Dogs themselves can be tremendous snobs too
From hard labour to a beauty contest
A BORZOI flirts with a Pekingese; a Great Dane with a Chihuahua. How does each even know that the other is the same species as itself? No other animal possesses such variety, nor such manifest genetic elasticity. Nor, probably, has any other animal had its genes so manipulated to please human fads and fancies.
It is not entirely a one-way street. Dogs, those self-domesticated wolves, are adept at manipulating their chosen companions. Dog owners take a heap of punishment from their beloved pooches: trudging round in the rain, spending their all on vets' bills, apologising to undoggy people for yapping or biting or smelling. And not just these days. Remember Launce, the man-servant in Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen of Verona, who took the punches on himself when his wicked dog Crab stole a pie, killed a goose or pissed in the dining chamber?
Owners can be saps but they have, over the years, done some very strange things to their mutts. To fit in with passing fashion, dogs have been stretched and shrunk, their noses pushed and pulled, their coats curled and straightened, their skin wrinkledand not with age. This painting with dog genetics, as someone cleverly called it, is a relatively new development.
It is true that dogs, which began distinguishing themselves from wolves well over 12,000 years ago, have always adapted themselves, or been adapted, to fit with human requirements, growing longer legs for hunting, bigger bodies for guarding, thicker coats for sled-pulling. Their temperaments changed too: a guard dog knew it must bite, a herding dog knew it must not. But except for the over-privileged few, who were happily sybaritic as the cherished pets of the great and good and rich, these dogs worked for their living, and they were bred selectively to make them better workers.
All this changed in the second half of the 19th century. With the birth of kennel clubs (first in Britain in 1873, followed closely by the American Kennel Club), breeding clubs and dog shows, a dog's life changed from hard labour to a beauty contest. Although about eight out of ten pure-bred dogs never see the inside of a show ring, there are now aesthetic, rather than workmanlike, standards that breeders, and many owners, aspire to. All a dog has to do, writes Desmond Morris, in his excellent dictionary of dogs, is to look good, walk proudly and not bite the judges.
Until then, dogs were mostly dogs. Owners of canine aristocrats proudly trace their animal's descent back to the pharaohs, Aztec kings, Spanish conquistadors, Chinese empresses and so forth. And indeed there were modern lookalikes in ancient times: something looking like a saluki is said to have turned up in western Asia in 3000 BC. The Romans specified six types: guardians, shepherds, sporting dogs, war dogs, scent hounds and sight hounds. But there was always a fair amount of cross-breeding and, even in relatively modern times, most dogs that were not dismissed as curs or lurchers, fell into the general categories of mastiffs, collies, terriers or pointers.
Today there are 300-400 separate breeds recognised by kennel clubs worldwide (196 recognised by Britain's Kennel Club, and 156 by the American Kennel Club). And these recognised breeds are being split into ever smaller, more precise categories: there are now, for instance, two types of cocker spaniel, and two types of Welsh corgi, each with its own gene pool.
The separation of genes is crucial: the purity of each breed, or sub-breed, is zealously preserved and protected. The only qualification needed to register a puppy with most kennel clubs (and thereby to obtain the pedigrees that are essential for successful showing, breeding and trading) is that both its parents were registered as pure-breds of that particular breed.
Stephen Budiansky, the author of a terrific book, The Truth about Dogs, suggests that this obsession with dog purity originated in late Victorian Britain, and has a touch of racist eugenics about it. He mentions books and articles written at that time, and into the 20th century too, that excoriate mongrels and other weaklings for contaminating the purity of bloodlines. The inbreeding to preserve the purity of small-population breeds sometimes has results that get him thinking of the haemophilia that ran through the blood of all those royal European cousins.
The physical standards that each breed should aspire to are laid down by the kennel clubs in meticulous detail. The British rules for a bulldog's head go on and on for no fewer than 240 words; a pug's foot should be neither so long as the foot of the hare, not so round as that of the cat; a King Charles spaniel must have a coat that is long, silky and straight...never curly; a Pekingese should have a slow, dignified rolling gait in front...close action behind, and so on through thousands of daunting, sometimes poetic, words of aesthetic instruction. Since the judges at the all-important dog shows assess an entry according to the exactitude with which it conforms to these arbitrary standards (this little girl took my eye...wish she had more wrinkles), an ambitious breeder will exert him or herself to design a replica.
The first dog show was a social affair held by English aristocrats to raise money for charity. Now they are a deadly serious competitive sub-culture: mighty battles of pride and money against a sometimes murky background of back-biting and back-handers. A blue-ribbon dog, the very model of a champion, fulfilling every condition in the rule-book, is the parent that all ambitious breeders want for their puppies, passing on his aesthetically perfect genes.
There are sometimes regulations limiting the number of litters a bitch may produce. But there have been none, at least until the Netherlands introduces some incendiary new rules next year, about the number of times a champion sire can mate, or his semen be used. So the proud beauties give of their best, again and again, even father to daughter or brother to sister, to produce the perfect breed-standard specimen. Over-use is the rule rather than the exception. It is almost, in Mr Budiansky's inimitable words, cloning the old-fashioned way.
But, alas, the almost-cloned puppy carries its parents' imperfections as well as their aesthetic perfection: unwanted genes are channelled down, in ever greater concentration, alongside the desired ones. There is nothing inherently evil about inbreeding dogs, or line-breeding as it is cosmetically called. Similar methods are used all over the place, for instance in the breeding of dairy cattle. But, unchecked, it can, and is, producing lamentable results.
These are basically of two kinds, though inter-linked. First, the inherited diseases and disorders. With the intense use of popular sires, especially in the rarer breeds with small populations, the animals within a breed become ever more closely related as the generations go by. Undesirable traits, from weak hearts to weak eyes to weak hips, are passed down the line along with the bushy tails and bright eyes. Responsible breeders will not mate an afflicted animal; but many dogs are silent carriers, showing no sign of the disorder themselves but passing recessive mutant genes on to their offspring.
The quest for perfection
In the closed-book breeding conditions that prevail, which allow for no cross-breeding or diversity to creep into the blood, certain defects have become breed characteristics: blindness in setters, for instance, or heart disease in boxers and Boston terriers, or deafness in Dalmatians, or hip dysplasia, that disabling misfit of ball and socket in the hip joint that troubles a large number of different pure-breds.
Cross-bred dogs are not immune. But, refuting the old racist ideas about degenerate mongrels weakening the race, actuarial statistics worked out by pet-insurance companies, and quoted by Bruce Fogle in his encyclopedia of dogs, show that cross-bred dogs have a median life expectancy of 13.2 years compared with the seven years of some pure-breds, including bulldogs and Irish wolfhounds.
Second, there is the exaggeration of certain desired physical features to the point where they harm the dog: a creeping extremism, done in the name of fashion, that causes disorders. Man, or woman, decides that it would be nice to make dogs bigger or smaller, or with squashier faces and noses, or with hairier coats, or with ever more wrinkled skin. When carried to an extreme, it has led to many breeds of dogs being unable to breathe or reproduce or move in a normal way.
Humans have done extraordinary things to their animals. Much of the dog-designing is well intentioned. Sometimes it has positive results: the exquisite sense of smell of some dogs, for instance, has been fine-tuned to help to sniff out drugs or, more excitingly, to detect the early signs of prostate cancer before a scan can do so. Much of it is harmless: West Highland terriers, for instance, were bred to have white coats after a careless owner shot his brown pet by mistake for a fox.
But the results of genetic redesign are not always so benign. Bulldogs, it was decreed, should have big heads. Now they are so big that they cannot pass through the birth canal and most bulldogs have to be born by caesarean. Dachshund bodies were lengthened, giving them hernias. German shepherds, once straight-backed, looked more alert with sloping backs; but this has done their hips in. Spaniels, it was decreed, should have longer, heavier ears; but this has affected the ear's anatomy. And a veterinary surgeon's nightmare sometimes comes true: the eyeballs of a Pekingese can actually pop out.
Working dogs are often turned into something else. The Yorkshire terrier, once a tough little ratter, has been miniaturised, resulting in slipped kneecaps and collapsed wind pipes. Mr Budiansky tells of American owners of Border collies who unsuccessfully fought to keep their working dogs off the list of recognised breeds for fear that they would be transformed into furry, useless creatures.
And fashions have a tendency to change. In the late 19th century, it was thought that it would be nice if the King Charles spaniel had a flatter nose. Then, in the 1920s, an American noticed that the little dog in a Van Dyck painting of Charles II had a long nose. So the King Charles had its nose lengthened again to make a new breed, the cavalier King Charles, which has become immensely popular and intensely inbredand whose heart troubles now shorten the life of affected dogs by four or five years.
Kennel clubs and breed clubs, cast as snobbish or money-grabbing villains by some animal-rights groups, are acutely alive to the increasing prevalence of inherited diseases among their pure-bed dogs. They differ, however, over how to tackle the problem. The Dutch Kennel Club, deciding that the times are serious enough to justify desperate measures, is passing stiff new regulations; others hope to achieve much the same result with information, incentives and peer pressure. All are helped by the scientific explosion in DNA-testing for hereditary diseases.
The testing is crucial to avoid passing on recessive mutant genes that do not show up in any obvious way in the parent, but can kill or maim or blind its puppy. Identifying a dog or a bitch as a carrier would not ban it from being mated: a single recessive mutant gene does no harm, and to ban the animal would shrink an often tiny gene pool to an even tinier one. The trick is to prevent it being mated with another carrier. That is what is fatal: if two carriers mate, some of the offspring inherit a bad gene from both dam and sire, and are thus hit by the disease.
For the moment, DNA tests for dogs are available for fewer than 20 diseases, affecting some 50 breeds. This is only a beginning: dogs are known to suffer from 350 inherited diseases. Of those, the precise mode of inheritance is known of about half, and is usually a single gene mutation.
The British Kennel Club showed that it took all this seriously by appointing a molecular biologist, Jeff Sampson, to be its canine genetics co-ordinator four years ago. All the same, British DNA-testing is severely limited, mainly because it costs so much. It is, however, used to detect PRA, a form of blindness that affects a number of breeds, including Irish setters and Cardigan Welsh corgis, and CLAD, an immune-deficiency disease, that afflicts several types of setter. Enormous store is set by this testing. The CLAD test was introduced only in 2000, when it was discovered that 12% of the breed suffered from it; but the tests are going so well that the Kennel Club believes that all setters should be clear of the killer disease by 2005.
Testing is both more popular and more possible in America, where the Kennel Club, the Canine Health Foundation and breed clubs pour money into genetic and other research, amounting to at least $1.4m this year. DNA tests are available for a range of diseases including haemophilia for Cairn terriers, muscular dystrophy for golden retrievers, and narcolepsy for dachshunds, Dobermanns and Labradors.
Of course, in America as everywhere else, there will always be greedy, unscrupulous breeders, and every breed club has a different code of ethics. But there is considerable peer pressure, the American Kennel Club insists, to test a dog early for whatever disorder tends to afflict that breed. Early auditory tests for Dalmatians have cut down their deafness, orthopaedic X-rays for German shepherds are helping with their hip trouble. A breeder who skips corners, claims the club, is a bit of an outcast: to have certified tested dogs is a mark of honour.
But it is the Dutch who are ahead of the field. The Dutch government has signed the European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals, which obliges member states to safeguard the health and well-being of their pets by national legislation, and the Dutch Kennel Club takes the obligation seriously. During the 1990s, it carried out health inventories to see if there was truth in the belief that pure-bred dogs, because of inbreeding and exaggeration of type, suffered from more genetic problems than other pets. The answer was an emphatic yes: in every one of the 30 breeds of dog surveyed, the incidence of hereditary problems was unnaturally high.
The Dutch Kennel Club puts less faith than others in testing, arguing that most diseases and disorders still do not have suitable, or affordable, testing methods. By the time science has caught up with the problem, harmful genes may have spread all over the breeds, both in visibly affected dogs and in a much larger group of invisible undetectable carriers.
The cause of the problem, kennel-club experts concluded, was current breeding policy. So they decided to cut down the inbreeding. And since persuasion, they felt, had got nobody anywhere, they decided to make the changes mandatory. Until now, the Dutch Kennel Club, like its fellows, had to issue a pedigree to any puppy born of two certified pure-breeds of the same breed. But, from the new year, the Dutch will issue two sorts of certificate. A pedigree will be given only to puppies bred under stipulated breed regulations; puppies that do not meet this standard, will get a mere certificate of descent.
Over the past few months, the various Dutch breed clubs have been working out the regulations for their specific breed. By far the most controversial of these rules tackles the popular sire syndrome: the over-use by breeders of a single champion dog. From now on in the Netherlands, the number of times a particular dog is allowed to be used for mating will depend on the size and the problems of his specific breed. For instance, if a dog is allowed only 12 matings, the breeder of the puppies from the 13th mating will be denied a pedigree certificate.
The Dutch, with their touch of autocracy, are exploring this new route, insisting on more diversity within a breed and punishing those who refuse to comply. Other clubs demur, saying their members do not like being ordered about, and would rebel against rules and regulations. It is nicer, they say, to be gentler. But can the Dutch experiment be extended to undoing some of the harm caused by exaggerating the way certain dogs look?
Since breeders want their dogs to win at shows, and judges assess the dogs by breeding standards, the logical step would be to change those standards. On this point, however, there have been only the smallest of small concessions to health and well-being. The standards no longer call for anything to be excessive; indeed, that is discouraged. And diamond-shaped eyes, which caused all sorts of eyelid troubles, are no longer demanded. But all this touches only the edge of the problem of dogs that have been disabled by a whim of human fashion.
The notion of diversifying within a breed is controversial; outside it is still taboo. Nobody wants to end the joyous variety of dogs. And dogs themselves can be tremendous snobs. I am his Highness' dog at Kew;/ Pray, tell me sir, whose dog are you? wrote Pope, with understanding. But they would flourish more if breeders tried harder to ensure that each generation reflected a greater diversity, perhaps injecting a drop of hybrid vigour into the narrowing aristocratic bloodlines. The circular world of breeders, kennel clubs and dog shows rules against this. But it is not much good looking drop-dead gorgeous if you are going to drop dead.
Dec 19th 2002
From The Economist print edition
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