A very dear uncle recently proclaimed proudly to me that his new Beagle puppy came complete with papers certifying how purely bred it was. He was disappointed to see my luke warm response. My well-meaning uncle clearly loved his little dog, and felt that these papers of pure breeding gave him a sort of assurance that his pet was of fine quality. I so wanted to explain to him the origins and history of the whole spectacle of breeding pure lines of dogs, and to understand what it really means when an expensive pooch comes complete with papers. If you're curious about where your pure breed came from, read on!
NATURE: We know that Charles Darwin discovered that nature has a wonderful way of selecting specific traits that make a species healthier and stronger. For example in cold climates, animals born with thick coats produce more animals with thick coats, and a "thick coat" becomes an established trait that helps these animals thrive in cold climes. Animals that happen to be born without thick coats quickly die off, and hence the trait of a "thin coat" disappears completely.
SCIENCE: Another term used in genetics, that may ring a vague bell is "hybrid vigour". In simple terms, this means that when animals that are completely unrelated to each other mate, the result is that they produce healthier and healthier offspring. When related animals (for example a brother and sister) mate, they produce weaker and unhealthy offspring.
Let us explore how we've interfered with Nature and Science. From the time that humans started domesticating animals, we started deliberately mating dogs that had desirable traits, so that more dogs with those traits would be produced. As our relationship and need for dogs changed over the years, so did the traits we considered "desirable". Here are a couple of examples:
The German Shepherd Dog:
This breed was developed less than 200 years ago in Germany for herding sheep. At the time intelligence, agility, strength and obedience were what defined the best-bred dogs. In contrast to the original requirements of the German Shepherd breed, below are excerpts for the "breed standard" for the German Shepherd by The Kennel Club (UK) today:
"Length measured from point of shoulder to point of buttock, slightly exceeding height at withers. Correct ratio 10 to 9 or 8 and a half. Undersized dogs, stunted growth, high-legged dogs, those too heavy or too light in build, over-loaded fronts, too short overall appearance, any feature detracting from reach or endurance of gait, undesirable. Chest deep (45-48 per cent) of height at shoulder, not too broad, brisket long, well developed."
The Pug is the most extreme example of what are called "brachycephalic" dogs. To quote the Kennel Club (UK): "The head and skull should be relatively large and in proportion to body, round, not apple-headed, with no indentation of skull. The muzzle should be relatively short, blunt, square, not upfaced. Nose black, fairly large with well open nostrils. Wrinkles on forehead clearly defined with exaggeration."
The process of getting the "purest" breed:
Well, if I was a breeder and wanted to breed dogs that would win the most prizes, sell for the most money and hence earn myself the best reputation, what would I do? The very thing which Science and Nature are programmed to NOT do -- keep breeding pure-breed dogs with other pure-breed dogs. What you get is hundreds of generations of Cocker Spaniels mating with Cocker Spaniels -- longer and longer ears; Daschunds mating with other Daschunds -- longer and longer backs, Pugs mating with Pugs -- shorter and shorter snouts. In short, purer and purer breeds!
What are we actually doing to our dogs?
The first thing we are doing is removing the very valuable hybrid vigour that comes from crossbreeding. Think of what in-breeding practices have done to certain human populations that have historically in-bred over generations. Another thing we are doing is selecting for traits with little regard to the actual effect these have on the animals. If a human were born with the small skull size of a Pug such that it experienced a lifetime of breathing issues, a dozen surgeries would be performed to correct these defects. But for the pug we actually desire the defect. The list goes on.
- Chronic ear infections in Cocker Spaniels due to abnormally long ears
- A life-time of skin infections due to excessive wrinkles in the Pug and the Boxer
- Perpetual eye problems due to small skulls and bulging eyes in the Pug and the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
- Arthritis and Hip Dysplasia in fast growing, large breeds like Labradors, Great Danes and Rottweilers
- Anal tumours and Hip Dysplasia due to sloping backs of German Shepherds
- Painful Spondylitis and Paralysis in long-backed dogs like Dachshunds
The purer the breed→ the better its papers, prizes and reputation→ the more in-bred it is. Of course not all pure-breeds are sick or diseased, but several studies conducted around the world have shown that pure-breed dog owners consistently face higher veterinary bills than owners of crossbreeds.
So, where does all this information leave us? Much research and scientific study is being done on modifying breed standards of Kennel Clubs, on genetic testing to weed out harmful genes, and on responsible breeding that contains a certain amount of out-breeding and crossbreeding. The aim of this article is not to condemn Kennel Clubs, dog shows, or breeders. It is simply to demonstrate the extremes that the "pure breed culture" has taken us to. We need to take a step back and re-assess what we really want. Is our primary aim to own happy healthy dogs, or cute/exotic/long-eared/giant-sized/miniature/wrinkled dogs? Remember, as nature very cleverly programmed it to be so- the healthiest, happiest and hardiest dog is the one that is least purebred.
1. www.cawc.org.uk (Breeding and Welfare in Companion Animals:
The Companion Animal Working Group Report on Welfare Aspects of
Modifications, through Selective Breeding or Biotechnological Methods, to the Form, Function, or Behaviour of Companion Animals Published by the Companion Animal Welfare Council May 2006)
3. "Pedigree Dog Breeding in the UK: a major welfare concern?"- An independent Scientific Report commissioned by the RSPCA
4. Course Notes: University of Edinburgh, International Animal Welfare, Ethics and Law: Companion Animals, By Dr. Jenna Kiddie, Paws for Change.