This Is a Dog

We were away for the weekend, so I'm a day behind in reading the Sunday Times. This week's magazine section has a story about the controversy over "hybrid" dogs:

Bob Vetere, president of the American Pet Product Manufacturers Association, told me, "You're going to have a real battle here" between hybrid dog breeders and "the purists who say this is all 25th-century voodoo science." The rift seems to epitomize a peculiarly American tension: between tradition and improvisation, institutions and fads. The American Canine Hybrid Club, one of a growing number of hybrid dog registries, will soon recognize its 400th different kind of purebred-to-purebred cross. There are meanwhile roughly only 400 pure breeds of dog in the world, and the American Kennel Club, the world's largest purebred registry, has recognized only 155 of them so far in its 123 year-history. It will not be registering Poovanese or Cavoodles any time soon. "What would our registration stand for then?" a spokeswoman told me. "Anyone could make up a dog and say, 'This is a dog!' "

Really, the main thing I learn from this is that purebred dog people creep me out. This is a dog:

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and she's the best dog in the Capital Region, even though we don't have the foggiest idea what her parents were. Attempting to impose any other definition on the world is tacky, bordering on immoral.

Which is not to say that the "hybrid" breeder profiled for the piece comes off looking great. His operation sounds like a puppy mill in all but name:

Havens was recently suspended by the A.K.C. for 10 years after refusing a follow-up kennel inspection. He claims that the A.K.C. inspector cited him for things long deemed acceptable, to punish him for his promotion of designer dogs and his increasing use of another registry service, thus no longer paying the A.K.C. thousands of dollars in registration fees. The A.K.C. denies any such motivation, saying that it has stepped up enforcement of a care-and-conditions policy over the last decade and is glad to go without registration income from breeders unwilling to comply. Recent U.S.D.A. inspection reports show many incidences of dogs kept with inadequate bedding in near-freezing temperatures at Puppy Haven or with excessively matted hair or insufficient veterinary care. Havens retired 75 adult dogs, no longer useful to him as sires or dams, to the Wisconsin Humane Society over the last year. According to the humane society, many of the dogs had to be treated for debilitating fears of noise or people before they could be adopted. Some animal-welfare advocates, while noting that most large kennels kill older, unproductive dogs, also condemn shipping them off to shelters, seeing it as a shifting of responsibility. In response, Havens says that he prides himself on his unwillingness to put his dogs down and that there is a tremendous demand to adopt the smaller purebreds he uses.

But, really, it would take a whole lot of creepy to come off worse than the purebred dog owners:

Jutta Beard described how years ago, while she was breeding Rottweilers, one of her bitches was accidentally impregnated by a dog of another breed. Great effort had been taken to segregate the bitch, and how the intruder got in and out of the Beards' kennel was a mystery. His identity couldn't even be discerned in the gangling, alien faces of the resulting puppies. Beard had them euthanized.

I asked if no one would have wanted them as pets. "I didn't want them," she said decisively.

I'll admit to not being entirely rational on this subject-- we adopted Emmy from a local Humane Society shelter, and she's a wonderful dog. And the dog we had when I was a kid (who keeps Emmy from the title of Best Dog Ever) was a Collie-Lab mix adopted from a local vet. Neither would've made it out of Beard's kennel alive, and I'm frankly appalled by that.

There's a lot to hate there, though. Back when we were first thinking about getting a dog, we read a couple of books about different breeds. the best of the lot made the very sensible point that dogs are basically tame wolves. The farther you try to get from the proto-dog-- fifty-ish pounds, long nose, long tail-- the more problems you're likely to encounter. By the time you get to something like the pug dogs whose "purity" various people are defending in the article, you've got a dog that's so warped from the norm that they can't even mate-- prior to the charming little anecdote about killing unwanted mixed-breed puppies, there's a bit describing the artificial insemination of a pug, whose "ideal" stature is such that they can't physically complete the act without human assistance.

That's just wrong, and it's wrong basically because it breaks the Granny Weatherwax rule:

"It's not as simple as that. It's not a black and white issue. There are so many shades of gray. . . ."

"There's no greys, only white that's got grubby. I'm surprised you don't know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That's what sin is."

"It's a lot more complicated than that--"

"No. It ain't. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they're getting worried that they won't like the truth. People as things, that's where it starts."

Dogs aren't people, but any dog owner can tell you that they're certainly not things. Shaping dogs to some wholly unnatural "breed standard" to the point where they can't even reproduce themselves (let alone all the other health and behavior issues that come with generations of inbreeding) loses sight of the fact that they're living beings in their own right, and deserve to be treated with a little more dignity. Not to mention that fretting over the fact that someone else wants a Pug with a less smashed-in face involves a total loss of perspective.

Anyway, the article is well written, and worth a look. None of the people in it come off particuarly well, but it does raise some interesting questions about our relationship with dogs. And makes me appreciate my mixed-breed dog even more-- because of her personality, not her ISO-9001 compliance with standards.

All hail the Queen of Niskayuna:

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I will never, ever understand dog breeders, or people who pay outrageous sums of money for 'pure' dogs. There are so many good dogs on the streets and in shelters that need good homes...

My wife is a veterinarian, but I'm a chemical physicist, so what I'm about to say should be taken with several grains of salt.

There are advantages from buying from a good breeder. The medical history of the dogs is known, simply by knowing the breed a decent vet can predict the dog's potential health hazards much more reliably, and good breeders handle the dogs and begin socializing the dogs, giving the dogs a good start for their prospective owners. Of course, none of that changes the fact that there are many bad breeders and nutty breeds out there, and being able to tell one from the other is non-trivial. (Asking a vet before buying, though, is generally a good start.)

There are also serious potential disadvantages to obtaining a dog through a shelter. Many dogs are given to shelters because there is something wrong with them. They're bad with kids, or they have elimination problems, or they're nuts (or Weimaraners! *Grin*). Many, if not all of the problems are the fault of the original owners, but retraining a dog that has bad habits is more than a little work. Even if none of that is the case, veterinary care in some (certainly not all) shelters can be well below standard, so the "free" dog from the shelter can instantly involve hundreds of dollars of service at the first veterinary appointment. Nonetheless, many wonderful dogs do come from shelters and rescue groups.

By Grant Goodyear (not verified) on 06 Feb 2007 #permalink

The specific shelter that we were dealing with does a fair bit of screening on both the dogs and the customers-- we had to fill out an application and wait a week just to be able to take a dog out of its kennel. We also dealt with a rescue group that does careful background checks (we adopted Emmy about an hour before they showed up to evaluate her for their program).

But yes, you're right that adopting dogs with problems can be a little risky. But then there's no shortage of bad breeders out there, either.

Shaping dogs to some wholly unnatural "breed standard" [...] loses sight of the fact that they're living beings in their own right

Amen to that. The canine genome may be unusually plastic, but that does not make it a toy.

In general you are right. I remember reading about a biologist (I think, in Britain, I think) who attempted to solve the problem of congenital deafness in dalmations by introducing a similar but healthier (in the sense of not being subject to the same defect) dog into the breed. His efforts yielded a dog that was, by any reasonable definition, a dalmation that was not subject to congenital deafness. They were rejected by kennel clubs because the results were not "dalmations", as if that term meant anything other than a dog that looks like a dalmation and produces offspring that look like dalmations.

But kennel clubs are only part of the problem. The other end of the spectrum is people who treat every dog like a piece of not very valuable property, as opposed to only those dogs that don't meet their standards. In the community where I live, people and governments were happy to impose a sales tax to build a minor league baseball stadium for the amusement of fans and the profit of certain businesses, but they will not bother to run a humane animal shelter for a fraction of the cost.

Queen Emmy desires a belly rub. Now!

By Captain C (not verified) on 06 Feb 2007 #permalink

Amen! Dogs in particular aren't just any random animal, they're the species that's stood by our side perhaps as long as we've been properly human. They are more dependent on us and more part of our society than any other animal, and it behooves us to treat them properly.

By David Harmon (not verified) on 06 Feb 2007 #permalink

We have what I tend to refer to as a "deliberately bred" dog. She is a shiloh shepherd which is essentially a german shepherd bred closer to the german standard than the american. But we got ours because they were/are being bred to try to reduce hip dysplasia (littermates of breeding dogs have to have good hips if they are to be officially bred). And our pup has worked out well for us, especially since the breeder does a temperment test akin to the ones in the Monks of New Skete books (another kennel I'd happily buy a dog from). The problem with the purebreds is more the people than the dogs. or the politics. Since only the puppies of registered dogs bred to registered dogs can be registered and sold as registered, you have weird fights over what the breed standard is: should a dog that doesn't meet the standard (too big, too small, nose the wrong color, gunshy) be allowed to breed? Add in a lot of ponzi scheme to this as well - expensive dogs are sold to breeders to produce (hopefully) better breeders. For breeds associated with a job, herding, schutzhund, hunting, the functional aspect keeps weirder parts of the standards in check.

By Brian Ledford (not verified) on 06 Feb 2007 #permalink

[The sire's] identity couldn't even be discerned in the gangling, alien faces of the resulting puppies. Beard had them euthanized.

I asked if no one would have wanted them as pets. "I didn't want them," she said decisively.

If I were the King of the World, she would be denied the company of any living thing for the rest of her life.

I'm not a dog owner (I'm more of a cat person, and I'm sure similar things occur in the cat world when it comes to cat breeding), but I read the article and I have to say...I'm with the "hybrid" breeders here -- and I think they come off a lot more rational and sane than the purebred breeders in the article. The passage about the "assisted" pug insemination shocked me as to the lengths people will go to for an "ideal" dog.

It's funny...the same sort of thing happens with "car people". There's a certain subset of the population that gets up in arms if you put the engine from one make of car (say, a Chevy V8) into a body of another (say, a Mazda RX-7), claiming it somehow ruins the purity of the brand. I say live and let live. Of course, with cars, there are no issues with whether or not they can procreate on their own. Plus they're not nearly as cute as the Queen there...

Asad

Similar things do happen with cats, the one I'm aware of is the change in the faces of Siamese Cats. See:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siamese_(cat)

I think the whole thing is outrageous. They should make up breed descriptions for humans. Just think, you could check your blind date for their papers before wasting time having a cup of coffee with them.

Some observations / questions...

1. How does it matter that a certain kind of dog cannot reproduce naturally? I'll remind you that neither can infertile people or gay couples. Neither can most agricultural crops. Do we really want to tie our estimation of the worth / normality of things to whether they can make more of their kind unaided?

2. This talk of doggy-wolf essences being immutably Precious and Sacred seems to get dangerously close to creationist rhetoric about "kinds" of animals.

Ok, that's snarky, but perhaps more pertinently it sounds like the every gaia-worshipping anti-GM nut ever.

3. Morally, would it make everyone feel better if the article had said that the breeders eat any defective puppies that are born? Why ever not?

In any case, isn't this a bit, um, much of a response to an article describing - at worst - the moral equivalent of eating a ham sandwich?

D: doggy-wolf essences being immutably Precious and Sacred

Whatever you're reacting to, it isn't here. The point about wolves was a physical one: long muzzles mean dogs can breathe properly, 50 pounds is a good weight for joints and body temperature, etc.

Though, since your tone suggests you are not interested in participating in this discussion about dogs as pets, you probably won't listen to me.

1. How does it matter that a certain kind of dog cannot reproduce naturally? I'll remind you that neither can infertile people or gay couples. Neither can most agricultural crops.

If you don't see a moral difference between a dog and corn, there's probably not anywhere good that this conversation can go...

Chad (#14),

If you don't see a moral difference between a dog and corn, there's probably not anywhere good that this conversation can go...

I'm not sure that's really fair, since that not what D was implying...

I think D's point is that you seemed to suggest "ability to mate on their own" was part of the definition of a "proper" dog, in that some of the extreme breeds, those "warped from the norm," can't mate without human assistance. You clearly seemed to disapprove of this.

(Now, I have to admit that I'm rather taken aback to learn that about pugs, and it doesn't improve my opinion of the breed; on the other hand, my opinion is colored by a purely aesthetic, irrational judgement: I thing pugs are ugly).

Given that there are animals which can't reproduce but are otherwise perfectly viable (e.g., mules), and that there are humans who can't reproduce without outside assistance (infertile couples) -- is ability to breed on their own really a critical measure of what's good or bad about dog (or other animal) varieties?

Since most rational, considerate people neuter their dogs as a matter of course (and since most[?] governments require this), does it matter? I suppose one could even argue that a breed of dogs which genuinely can't reproduce without human assistance could be more humane, in that it's then not necessary to do surgery on the vast majority of them.

I'm not sure that's really fair, since that not what D was implying...

Oops ("This sentence no verb")... I meant:
I'm not sure that's really fair, since that's not what D was implying...

I think D's point is that you seemed to suggest "ability to mate on their own" was part of the definition of a "proper" dog, in that some of the extreme breeds, those "warped from the norm," can't mate without human assistance. You clearly seemed to disapprove of this.

I forgot to add a "what Kate said" at the end of my comment-- yesterday was not a good day, so I'm not at my best this morning.

Basically, I see the inability to mate properly as one of the more egregious examples of the problems that have been caused by breeding dogs to absurd standards. It's kind of the cherry atop the sundae of inbreeding-induced health issues-- not only do they have trouble breathing and walking, they can't even have sex to take their minds off their many other problems.

I don't think these dogs are really comparable to mules, which are the inherently sterile offspring of a cross-species mating, or infertile human couples. These dogs are technically fertile, but can't successfully mate because some humans thought it would be more aesthetically pleasing if their hips were shaped in a way that precludes procreation. I find that appalling.

Chad Orzel - I see I have given offence where my intent was merely to provoke, perhaps risking irritation. Oops. You're right, further discussion may not be productive, so this is my last. In it I want to agree with Peter Erwin's interpretation of my remarks. I was asking you if you assign moral significance to the abstract property "can reproduce", and when and why and how much. (As a gay guy I have a certain interest in such things.) I was not suggesting that all things that cannot reproduce are of equal (in)significance. I honestly cannot see where that interpretation came from.

Kate Nepveu - I was reacting to sentiments like these in the post and comments (emph added) -

"dogs are basically tame wolves. The farther you try to get from the proto-dog-- fifty-ish pounds, long nose, long tail-- the more problems you're likely to encounter."

"Shaping dogs to some wholly unnatural "breed standard" [...] loses sight of the fact that they're living beings in their own right
Amen to that. The canine genome may be unusually plastic, but that does not make it a toy."

To me, this calls to mind the image of a fitness potential well stretching inexorably skyward in parabolic splendor, which given evolution we know cannot be. Of course, for the small changes being made to the dog genome this isn't a terrible approximation. As I said, I was being snarky. I did not see that this equated to being uninterested in serious discussions. I still don't. Certainly the explicit preference given to "natural" animals and plants doesn't seem that far removed from the rhetoric of the anti-GM lobby.

I agree whole heartedly with the complaints against "snack dogs" (named so because it looks like our dog could eat them as a snack).

The issue with the word natural here is that it is being used in two different contexts. In the case of GM crops it is being used in a moral sense. In the case of dogs it is being used in a more practical sense, like it isn't natural to use a crowbar as a hammmer, it isn't natural to use a mill to trim your fingernails ect. It isn't natural for a dog to be smaller than a cat.

Large dogs have escaped so far from this discussion. Large breeds (St. Bernard, deer hounds, wolf houds) have much shorter life spans than mid sized dogs. But somehow they don't draw the ire that snack dogs so. It also raises intersting questions about speciation, are snack dogs and great danes really the same species?

Would you condem rabbit breeders who sell of extra rabbits as meat/fur rabbits? Or the practice of sheep farmers to kill unhealthy lambs when they are born?

I would however like to defend purebreeds a bit. Our last dog (who sadly passed away last semester:() was a pure golden retriever. (there are sadly problems with the hips in goldens too....stupid breeders). The reason my parents got a purebreed instead of another dog from the shelter is that the dog previous was a dog from the pound and was (we think) a collie/lab mix. As we figure it she had a lab brain in a collie head (which leads to some volume issues) and was insane. She was sitting infront of one of my little sisster's friends, who was 2nd or 3rd grade aged at the time, wagging her tail and seeming all happy and then lunged up and bit the girl in the face leaving tooth marks above and below the girl's eye. Having your dog bite someone else's little girl is a good way to get spooked and want a bit more assurence of the dog's temperment.

And Julia (our golden) was just such a sweet and wonderful dog that I can't abide by whole sale slandering of pure breeds.

By a cornellian (not verified) on 07 Feb 2007 #permalink

Large dogs have escaped so far from this discussion. Large breeds (St. Bernard, deer hounds, wolf houds) have much shorter life spans than mid sized dogs. But somehow they don't draw the ire that snack dogs so. It also raises intersting questions about speciation, are snack dogs and great danes really the same species?

I'm not as annoyed about large dogs, because they tend to be big for a real reason-- they're bred to be guard dogs, or herd dogs, or whatever. Similarly, I'm not annoyed by small breeds that are small for a purpose-- beagles, various terriers, and the like. Dogs that are bred to a non-standard size in order to serve a useful purpose are generally still functional as dogs, because they need to be.

To the extent that the health problems are due to aesthetic and purity concerns on the part of breeeders, though-- such as the Dalmatian case mentioned above-- the health issues of big dogs are just as outrageous as those of small dogs. When aesthetic qualities are given priority over the health and happiness of the animal, something is way wrong.

Would you condem rabbit breeders who sell of extra rabbits as meat/fur rabbits? Or the practice of sheep farmers to kill unhealthy lambs when they are born?

There's a big difference between killing unhealthy animals and killing unwanted animals. Euthanizing perfectly healthy dogs because they had one incorrect parent is monstrous.

Dog sizes: given that closely related species (genus Canis) span the range of fifteen pounds (various jackal species) up to almost two hundred pounds (dire wolves), I'm not sure one can make definitive statements about "natural" sizes for canids. Chad's putative "proto-dog" example (50 pounds) is already smaller than typical gray wolves, from which dogs derived, but larger than coyotes, for example.

I certainly agree with cornellian that "snack dogs" (which I sometimes refer to as "large furry insects") look hopelessly silly, and I'll admit that my own aesthetic preference is for dogs that resemble wolves. But kangaroos and duck-billed platypuses no doubt looked "unnatural" to Europeans who'd never seen similar animals before.

Basically, I see the inability to mate properly as one of the more egregious examples of the problems that have been caused by breeding dogs to absurd standards. It's kind of the cherry atop the sundae of inbreeding-induced health issues-- not only do they have trouble breathing and walking, they can't even have sex to take their minds off their many other problems.

Those are good points, though I think you're sort of mixing two different issues. One is producing problems directly or indirectly as a result of breeding for certain characteristics (as in the hip shape example you give). The other issue is inbreeding itself, which can happen even if you're pursuing some "true dog" ideal, and which also happens in the wild (e.g., cheetahs are thought to be highly inbred, due to having gone through a population bottleneck sometime in the recent past).

Natural animals sometimes suffer from flaws similar to your hip-shape example. E.g., it's been argued that pregnancy and birth are unusually difficult, painful, and dangerous for human females, compared to other primates, due to the combination of the shift to bipedalism (and its effect on hip shape) and the rapid increase in brain size (and its effect on the size of infant heads). Obviously, these changes had overall survival benefits (witness the spread of hominids and especially humans...), but they had unpleasant side effects.

Of course, the key is that artificial selection is (for the most part) something done deliberately by human beings, and so has a moral dimension that natural selection lacks. If someone chooses to breed dogs in such a way that they end up with painful, awkward lives (if we're interpreting things correctly), then they are morally responsible for this. But the important point, I think, is the question of harm and suffering, not whether something happens to look like a "natural" animal or not.

Love the Pratchett reference. Also, in defence of pure bred dogs, and their breeders: While growing up my family raised Scottish Terriers. A great breed with extremely few issues, physically or mentally. We limited the litters to three per female, and then had the females fixed, as any more than three litters is detrimental to the dogs' health. We NEVER mistreated them in any way, never sold the puppies to someone whose home we were not allowed to visit first, and loved every set that we had. All of them named Samsom and Delilah.

I found your dialogues with your Regal One just recently and have really enjoyed them. Thank you! "Bunnies made of cheese" has entered the parlance shared by myself, my quantum physicist feller and my very silly dog. A couple of notes on this non-physics post -

I knew a vet who tended to breeders of British bulldogs. I was horrified to learn that the puppies can *only* be born by caesarian section due to the head size/pelvic width disparity. I just think this ain't right. I likes me a mongrel with mysterious parentage, wolfy throwbacks, and puppies that slip out like seals.

Also, I too had a childhood collie mix known in my family as The Best Dog Ever. Then I got my own dog 15 months ago. It occurred to me that I was doing myself and my current dog a disservice by not even entertaining the idea that she could be a contender for Best Dog Ever. I've decided that alive-and-breathing status carries an awful lot of weight when tallying up the Best Ever scores, and thus she wins it by a mile. I reckon you should give Emmy a chance at that title. Then again, she IS royalty and maybe she doesn't need it!

I just got lectured my yet another purist who rather nastily informed me that not all dog breeds are actually "designer mixes." If they aren't than why aren't we all keeping wolves? We breed these, now, purebreds for specific purposes. Just as we do now for "designer mixes." AND, it seems that the purebreeders have so inbred so many breeds that they have many non-functional characteristics; blindness, hip problems, shortened life spams. C'mon purebreeders lighten up.