fence-sitter about breeding, and whether or not there is such a thing as a ‘responsible breeder’ when 4 million animals are dying in U.S. shelters every year. Something about this book got me thinking about breeding in a wholly different (and harsh) light. (Dog breeders may want to click out of here about now, because you may find the following deeply offensive.)
Out of all the animals that humans have domesticated, only one has been genetically altered to produce over 600 (registered) variations. One animal, molded by human hands and whims as though it were a piece of clay.
Left to their own devices, a wild canine is a wild canine. A wolf is a wolf, is a wolf. Although size and color vary, they all look and act pretty much alike. The same goes for other wild canids, such as foxes, dingoes and coyotes.
The domestic dog is another story altogether. How is it possible that Irish Wolfhounds, Welsh Corgis, Pugs and Poodles and 596 other registered dog breeds have all descended from wolves? The answer is through selective breeding, or canine eugenics, if you will.
Eugenics (at least as it relates to humans) advocates the improvement of hereditary traits through the promotion of higher reproduction of more desired people and traits. I think that’s a pretty good summary of dog breeding, too. Dogs are selected by their desired traits, both physical and behavioral, and mated to produce (hopefully) superior offspring.
Through selective breeding, humans have engineered dogs for all sorts of tasks; others just for a specific appearance; others for a specific temperament.
But it’s sort of an exercise in hubris, if you think about it – the way humans have molded dogs to their desires. And in a lot of cases, it’s gone really, really, wrong.
It’s not to say that there aren’t a lot of remarkable breeds out there as a result of all that genetic monkeying. But it hasn’t been that great for the dogs. Genetic inbreeding due to lack of diversity in many purebred dogs has been an absolute disaster.
The Cavalier King Charles Spaniel was bred to have a small round head, to neotenize her appearance and make her more adorable. But shaping the Cavalier has caused a widespread instance of Syringomyelia. (SM) is a disorder of the brain and spinal cord, (the skull is too small for the brain) which may cause severe head and neck pain and possible paralysis for the breed.
Pugs have suffered a similar fate with their neotenized pushed in faces and bug eyes — changes which have made the breed susceptible to a myriad of eye problems and eventual blindness.
Perhaps it’s we who are blind. They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder – and every breed has its enthusiasts. There will always be people who want purebreds, though that moniker itself is a little laughable. Each breed got their start by mixing a multitude of others, selecting for specific traits – making them perhaps the biggest mutts ever.
Lately, I’ve been wondering what ever gave humans the idea that they could, or should, be dog shapers at all. What is our moral imperative? How can we as animal guardians, in good conscience, endorse the continued practice of breeding when the animals being born suffer imperfections as a result of our interference?
What is a dog for? That’s easy.