Our friendly domestic dogs have come a long way from their wolf ancestors, and it’s all thanks to us.
“Somehow there’s this misconception that dog breeds actually exist — like dachshunds are a natural thing in the world,” Dr. Louise Murray, vice president of the ASPCA Animal Hospital, told The Huffington Post. “We think, there are frogs, and there are chickens, and there are dachshunds. But of course you don’t realize until later that they’re just human constructs.”
We love having dogs around — in fact, between 37 and 47 percent of U.S. households own at least one dog, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. That’s about 70 or 80 million dogs overall. And while estimates differ, between one-third and one-half of those dogs are believed to be purebred, born of incestuous pairings. As a result, many purebred dogs are now facing an abundance of health problems, and many of their human companions have begun to question the ethics of it all.
Dogs, of course, have been used for thousands of years for practical purposes, like herding and protecting livestock. About 4,000 years ago, people began tinkering with dog breeds in an effort to enhance certain physical or temperamental attributes. In medieval Europe, having a dog around for companionship became a mark of status, and by the 19th century breeding had taken off in earnest. According to a 2008 BBC documentary, the practice actually grew out of the eugenics movement that pervaded scientific discussion at the time.
Shortly after the U.K. Kennel Club formed in 1873, other countries began setting up their own regulatory groups to dole out purebred certification based on their own sets of standards. In the U.S., the American Kennel Club, or AKC, is the best known of these groups. A small number of the most “pure” dogs produced by each club go on to appear in shows and competitions, while the rest usually spend their lives as household pets. (That is, unless they end up in animal shelters instead.)
Here’s the real ethically murky part. Most puppies can only earn kennel club certification if they can trace their lineage back to the club’s original stock dogs, of which each club keeps records in a “library.” This practice ends up creating a closed gene pool — think English royalty. A club will breed its dogs with the aim of producing certain desirable traits, according to the club’s idea of how each breed should look. In the earliest years of the Canadian Kennel Club, “no importance was placed on the utility and health of purebred dogs” by breeders, according to a 2007 report by the Canadian veterinarian Koharik Arman.
One common breeder technique is known as line breeding, which pairs direct relatives, such as grandfather and granddaughter, in an effort to produce puppies with the most desirable physiques. That’s how the basset hound’s ears got to be so droopy, and how the German shepherd’s back came to slope downward at such a striking angle.
These dogs didn’t always look that way. In fact, it’s pretty amazing how selective breeding has changed the appearance of certain dogs in a relatively short amount of time. (Seriously, take a look.) But in many cases, breeding for such specialized physiques creates a raft of health complications. Basset hounds are prone to ear infections, and German shepherds often have hip problems. Inbreeding also puts puppies at risk of developing a number of inherited diseases. The number of genetic disorders affecting dogs “reflects their unnatural development,” Arman argues in her paper.
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