Why We Should Take a Stand Against Dog Breed Standards
Dogs Before the Advent of Breed Standards
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 into 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.
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.
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 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 whether it be hunting, pulling supplies, herding, protecting property, luring fleas off of rich owners, or even fighting other dogs and animals for entertainment.
One of the oldest dog breeds—the saluki—is still used for hunting rabbits and in the US they race with far longer endurance than greyhounds.
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 the 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 virtual beauty pageants.
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, 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, be they attacking bears, rats, other dogs, or exotic animals.
Eventually, blood sports became illegal but bull dogs 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 increasing shorter through successive generations until forty years down they line their snouts were pretty much nonexistent. Not only this they bred shorter 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 by C-section. Their extreme pushed in noses leaves them susceptible to breathing problems, respiratory infections (as when they drink their tongue often flings water up their noses,) and are very easy to overheat as a dog’s muzzle and long nose is 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 and option for their top-heavy beasts who can no longer turn around to scratch their own butt. It’s rather sad to see an animal once known for fighting bulls no longer able to even bite itself.
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 where with bulldogs back in the day. I have no fear that the breed will ever go extinct, even if we catch every dog fighter 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 dogs, weight pullers and there’s even a handful used for 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.
Undoing Past Wrong 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 its 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:
- Waited for their animals to be over 2 years of age or older before breeding them.
- Should they end up with a rare case that forms after 2 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 horrible painful death within the first stages of its life, or a less beautiful but perfectly healthy and happy dog they would choose the latter. Below is a video documenting the disease with the statements of a veterinarian and some potentially distressing footage of several affected dogs. Watch at your own risk.
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.