Dog Breeding as a Social Construct

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Dexter under his favorite blanket

Over the last forty years, we had parrots as our constant companions. After Connie, our Sun Conure suddenly died, we decided to adopt a dog. Partly it was because we did not want to leave a very intelligent, and self-aware being behind. And chances are very good that a parrot would outlive us. Neither my husband nor I have shared our home with a four-legged, self-aware, sentient being in decades. And we knew they were not just things because research into animal intelligence is literally putting to rest the idea that animals are just furniture.

So after we decided to get a dog we also knew that this had to be a smaller “breed.” Why? Our space is not that large, and it made little sense to get a larger animal. Do you ask why I use the quotation marks around the term breed? This comes from all the research I have been doing into this and finding out where this comes. This research also took me back to the show rings in or around Mexico City when I was growing up. My older brother bred Great Danes and took me to show rings from time to time. I was younger and loved the many dogs that were shown. However, there was something that bothered me about these dog shows. I could not put my finger on it until I went down that rabbit hole, which is pregnant with ideology and politics.

I also remember my brother making fun of our beloved miniature poodle. See, Blackie had a white spot on his chest. This is what he proudly called a disqualifying mark in the show ring. At the time I did not understand why. After all, the dog had incredible character, was patient with us children, and quite playful. He also kept me safe from rats (something that poodles are famous since they still have a prey instinct.) Of course, as a child, the concept that all that mattered were conformation standards made little sense. Today, some of them horrifies me and explain why many a breed is in trouble.

The first thing to understand is that most breeds are a product of the 19th century. In fact, they emerged in the latter half of the nineteenth century. They also moved away from how or why we bred dogs for tens of thousands of years. From the time dogs and humans started to co-evolve together, dogs were bred to do a job. Things like companion animals are a more or less recent development, that only the very wealthy could afford. And those dogs were bred to have gentle dispositions and some looks. However, the extreme conformation standards we see today are not good for the animals, or their owners who watch animals suffer, and have vets treat them. In extreme cases, they put them down, because the animals are beyond help.

Nor is this new. Criticism of dog shows goes back to the early years of the hobby. Some of those complaints are familiar to the modern ear, including the animal welfare angle. Some breeders, from early on, saw potential issues with closing stud books. They may seem very prescient indeed. They were right, which could lead to ruination. Indeed, some dog breeds are in a lot of trouble, as we shall see below. It is also ironic that the dog shelter started the same year the dog show did, in 1859. Both are a product of Victorian sensibilities, and to a point the adopt don’t buy goes that far back as well.

When I went to the shows with my brother, he talked with these friends. They talked about business, life, the dog show hobby, and other things. I was a fly on the wall since I was young, and I just sat there and heard the conversations. It is back then that a new conformation standard started to enter the scene for German Shepherds. It was the new fad of a sloping back which these days we are all familiar with. This is no longer the dog of Rin Tin Tin and black and white television.

This led to many arguments between friends and they were spirited. and in the end, some of his friends changed breeds to show. One left the hobby insofar as the ring was concerned. Why? He loved his dogs, and he did not want to raise dogs to this new standard. This is one we are familiar with these days. At the time I did not understand what he meant by hip issues. Nor that they were going to ruin the breed. It meant nothing to me. These days, when I look at the best of show German Shepherd it makes sense. The dog has very little to do with working dogs, and her back and hip geometry made it hard for her to walk. She is hardly alone since this new conformation standard is global.

I understand the heartache and anger from the owner incidentally. She has come face to face with the reaction that many dog lovers outside the hobby are having. It is not just me who came back to dogdom and did a deep dive into this before we decided to adopt. One reason we did that was we wanted a good dog for apartment living and I will have some advice at the end of choosing a dog. It matters little if you want to adopt, or you want to get a dog with papers.

Why does this matter?

As we do more research into the inner life of animals, we are finding that animals are more than just things. Many owners already knew this, but science is confirming this. A dog, or a cat, or a bird, are not just an accessory, or a piece of furniture. This is also changing our understanding of ethics, bio-ethics, and our relationship with nature.

Climate change, and the reality that we are part of nature, is also doing a number with how we see nature and our place in it. In some ways, this is ending a series of values that started with the Victorians. This takes us to animal husbandry in general, and dogs in particular.

Ethics of animal husbandry

For many in our society animals and their interests are still bellow those of humans and animal life is worth less than human life. This is why evacuations and shelters did not include companion animals before Katrina. The fact that many owners chose to stay with their pets marked a change. However, these ideas go all the way back, to the Greeks and Aristotle. Animals were seen as mostly automatons, with maybe simulacra of emotions. Animals were to be used by men for their benefit, and we had no need to concern ourselves about their condition. Which led to practices such as vivisection. That animal screamed in pain should not trouble us.

For Americans, a component of this ideology is the biblical concept that man was granted dominion over creation in the Book of Genesis. This is one reason why we also exploit nature the way we do. After all, God will restore all to its original plan during the thousand years of Jubilee. When it comes to animal husbandry, whether it is cows or dogs. we have been doing things to them by selective breeding. It is partly driven by their utility to us. However, some of this is also changing. And while every cow or dog has been selectively bred, we may have done damage by creating genetic bottlenecks and artificial ideals of beauty.

In farm animals this matters since they are bred to feed humans. However, the yield is no longer the only component. And we are starting to see animal welfare as part of the formula. Yes, cows also have issues with genetics. This has meant legislation that has forced farms to adopt new ways of doing business, for example, California’s laws regarding chicken coups for egg-laying hens. Part of this is happening because we humans are slowly moving away from the idea that animals are objects to be molded to our own desires. We are realizing they are sentient. And as more research is done, humans are also learning their place in the world.

The early studies of Franz Lorenz on birds and imprinting, mostly geese are a landmark. Modern-day research into parrot cognition has led to an understanding that they are as bright as chimps. Corvids use tools as well. Dogs are fairly self-aware, and while perhaps not as intelligent as the others, they still are our oldest companions. We have found that animals have inner lives. We have also learned that animals feel pain, and have feelings. Perhaps not to the extent we do. Or at least not in a way we yet understand, but they do.

This is changing how we relate to animals, and dogs, in particular, have entered the household as members of the family. For many dog owners, they are not just dogs. They are coddled and go everywhere. Some are essential partners for daily life. A few are warriors on the front lines as well. And yes, for some they are still accessories, not unlike the Victorians who treated them as another piece of furniture.

And at this point, we know that many a dog breed, which are mostly fairly recent creations, are in trouble. Why? Kennel organizations should not have any issue with the reason why. The science of genetics is very well understood at this point. Closed stud books have created genetic bottlenecks. Many dogs are bred at the level of first-order relatives. with mothers at times being paired with sons. We are at the point we are because there is a lot of inbreeding. And while there is some is line breeding, as advised by Jay Lush, it’s not sufficient:

A significant advantage of linebreeding over ordinary inbreeding is that, while it also increases homozygosity and prepotency, “the homozygosis produced by linebreeding is more apt to be for desired traits than is the case with undirected inbreeding. Linebreeding tends to separate the breed into distinct families, each closely related to some admired ancestor, between which effective selection can be practiced.”

Don’t miss the significance of this last point. Lush is saying that if there are multiple lines of animals linebred to a common ancestor, the breeder can manage inbreeding by using those groups as a source of animals for outcrossing while still maintaining the strong genetic influence of the ancestor. And because these groups of animals have not been interbreeding, they can be used to produce offspring that will have a lower rather higher inbreeding coefficient, and thus will benefit from hybrid vigor (a reduction in inbreeding depression) as well as a diminished risk of genetic disorders caused by recessive mutations.

There are dangers to linebreeding, one of which is that if too intense it will result in fixation (homozygosity) of undesirable genes. Lush was very clear on the deleterious effects of inbreeding, which he called “inbreeding degeneration”. He advises breeders to avoid all inbreeding that is not necessary for maintaining the relationship on the line bred animal so that the inbreeding intensity remains modest. Indeed, he points out that the gains to be made by linebreeding to a mediocre ancestor might not balance the loss of quality (his “degeneration”) expected to result from inbreeding.

To linebreed successfully to a particular animal, it must have enough offspring so that linebreeding to its own descendants can be avoided. For a dog breeder to be able to do this, it might require keeping around more dogs than one breeder can accommodate, but a group of breeders with common goals can cooperate in breeding towards the same line and using each other’s kennels for the occasional mild outcross.

And this is why we see bottlenecks. We have small populations of certain breeds. The Irish Wolfhound is a good example. So are standard poodles, which suffer from a list of diseases, related to an artificial bottleneck.

Standard Poodles suffer from a long list of autoimmune diseases including immune mediated hemolytic anemia, immune mediated thrombocytopenia, Evan’s syndrome, immune pancytopenia, chronic thyroiditis, temporal-mandibular myositis, and chronic active hepatitis. However, the two most vexing autoimmune disorders are sebaceous adenitis (SA) and Addison’s disease (AD). There has been a general belief that SA and AD entered the breed as a result of extensive inbreeding starting in the middle of the twentieth century that involved a small group of founders that produced show winning offspring. These offspring and their descendants were widely used by Standard Poodle breeders in North America and exported to the UK, Scandinavia, Australia Continental Europe. This artificial midcentury bottleneck (MCB) has created a severe imbalance and probable loss of genetic diversity.

This is not just limited to these dogs, and I wish it was. We are experiencing a slew of other defects in purebred dogs, less so on mutts, or mixed breeds. It makes sense since these are outcrossing, and inserting genetic variability into the stock. From a scientific perspective, this should be very easy to understand in the first half of the 21st century. And we know that these dogs are likely in some level of trouble. Let’s be clear, some breeds are in far more trouble than others. Also, most are a recent creation, of the last 170 years. We used to speak of dog types, the modern concept of the breed is Victorian in origin.

This brings us to brachiocephalic breeds, otherwise known as squashed heads. They are the ones in the most troubled by the way. They are portrayed as adorable and almost look like a baby. And if you have no idea of the issues with these breeds, you may adopt one. They were not this bad even a generation ago. But breeders keep breeding to the standard.

It is the face that leads to the major health issues these dogs have. They can’t take the air very well. They are short of air most of the time. The space in the snout meant for heat exchange is almost gone. This means they overheat very easily, some collapse and die from overheating. All these dogs have similar extreme breed standards, and it has led to very sick dogs. It’s to the point that veterinary associations around the world are starting to issue statements against these breeds. This is the British Veterinary Association. The American Association statement is more general, and asking for the breeding of healthy animals. It is less targeted, but it tackles the issue as well.

It asks for the education of stakeholders. It also asks for the breeding of healthy stock, and even that milder statement was opposed by the American Kennel Club (AKC.) Why? It may be used to target specific breeds or lead to the extinction of breeds. The statement requires the education of both the public and working vets. One solution is a modification of the breed standard, allowing the dogs to have a snout. They once did. It may require outcrossing, and for breeders to stop the dramatic look. It will require judges to stop awarding these extreme dogs, and likely they will not.

A Word about PETA

When speaking with some breeders there is a sense that all this is coming from PETA. They say It is successful propaganda against the AKC from extreme animal rights people. I guess we should look for the Animal Liberation Front types in the statements from veterinary associations. I say this with no sense of irony.

Yes, some of PETA’s positions are radical. Short of humans going extinct, dogs are here to stay as domestic animals. If we go extinct, and canis familiaris survives, they will resume their path under evolution. All breeds as we know them today will disappear. Some will simply die out. The British Bulldog, the Pug, and other broad flat face dogs, for example, will be gone within a decade. Some of them cannot reproduce without human interference. Most need special diets because they cannot eat very well, because of their dentition, let alone byte down on potential pray, let alone chase it down. They already are the definition of a non-viable animal without human interference.

What about others? Some Hound breeds still have some hunting abilities, so they should be ok. Smaller dogs require fewer calories and might scrounge a living by hunting smaller animals, or scavenging. In fact, if you want a good idea of the future of dogs just take a look at street dogs around the world. They are…mutts, with similar coats, trending to fawn or yellow. And after some generations tend to be medium-sized. This idea that PETA has that dogs would be best served in the wild is as romantic as the Noble Savage of the Enlightenment. And as we destroy more of the natural world, less will be there for dogs.

In time dogs may even break into subspecies, not the artificial breed standard. Species that will not be able to produce pups with each other. They will probably also go back to a single heat cycle in the year.

However, as we have found more information on the inner life of animals, we do need a discussion on animal welfare. Kennel clubs most take it seriously that their radical conformation standards are not good for many dogs. They also must listen to the science of genetics. If a breed undergoes an artificial bottleneck, this will lead to serious issues. We can no longer pretend not to understand this. Nor can we pretend that if a dog is crossed out to fix a genetic issue until that blood goes away. This idea of purity of blood is only still acceptable with dogs in polite company.

Where does this come from?

In order to understand some of these issues, it matters where the origin comes. To be blunt, the modern concept of the dog breed is a Victorian idea. It was based on nineteenth-century eugenics. It is still fine to talk about the purity of bloodlines when talking about dogs, but none would do this with humans…outside the far right. This is where ideology, politics and the ideas of race intersect. This is not something that anybody likes to discuss, especially breeders. But we must.

The concept that dogs trace their lines to perfect dogs and have a pedigree is not unlike that of European royalty. Nobles had blue blood in their veins, and so do the dogs. It is also the last respectable remnant of the ideology of race as a defined concept. But there is more, any Kennel society can declare the arrival of a new breed. See the Boston Terrier, for example. Kennel clubs could also modify breed standards. They can also mandate not breeding within first-order relatives. Enforcement of any of this is another matter, as the British are proving with the Boxer. They could even allow judicious cross-breeding to bring some genetic variance. See the example of the American Dalmatian. They were crossed with a Pointer in the 1970s before we had genetic codes mapped. Why? To remove a problem with uric acid. However, the AKC took fifteen generations of these dogs to register them as a pure breed. This is the theory of blood purity that remains with dogs but is far from socially acceptable with humans. Realize, at one point fans of fine dogs also hated the idea that dogs are direct descendants of the wolf. Why? Wolves were seen as shifty dark, far from a noble, animal.

What is at the heart of this as well is prestige and social capital. Breeds are market products, and they are sold with the idea of predictability at heart. In the post-war period having a papered dog was something the middle class wanted. It was one more thing to show their newfound wealth. In the United States breeding dogs and going to the ring was part of this. In the modern era, a star buying a chihuahua and taking it everywhere in her Gucci bag is a status symbol. That dog is an accessory. The same goes for multiple other breeds. And then they end up in the shelters. This is one of the major criticism from that other side of the Victorian age. To be clear, dogs from top breeders will not end there, short of a disaster. But dogs with papers do end up in shelters.

The shelter in its modern form started in London, down the road from the first dog show, in the same year: 1859. It came from a constant problem in Dogdom, and this is overpopulation. It has its roots in the humanitarian traditions that started in the 1820s. They are also in my mind a reflection of a conflict between the emerging middle and upper classes, who could afford to have a show dog, and the working class that kept curs, the old term for mutt. This goes further back than the Victorians since there were dog types only royalty was allowed to keep. We have a working-class dog. In fact, ours is a retired working dog. And like many working dogs, these days they are not pure breeds…they tend to be mutts. Some are purposely bred from different breeds, some show the ability when young.

When we went to adopt Dexter, there were members of the Federal government looking at a few dogs, precisely for that potential. A dog that is attentive wants to play, and has a good prey instinct is a good candidate for the working life. This is what attracted us to Dexter, to begin with. He was very attentive and playful, even if he was itchy as hell. And a dog from the shelter is a solid investment if you need a rescue or detector dog. Why? They are way cheaper than even puppy mill dogs with papers, and many will work for a living once the training period is over. It is also cheaper than importing them from Europe, which agencies now do. Why? American stock cannot provide enough dogs for the specialized jobs. And we must ask why is this happening? Breed standards are part of the problem.

Modern Ideas of the Fancy

Breeders see any critics of the hobby as meddlesome outsiders…or worst, unsophisticated boors who just don’t get it. In general breeders and their critics love dogs. I believe most want what is best for the dogs…well, except puppy mill owners who see dogs as breeding stock, not unlike cows. They treat their chickens just as badly. But top-line breeders love their dogs.

However, they live in a society where animal welfare is becoming something an increasing number of people care about. The same people who a generation ago would have bought a pedigree dog, these days are going to the local shelter and adopt. It’s not just because people are hearing from PETA. We have a lot of media exposes, and some celebrities are adopting dogs at the shelter, and Americans follow the leader in that sense. We do have a pet over-population, so there is something to that. Chiefly, papers are no longer a status symbol.

Some are also coming from media reporting. This has uncovered a few bad apples. Incidentally, all groups of people have bad apples. But the AKC has lax standards in supervising puppy mills and has gotten itself into the business. Partly it’s money, and partly registrations are down. The AKC is seen as out of touch.

The breeders are also buying into an ideology, which states pedigree dogs are old (they are 170 years old at most, at least in the number of breeds we recognize with minute differences from one to the next at times). The concept of the breed is a 19th-century idea. Yes, there have been hounds for more than 170 years, but they were classified more by size or use. Toy companion animals existed before the 19th century. And some, like the Pug, go further back. However, they had a snout. They were also a symbol of wealth since companion dogs were expensive to keep.

Critics of the fancy are not necessarily extreme animal activists. But they are seen and treated that way. And this is not new. Perhaps…we are reaching a point of diminishing returns. Hobbyists are warning that the hobby is in trouble and the answer from the AKC has been to open some events to dogs like Dexter. Of course not any conformation contest, nor would we want it. But things like agility tests and nose trials are, partly as a way to improve the image.

As we fight the rise of eugenics once again, this side corner of the ideology could also see its days in the sun come to an end. As is, some Kennel clubs are slowly moving away from conformation standards as the supreme guide to the perfect dog. We are starting to see both behavior and job tests. One criticism from outsiders is that we have a division between working dogs and show dogs. And it comes from this idea that the perfect form is all that matters. And some specific breed clubs, mostly newer, have ability tests as part of their judging. Insofar as Australian Shepherd dogs there is a clear red line between working lines and show lines. They even broke into two, with the older organization not joining the AKC.

Then there is the business of shelters and humane relocation of animals. Moreover, rescue groups have become very intrusive, raising barriers to pet adoption. In fact, this was a reason we chose the shelter and not rescue groups. I do not need a home visit to be told I am a fit pet parent. And I have to question the motives. I also need to question whether these people have any training in social work.

What should a prospective owner do?

As I wrote above there are questions for you, whether you want to get another dog, or are thinking of getting one for the first time (as was my case after decades) At the end of the day it does come to this:

To AKC or not to AKC, that is the question

Do you want a dog that has AKC papers? Are you thinking of showing an animal? Do you want the prestige of having a pedigree? In that case, you want an AKC papered dog. and I would advise you to stay away from the pet shop. Those dogs come via puppy mills, and at times are very damaged psychologically. It has to do with how they are bred, and a lack of early socialization. I do not care if they come from Petland, which is working openly with the AKC, or not.

Be advised, the AKC is not the only registry in town, though they are the oldest. If you chose a mixed pooch, especially any of the new ones that come from the poodle and something else, there are registries, with the end goal of establishing new breeds. A few, such as the Labradoodle, are also used as working dogs.

If you decide to buy a specific breed, read all you can on it. And I do not just mean the breed standard. Talk to a vet; an honest vet will guide you into what is a good breed choice from the standpoint of. a healthier pet. We did our research, why we discarded a few dogs from that standpoint.

This is no joke. Some breeds are sicker than others. In this respect, buyer beware.

Ask questions. If you want to buy a dog with papers, given the cost, go to the source and try to buy directly from the breeder. If you decide to buy from any breeder and he or she refuses to share genetic information, WALK AWAY Any decent breeder should provide you with both a health guarantee and a genetic screen. Your dog may have, or not, some pre-existing trends just from this, or their breed. Small dogs are known to have collapsing tracheas and luxating patellas, better known as trick knees, for example. Some will develop congestive heart failure or mitral valve disease. Both can be very serious. And to be fair, most breeds will have issues, some more, some less. Like humans, our pets will get older, and in time get old pet (or people) issues.

With a few breeds, this may involve very high rates of cancer. Some problems are so common that syndromes are named after a breed. Just because somebody promises ten ways to Sunday that the dog is healthy, do your research and ask questions. These must include parents, and grandparents. Remember, dogs are bred in a way that allows first degree relations to mate, and while this is now discouraged by some kennel clubs, it’s a good question if this is enforced.

If you buy from a pet store, there are good chances these animals come from puppy mills, and they will have some problems from that environment Try to avoid the pet stores, whatever you do. And they also have the same genetic issues, however, you will not know. So you could be adopting a very sick dog that will die within a few years, sometimes months. You can use the AKC search tool to try to locate the parents yourself. It will help to detect dogs that either has false papers or have genetic issues. However, this registry will not have dogs in other registries.

There are some breeds that you should avoid, mostly because they tend to die young and suffer from among other things, breathing problems. People tend to blame the puppy mills for pugs and pekes, but it is the conformation standard. It is as if we insist on developing dogs that look adorable, that is until you look up how bad this is. And we are to the point where veterinary associations are coming against these dogs. Not because they are not good pets. It is due to the level of suffering we are putting them through due to fantasy conformation standards. They are called extreme, and this is not coming from radical animal welfare activists unless we include vets.

When we were looking for a dog we also did our reading on Teacup breeds at first, as well as Pugs. We decided against both due to the difficulty to take care of these guys medically. The teacups are so small that vets can have problems just starting an IV or finding a tube that will fit down their throat for anesthesia. They also tend to have more bouts of low blood sugar and need feeding more often. They can easily become obese because they need very little food. Pugs are an anatomic nightmare, like all their flat-faced counterparts. They can barely breathe, and at times they need a tracheostomy to survive. Most also will need surgery to make room for air to flow, in their lifetimes.

Labradors tend to have a high rate of cancer, so this is not limited to the small guys. Dalmatians. can have an excess of uric acid, which leads to blockages in their urinary tracks. The list of issues is long. And different breeds have different levels of known genetic defects. However, with Dalmatians, we have work underway to introduce healthier stock. These are some of the issues:

Many diseases in the domestic dog are genetic in origin. Examples are vWD, Collie Eye Anomaly, portosystemic shunt, hemophilia, Scottie Cramp, hip dysplasia, Legg/Calv Perthes, medial patellar luxation, and craniomandibular osteopathy (CMO) — the list is very long.

So far, over five hundred genetic diseases have been identified in purebred dogs, and over a hundred in mixed breeds. They can affect conformation, health (virtually all systems in the body are subject), and temperament. In Scotties alone, there are 36 identified genetic diseases, with similar numbers affecting each of several other terrier breeds.

There is a great deal of scientific research being performed on the identification of the specific causes of genetic diseases. Because some of the diseases exhibited by dogs are also evident in humans — vWD is the most common human inherited blood disease — some benefit could derive from canine research which would be of use in pursuing the human form of the same, or related, diseases.

There is a lesser frequency of genetic issues in mixed dogs, but this does not mean they do not exist. Genetic errors are part of life, but when you have a small genetic pool to draw from, the increase in how often they are seen. We knew that with royal families, who tended to have high incidences of hemophilia, for example. Why is this ok with dogs? How can some people believe the laws of genetics will somehow not affect dogs?

Adopt: This is also fraught with danger, to be brutally honest. However, due to how shelters work, Dexter, our Chihuahua. likely is a mix as well. We are not interested in finding out what other breeds may be in him. We are not breeding him. and he is going to be the end of his genetic line. But chances are good that any dog that you adopt out of the pound or rescue. will have another breed in them. And that is fine. Depending on where, and what time of the year, the number of dogs that are from what we consider to be pure breeds can. range from less than ten percent to upwards of thirty percent.

Genetic testing may be worth doing for particular genes that may affect their medical care, however.

So that Poodle you got at a pound is by mostly conformation standards. Pounds do not use genetic testing. However, some studies have been carried out. And rescue groups get many of their dogs the same way. So while fluffy may look like a Hound, he or she likely has something else in them.

However, no matter how your family member comes home…this is a sentient being. Treat them well. We love them because they bring light to the house. And yes, to paraphrase the title of a book, it’s all creatures under the sun that we may share our lives with. It’s just a different relationship with a cat or a bird.

But to the title…how we classify dog is a social construct. How we relate to them and how we see them is also changing. Time will tell about the future of breeds as a social construct and what we need as working dogs. But in the present, there is a very large debate, and it is not just dogs. Ultimately, it is about us and how we confront the modern world through a 19th-century ideology.

Written by

Historian by training. Former day to day reporter. Sometimes a geek who enjoys a good miniatures game.

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