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Why We Should Take a Stand Against Dog Breed Standards

Breed standards are harmful to future generations of dogs.

Breed standards are harmful to future generations of dogs.

Dog Breeds Then and Now

Many people throughout the world enjoy the company and work ethic of their purebred animals, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with this. A purebred animal, when bred correctly, can be docile, long-lived, beautiful, and healthy.

In fact, when an emphasis is put on these characteristics, some of the breeds might outlast most mutts who have the vigor of a much larger gene pool. However, for every positive, there is a negative. We as humans tend to be exceptionally predisposed to focus on beauty alone without really thinking out the consequences.

The Taming of the Wolf

To fully understand this, we should probably take a look at what dog breeds used to be and what they are now. In the beginning, we didn’t have dogs. We had wolves, and they were wild.

Most of these wolves were fearful of humans and remained wild, but sometimes a brave wolf would come by and eat scraps of meat and food people had left behind. Through successive generations, these wolves became tamer. At some point, we may have brought home wolf puppies as pets adding to this domestic leaning.

The Earliest Domesticated Dogs

Eventually, wolves became domesticated and turned into dogs that—not surprisingly—looked very much like wolves. These dogs worked for their living. Huskies pulled sleds, Salukis and other sighthounds helped their owners catch desert rabbits, and some dogs stopped hunting altogether in order to protect and herd sheep and other livestock.

Many of these dogs bred at will with other dogs in the area, but other times, their owners would step in and choose a mate for them. However, in these cases, the emphasis usually wasn’t on color, confirmation, or type; instead, the focus was on breeding the best dog for the job.

A great herding dog would hook up with another great herding dog, and together they’d have very rough-looking but hard-working puppies. Over time, the dogs in certain regions may have conformed in color and type, but this was largely due to the fact the dogs best suited for each job were the only ones bred—and those dogs often carried the same characteristics.

For instance, Great Pyrenees dogs needed to protect sheep, and they did this the best by being white and fluffy themselves, looking rather like the sheep they were protecting until some unsuspecting wild beast got a little too close.

For many thousands of years, this is how dog breeding went, and to be quite honest, we didn’t really have too many specific breeds; we didn’t need them. The idea of having a dog just be a pet was still a pretty radical idea.

This doesn’t mean people didn’t love their dogs—it just means their dogs were expected to do something in return for human care, whether it was hunting, pulling supplies, herding, protecting property, luring fleas off of rich owners, or even fighting other dogs and animals for entertainment.

A painting of a bulldog from the early 1800s

A painting of a bulldog from the early 1800s

The Victorian Age and Its Dogs

Then something happened—the middle class was born. Now, many more people had expendable wealth and were moving into cities. No longer did they need big farm dogs, and now they could afford little dogs like the aristocratic classes always seemed to adore. Many of the bigger breeds became miniaturized, and there was a virtual explosion of new breeds, particularly smaller ones.

These dogs didn’t have jobs; their only purpose in life was to be lovable and cute, and this is where things started to go wrong. Now, the emphasis was not on breeding a dog that could work better or live longer; it was on beauty, our long-time obsession. In the 1860s, the first dog shows popped up so that people could enter their dogs into pet beauty pageants.

The Bulldog: Breeding for Appearance Instead of Health and Longevity

People started breeding for extreme characteristics. The most vibrant breed this can be seen in is probably the bulldog. Bulldogs in the 1800s and before looked very much like a pit bull does today.

They were often somewhat tall and agile with only a somewhat blunted snout—maybe even a little longer than a current boxer’s snout. They could function perfectly as both a companion and a vicious opponent in the fighting ring against bears, rats, other dogs, or exotic animals.

Eventually, blood sports became illegal, but bulldogs had been around a long time and had a lot of fans. Pet breeders stepped in and took over the breed. Instead of breeding for agility and endurance, they decided to focus on that snout, making it increasingly shorter through successive generations until 40 years down the line, their snouts were pretty much nonexistent. They also bred for shorter and more muscular dogs that gave the appearance of endurance even though it no longer had the gladiatorial abilities it once had.

Bulldogs are now one of the shortest living breeds. They have such enormous heads at birth that many are only capable of bearing puppies only by C-section. Their extreme, pushed-in noses leave them susceptible to breathing problems and respiratory infections. In fact, when they drink, their tongues often fling water up their noses. They now overheat very easily, as a dog’s muzzle and long nose serve as a natural cooling system.

Their heavy bone structure also makes them prone to things like hip dysplasia, and rampant inbreeding by puppy mills and other people who are trying to make cash has made them even weaker with skin problems on top of all this.

Agility is no longer an option for these top-heavy beasts who can no longer turn around to scratch their own butts. It’s rather sad to see an animal once known for fighting bulls no longer able to even bite itself.

The skull on the far left is a bulldog skull from the 1800s, prior to the advent of dog shows. The middle skull is shortly after the first dog shows in the 1860s, and the far-right skull is the flat-faced skull we know today circa 1904.

The skull on the far left is a bulldog skull from the 1800s, prior to the advent of dog shows. The middle skull is shortly after the first dog shows in the 1860s, and the far-right skull is the flat-faced skull we know today circa 1904.

Learning From the Past

So, if bulldogs used to look like pit bulls, where did pit bulls come from, and what can that teach us? Pit bulls are a very genetically diverse breed. The reason that they have maintained their original look is that, whether we want to admit it or not, they are still being used for their original purpose—fighting.

Most of the pit bulls you see in shelters come from fighting lines, and as such, they have to be functional. They have to have great endurance, high energy, terrific agility, and an indifference to pain. The big, professional fighting-dog breeders also make sure their dogs are bred only to be dog aggressive, not human aggressive, as that would endanger the handlers.

Pit bulls are loved by many who are completely repulsed and despondent about the fighting world, probably as much as some people were with bulldogs back in the day. I have no fear that the breed will ever go extinct—even if we catch every dogfighter in the country—because there are already people out there breeding these dogs to improve temperament and regain social stability. There are also people repurposing this working breed to do other more lawful jobs like search and rescue, drug, bomb, and cadaver-sniffing, weight pulling, and even herding!

So long as these positive qualities are what is focused on, I have no doubt these dogs will be with us long into the future looking exactly as they are now. Hopefully, pet breeders will not make the mistake bulldog breeders made and will keep the dogs in their working condition.

A Pit Bull employed as a search and rescue dog

A Pit Bull employed as a search and rescue dog

Undoing Past Wrongs for a Better Future

My focus today was on only a few breeds of dogs but when it comes down to it there are a lot of dogs out there who are poorly bred or bred for the wrong reasons. Some people like to make a lot of money really fast by cutting every corner and giving no thought whatsoever into the welfare of either their breeding animals or their puppies.

Other breeders are breeding for show and only concentrating on beauty. One of the worst things I have ever seen is Syringomyelia, a condition that plagues King Charles Spaniels. It is a genetic disorder that is both horrific and completely and easily preventable. These dogs have been bred to have characteristically domed heads and sometimes this mutation does not allow enough room for the brain to grow.

When the brain does grow in affected dogs it will start to push against the skull casing and eventually push itself out into the spinal column causing air pockets and cysts to form on the spine itself. This will cause immense incurable pain and the dog can be reduced to a screaming wreak until someone has the mercy to put it out of its misery.

Others may get off more lightly, but they're still in pain, and it's still a progressive disease. There is no cure but there is prevention. The disease is most often a simple dominant gene. This means that one or both parents must have the disease to give it to the puppies.

I have heard of a great deal of winning show breeders knowingly breeding these affected animals to create more show-winning offspring. Most cases are diagnosed before the dog is two years old (fully grown) so these people often know what they are doing. It’s an ethically abysmal behavior that directly conflicts with the well-being of the animals they are breeding.

This disease could so easily be bred out of the breed if breeders just did two things:

  1. Waited for their animals to be over two years of age or older before breeding them.
  2. Should they end up with a rare case that forms after two years they should IMMEDIATELY take that animal and all its offspring out of any breeding program and alert the owners of past puppies.

This is madness! Ask any King Charles Spaniel pet owner if they’d rather have the most beautiful dog knowing that they were going to die a horribly painful death within the first stages of its life, or a less beautiful but perfectly healthy and happy dog they would choose the latter.

What Pet Owners Can Do

You may ask after reading all this if there’s anything that can be done about it and yes, there is. Make sure your local breeders know what you’re looking for (a healthy, happy, well-mannered animal) and stress that point and if you are a breeder that knows show standards are hurting your breed please have the courage to defy them, you will not be the only one or the first!

There are people out there, mostly vets, working on healthier alternatives to old breeds like bulldogs with longer muzzles and more flexible bodies. All in all, just support the good people are doing the right thing.

NEVER buy a puppy or kitten from a pet store, mill, or person who is obviously just trying to make a buck. Also do not support show breeders who are only breeding for beauty without a thought to anything else (and no, not all show breeders are like this, just be careful.) Pick someone who will answer your questions like, “Where did you get your breeding stock?”

“Do you line-breed? If so when and why?” and “What are you doing to prevent the genetic diseases of this breed?” We live in a world full of technology to help us determine these things through blood tests and X-rays and other common testing. There is no excuse for a breeder to be doing nothing. Make sure to do your research on your breed of choice and ask about those specific issues. You will be a much happier pet owner in the long run.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


Theophanes Avery (author) from New England on August 20, 2014:

Bordaclone, not everyone breeds just for the money. In fact there are a great deal of breeders out there who are doing so because they genuinely love the breed they're working with (and the consistency in temperament, behavior, and looks that you're just not going to find in a feral mutt.) The "over population crisis" is not universal - I live in an area where the majority of shelters are no-kill and to keep them filled we import dogs from the south. With access to affordable spay and neuter programs, and law enforcement cracking down on deplorable puppy mills, these problems are actually getting better. Please don't judge an entire group of people for the action of a few bad apples. If you want to rescue that's wonderful - but having rescued myself I know there are problems with this too. I had to put down a rescue dog after having him for 5 years because he had seizures and became a bad biter - the direct result of having TERRIBLE genetics. It was heartbreaking! I've also had to put down a whole slew of cats for having FIP, FIV, leukemia, and other fatal diseases common in the feral populations they were taken from. I'm sorry if myself and other people like me would rather purchase our pets in the future from responsible breeders who know their lines and protect all their stock from disease - genetic and otherwise - not all of us can handle the constant heart ache of uncertainty.

bordaclone on August 20, 2014:

Breeding is a disgusting way to make money. Seriously, stop using your pets uteruses as ATM machines. Get a real job and stop adding to the overpopulation crisis. Stop being so greedy!

Randi on May 21, 2014:

I don't think we should take a stand against breed standards. Standards are developed by member of the parent breed club. We should take a stand against breeders who are trying to change the structure of the breed. We should take a stand against judges who reward dogs that do not meet the standard because of who bred/owns or is handling the dog.

Theophanes Avery (author) from New England on October 22, 2013:

Thank you all for your kind comments. Indeed this is a big and diverse issue that needs a little more attention.

@Natashalh - I hear you! I saw a show German Shepard a while back and was horrified by it's hind quarters. "Oh the more slanty their back/legs are the better!" Really?? Poor thing couldn't even walk right. And such a shame to disfigure an intelligent working breed. I have noticed the cop dogs are shifting from German Shepards to Malanois and rarer breeds now. I wonder if this is why.

Natasha from Hawaii on September 15, 2013:

I am so against breed standards! I really hate what people have done to German Shepherds. The breed founder was against breeding for appearance and believed in the dog's ability to work and its personality, but people have turned that completely on its head. It's so messed up to me that people judge an animal based on how far apart its ears or eyes are instead of what it's like as an individual! I hope people read this and decide to choose a genetically diverse companion instead of one bred for cosmetic vanity.

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on September 15, 2013:

This is an important piece. I hope that others read and consider thoughtfully your writings and that they take a stand when they can. Voted up and shared.

Angels are on the way to you and to all dogs who may have been exploited.

Anne from United Kingdom on September 14, 2013:

Hi Theophanes.

I hate this trend of breeding animals purely to look good in the show ring and meet the KC judges standards. In my opinion KC dog shows should be banned outright as from now and then maybe this cruel interference with nature would stop and pedigree dogs would eventually get back to being healthy, robust and happy.

Great hub and I hope it helps get the message across that breeding purely for certain looks causes pain and suffering.

Voted up and sharing.

Theophanes Avery (author) from New England on March 21, 2013:

That Grrl: Even when selecting animals to breed for a job it's better when you actually have a goal in mind. For instance if you had a great herding dog and it bred to someone's lap dog who happened to be passing by (nature's choice, let's say), the puppies probably aren't going to be ideal for herding. This is the case for all domestic animals - pets or not. We have bred most of our farm animals to grow faster and fatter for meat production and animals with jobs, be they horses or dogs, need to have these traits reinforced. In the end whether the animal is a pet or not we do need to control breeding populations... or we'll just end up with rampant feral communities of everything. It wouldn't be pretty.

DrMark1961: I hope the American Alsatian breeders are successful too. I admire their effort and think this goal should be applied to more breeds. Also thank you for the pinterest. I have tried signing up for that but it baffles me!

Mark dos Anjos DVM from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on March 18, 2013:

Interesting article, even the comment thread where you discuss making your rats longer lived. That is a difficult trait to select for and I hope the American Alsatian breeders are able to focus on it like they say.

I pinned this to my "dog thoughts" board on pinterest.

Laura Brown from Barrie, Ontario, Canada on March 17, 2013:

I read a little about the issue of breeding before. But, I'm not really in favour of keeping animals as pets in general. It is a bit of a Frankenstein story, thinking we know better and should control nature.

MindyPickel on September 25, 2012:

I totally agree with your article. Growing up my family had Border Collies in the early 90s, before the AKC got a hold of them. Just recently, I wanted to get another, and remembered there was controversy about the AKC wanting to accept the Border Collie, and adamant Border Collie breeders who were against it and wouldn't release the papers to the AKC. Of course though, there were a lot of breeders who wanted to be accepted into the AKC to compete, so what ended up happening is the breed got split into 2 different breeds of Border Collie. One bred for looks, and the other working ability and brains.

I had to literally search for MONTHS before I found my breeder because she didn't advertise anywhere about "puppies for sale", and she didn't breed often at all. I feel so lucky that I happened to fall in love with a breed of dog where some people actually respected and loved the breed enough to continue to preserve this dog for what it was originally intended for. As you show in your article, people just are not doing that enough.

I don't know why so many human beings have such disregard for animal lives.

Lioness on August 31, 2012:

Completely agree with you!!

Graham Gifford from New Hamphire on August 27, 2012:

I enjoyed reading your article and, although I couldn't watch the video in it's entirety, I appreciate it's message (I''d seen it before and couldn't bear watching it again). I love animals and I so enjoy the history of the breeds. I am, however, thoroughly disgusted that we can't seem to close puppy-mills and educate people further to understanding that animals are to be loved and cared for not used, manipulated and mistreated.

You were able to discuss a few of the very important topics concerning animal breeding and the human need for beauty and 'perfection'.

I have two german shorthaired pointers in my family. I have found over the years that I have needed to talk a few people out of owning pointers. Because of their beauty, they are quite desirable, but they are a task-driven creatures and the families that had thought they wanted them were already too busy to maintain such a breed.

Thank you for sharing....

Theophanes Avery (author) from New England on August 25, 2012:

When I wrote this article I wanted to highlight the problems we have with all purebreeds: dogs, cats, birds, livestock, and what have you. It turned into a dog article because it was the easiest to illustrate so yes I didn't mention the AKC specifically but if you ask me all paying registries are at fault for not being focused on the right things.

I started my own breeding projects with cockateils and parakeets when I was a tween. I got out of the hobby very quickly because I was sharp enough to realize the parrot breeders (what I really wanted to get into) were all about money and nothing else. I found African grey pairs living in tiny rabbit cages unable to even stand up fully on their perch with a nest box attached. The babies would be sold for $800-1,200. There was no excuse to house an animal with the intelligence of a five year old human child like that! And I ran into a lot of breeders who'd pawn off sick animals without telling the new buyers. One sold over 500 sick birds in a short period of time and literally moved out the next day. She cut off all contacts. No one could find her.

I moved onto to fancy rats and was one of the first breeders to engineer a longer living healthier strain of furless rats. At the time they were often living six months to a year. By the time I got out of the hobby my lines were living past three years but it was not an easy process and I fully agree not everyone is capable of such feats. You have to learn how to use technology to your advantage, to say 'no' to yourself in order to stop problematic strains despite their positive qualities, and learn to reinvest in the animals themselves making sure they are healthiest and happiest, etc. When I left they were starting a registry. I was against it and lost quite a bit of my reputation for publicly being ageist it.

Sadly my only experience with dog breeding was taking in two litters of BADLY bred pit bulls who were created because it was though their ice-blue eyes would bring in the big bucks. I was furious. I still rant about it. They were inbred sister to brother for at least 3 generations, were knowingly from fighting lines, and carried the same piebald gene as Dalmatians which means yes I did end up with deaf puppies, puppies with cherry eye, puppies prone to mange, and nervous aggression issues. Far from bringing in the big bucks I spent a lot of dough trying to correct the situation the best I could. I still rail about it now.

The Logician from then to now on on August 25, 2012:

Very good information and conclusions. I am surprised however that you did not mention the AKC's part in all this. Although they do good for dog breeds they are motivated by money. I have sold pups for pet only, withholding the papers and AKCs hounds the buyers to register the dog with AKC solely so they can collect the fee and sell products to the owner. And they have done nothing to stop puppy mills from registering puppies as they collect a fee on every litter and puppy registered with no regard that these dogs will never be shown and are bred despite terrible lineage. Although AKC tells you how to find and be a reputable breeder they are happy to register any dog with a pedigree no matter who is registering the dog or how many they are breeding and for what reasons.

Successful breeding is actually a science and requires technology, experience, investment and other qualities not possessed by just anybody and even then great results can be questionable. I once talked to an accomplished breeder of Dalmations who retired from the show circle - he said when he got into it he was going to revolutionize the breed, bought a Winnebago and traveled the country on the show ring. He quit because although he had some of the best dogs in the nation and his top bitch had produced over 40 champions, half of every litter she produced had to be pout down because of temperament problems and he was disillusioned by these results.

Liz Elias from Oakley, CA on August 24, 2012:

Very important information! Thank you for sharing this, and alerting folks to these problems. It is shameful that our species has the audacity to put looks and money ahead of the health, safety and general well-being of our companion animals. And for this, many people want to consider humans as a "superior" species? I think not!

There are also barbaric and needless "cosmetic" alterations, such as ear cropping and tail docking that also need to be stopped.

Voted up and across (except not funny) and shared.