The 1 percent are hurting dogs: Pure-breds, pedigrees and the sick politics of perfect puppies

What keeps educated consumers from seeing that investing in a golden retriever is like buying Goldman derivatives?

Published February 18, 2015 5:15PM (EST)

Jane Lynch and Jennifer Coolidge in "Best in Show"     (Castle Rock Entertainment)
Jane Lynch and Jennifer Coolidge in "Best in Show" (Castle Rock Entertainment)

Excerpted from "A Matter of Breeding: A Biting History of Pedigree Dogs and How the Quest for Status Has Harmed Man’s Best Friend"

I found my inspiration for this impolite volume while trying to dodge something else. Wandering the sidewalks of Manhattan in the midst of an unsavory study on poop-scoop laws with my newfound mutt from a local shelter, I started wondering: what was so appealing about “purebred” dogs? I know many of us grew up with them. These were, after all, what good middle-class families had in those days, and preferably the latest model. But what gave birth to the widespread belief that being seen with a fancy breed makes you fancier than someone with a good old-fashioned mutt?

Pounding the pavement as a dog walker for ten years, I had as wide a catalog selection as my powers of observation could handle, a continual pooch panorama with all the standard shapes, sizes, and colors competing for attention. In a sense, I didn’t need this rainbow coalition to tell me anything new. Having spent my life with breeds and nonbreeds alike, sat for hundreds in the homes of New York’s elite, apprenticed with a dog trainer, performed with my own on national television, and passed thousands of hours volunteering at a dog park chatting with every imaginable breed of owner, I’d learned to love all dogs despite their pigmentation and social ties. I knew before starting this study that, unless they had specific skills for tasks like jumping through hoops, working on my grandmother’s farm, hunting with my dad, or helping the blind lady who lived down the block, their dazzling diversity was mostly superficial. Bird dogs were out of their element in the rarified atmosphere of upper-class Manhattan. Portuguese water dogs were fish out of water. Take Weimaraners out of their Wegman coats and they were still half-crazed lapdogs. Dobies and rotties could be better guardians than some, but owners wanted signature stances and ears that stood right. Bassets were once used for tracking, and with a little more brains or less skin, the show versions might find a trail if you rubbed their noses in it. Black Labs and golden retrievers summoned ancient memories of Scottish moors and aristocratic estates, but at the end of the day, they were couch potatoes like the rest.

The actual subject of my study became not hounds but the humans hooked on their looks—and what fascinating creatures these were. In all those years spent walking privileged pets for one of the most visible and affluent communities in the world, the most challenging part of my job wasn’t picking up the poop but sidestepping people who wanted dogs to be so much more. My sworn duty to my charges was to give them a good leg-stretching, including pit stops on the way, but also to get them to the nearest dog run safe and sound for an hour of off-leash freedom from those attempting to reward their unconditional love with a long list of preconditions. What my crew of pups needed was a chance to be themselves, and the clock was ticking for each and every individual regardless of breed, creed, or color. Cool shade and fresh grass called out universally to noses of all shades, and not even squirrels discriminated based on pedigree when taunting from the nearest branch.

Wrist burns as my witness, the last thing my dogs wanted or needed was to stop on hot concrete to be admired by total strangers looking for the latest Westminster champ. Normal boundaries, the rules designed to help people coexist in crowded places, came down in one tsunami of unbridled puppy love as I navigated my team through some of the hairiest social situations known to man or beast. Purebreds brought out the child in people, and grown adults from all walks of life brought ours to a screeching halt by pointing from a distance, rushing up to pet without permission, then blocking our path to ask questions.

If a new breed was in the White House and I was walking an inbred cousin, the paparazzi demanded in no uncertain terms to know: “Is that a Portuguese water dog?” or “Is it perchance a Petit Basset Griffon Vendéen?” When Charlotte got a Cavalier King Charles on Sex and the City, I had no choice but to answer, countless times, the query of the season: “Is that a Cavalier?” Nine weeks after Best in Show hit the theaters, a wave of Norwich terriers hit the sidewalks, followed by “Is that a Norwich or a Norfolk?” Border collies became burdensome when shown at Westminster. I stopped accepting Saint Bernards after Beethoven’s 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th. When Disney released another sequel-to-a-remake, pavements were blighted with black spots and all of New York resounded with: “Isn’t that a Dalmatian?”

Meanwhile, any mutts in my care were invisible to the purists, completely off their social radar. Like bird watchers in Central Park, the hobbyists were looking for particular types, specimens they could call out and label, then store upstairs for obscure and arcane purposes. Canine cataloging seems to bring some strange sense of pride and accomplishment, and the more esoteric the question, the better it reflects upon the inquirer who, in the vast majority of cases, already knows the answer. The real goal in the breed guessing game is to make known, to the dog’s owner, walker, and anyone within earshot, that the contestant is up on all the four-legged facts as revealed on Animal Planet or Hollywood’s latest Chihuahua extravaganza.

How many dog lovers are aware that, despite the praise and admiration we shower upon our best friends, not everything we do for them is in their own best interests? Sure, the coats are pretty, but Labs and shepherds need hydrotherapy for hip dysplasia if they’re to continue sidewalk entertaining. Shar-peis and boxers look distinctive with those folds on the face, but owners book return visits to animal hospitals for interminable allergies and epilepsy, while goldens and Scottish deerhounds take pet taxis to oncology wards and ICUs. We’re so busy dragging Boomer and Bailey around town that we don’t stop to think that much of their special care is only necessary because of problems their biggest fans have helped inflict upon them.

There can no longer be any doubt. As was long suspected, ample studies confirm that requiring breeds to be distinctive has led to dramatically higher levels of cancer, structural deformities, skin conditions, eye and ear infections, and a host of afflictions that are multiplying. Many purebreds are officially in peril and dog lovers must confront this sad reality. Forcing Labs to go on looking Labby and pugs pugnacious—expecting them to “conform,” as they say in the show ring, to arbitrary beauty-pageant ideals—has resulted in creatures esthetically pleasing to behold, depending on your personal tastes, but physically and often mentally inferior to the average mutt. Compromising health and temperament with a concern for surface appearance has given dogs a host of defects including “extreme anatomies,” say concerned vets, cartoon features that consumers find cute but are in fact deformities causing discomfort, pain, and shorter lives—and the agony owners feel when having to make that final decision sooner than they thought.

Why do we go on hurting the ones we love? Why must German shepherds limp through life and French bulldogs barely breathe? Enthusiasts attached to the breeds they had growing up surely don’t wish to see their beloved favorites suffer, but they might want to be more aware that congenital illness and certain signature looks, even in the so-called hypoallergenic models, have become serious problems in recent years. I argue that the root of the problem lies in the past. Rigid tastes, latent class consciousness, a belief in blood “purity,” naive notions on authenticity—and a tendency to sometimes love dogs for the wrong reasons—override a wealth of information available on the dangers of inbreeding, the downsides to extreme anatomies, and the evils of the pet industry today. Well-intentioned animal lovers with minds open to this broader historical perspective might wake up one morning to a revelation: dogs don’t need to be neatly standardized, packaged, and sealed to be our friends. How much easier it would make people’s lives to learn that for every prepaid, photogenic purebred ordered months in advance of birth with promises of “predictability” from “reputable” breeders, perfectly wonderful specimens of dog are available minutes away at the local shelter, with at least as much happiness to offer and often with no breeding at all.

Maybe dogs never lie about love, but some people still see what they want to see. No self-styled dog expert of the old school, in all my time pooch perambulating, has ever stopped me on a Manhattan sidewalk to ask, “Is it true that over 60 percent of all golden retrievers in this country are dying of cancer?” If by chance they did, I’d point them to an article in the Wall Street Journal (published over a decade after the study was released) or an eye-opening BBC documentary called “Pedigree Dogs Exposed” showing many breeds to be in serious trouble. I might mention, if they had a moment to chat, that the BBC dropped its coverage of Crufts, the world’s premier dog show and role model for our own Westminster, until cyno-social clubs reexamined their values and reset their priorities. Not a single hound hide enthusiast, respectful of tradition and awed by “good” breeding and “good” families, deigned to grab my arm and confirm that Queen Elizabeth herself withdrew royal patronage from England’s famed Kennel Club, the forerunner of our American Kennel Club (AKC), to force its hand at reform.

The cult of pedigree and formal perfection comes to us via the British, and the many downsides are being seen on both sides of the pond. Little is it known that progress toward simply acknowledging a canine health crisis actually began in the United States, if only at an English bulldog’s pace. Eighteen years before highly publicized calls to action were heard in the UK, Mark Derr’s bold landmark essay, “The Politics of Dogs,” appeared in the Atlantic Monthly at a time when most national media feared lawsuits from the great and powerful AKC. Since then, books, magazines, and major studies have sounded alarms about problems with pedigree dogs, and Americans have gradually withdrawn support from old authorities whose judgment appears unsound. “Pedigree Dogs Exposed” surpassed an English tradition of whipping pretentious pet owners with social commentary and wit, taking the Kennel Club to court with charges more serious than snobbery. The Economist described many modern breeds not as the epitome of British know-how but as “a grotesque distortion of the underlying wolf.”

Reconsidering the dog, this isn’t to say that the fancy—those who own, breed, show, and judge “purebreds”—consists entirely of dastardly villains bent on profiting from animal cruelty. Whether they’re affiliated with the AKC or the more health- and performance-oriented United Kennel Club, breed buffs certainly don’t wish to see their customized types discontinued. Breed clubs and kennel clubs, it’s true, raise large sums to combat the diseases that have come to characterize individual breeds as unmistakably as their coat colors or ear shapes. That said, it has been argued that many of these efforts will have a limited effect within the present system. Adhering to the same strict and narrow practices to create breeds, and then to keep them “pure” in blood and “correct” in appearance, can make DNA-testing schemes to breed out illnesses self-defeating endeavors. A rising number of veterinary scientists are calling for some of the most troubled types, ranging from pugs to Cavaliers, to be banned despite their large followings, if only out of mercy for the dogs themselves.

Progress has been slow, to say the least, but animal lovers on either side of the Atlantic shouldn’t need to get their news from scientists, and certainly not from their dog walker. Simple farmers and nomadic hunters reached the same conclusions tens of thousands of years ago and with no help from evolutionary biology or population genetics, or the steady stream of coverage on Nightline, the Today Show, and local stations across the country. Breeding for blood “purity” and formal perfection is pure madness and always has been. So why do purists cling to this idea that “traditional” breeds they can’t imagine in other shapes, sizes, or colors are anything more than commercial inventions of Victorian England? What keeps socially aware, politically correct, otherwise educated consumers from seeing that investing in a golden retriever is like buying derivatives from Goldman Sachs, and that saving the brand is like saving the Mars bar?

The answer is often as simple as snobbery, a motivation as old as the hills and an impulse that archaic institutions are vested in preserving. A Matter of Breeding is a critical social history of the dog fancy in England and America, an odyssey of wonder and disbelief. This does not pretend to be a scientific study, but plenty of those are waiting just keystrokes away from anyone who really wants to know. Combined herein are years of observation of people and pets in places public and private with as many years of research in archives underground. I’m eager to share my mystification over how dogs came to occupy their wide array of shapes, sizes, and coat colors; who decided how they had to look and for what elaborate reasons; what possesses people to continue respecting their questionable judgment today; and finally the price dogs have had to pay for living up to misplaced priorities. Breeds as we know them on sidewalks and green carpets didn’t fall from the sky. They were deliberately designed and packaged for appeal, like any other luxury products. Applying the same baseless biases to humans would invite charges of shallowness, callousness, racism, or insanity. Imposing stringent but unnecessary standards on dogs is what dog lovers think they’re doing in their best friends’ best interests.

The history is here, some old and some recent, for readers to decide how much has changed. “It is very pleasing to have a new suit, a new car, a new wife, and it loses much unless you are able to exhibit it,” as English historian Edward Ash explained in 1934 the timeless appeal of “fancy” pets—the reason they were invented in the first place. Another noted English authority cut closer to the heart of the matter when he wrote: “I somehow never feel the same respect for a man who allows himself to be accompanied by a badly-bred cur, for dog and master are so often of one type.” His fashion advice in the 1890s: “Nobody who is anybody can afford to be followed by a mongrel dog.” Director Christopher Guest confirms this observation while explaining his inspiration for Best in Show: “I noticed a real dynamic that existed between owners and their pets. The pure-breds looked down on our mutts in the same way their owners looked down on us.”

Dogs are not science experiments, artworks, or historical artifacts with traditions to uphold. They live very much in the here and now, which is where our hearts and minds ought to be. Our dear friends have faced avoidable health problems for some time, and while these have grown to extremes, none of this is news. What’s changed is how we value our companion species, after taking a wrong turn about a hundred fifty years ago, and how far we feel we can fairly bend them to please us. If only it were possible to step back and recall falling in love with our first puppy, before the fussbudgets told us why.

I leave you with a final word from a leading British authority on matters canine, his expert advice to Americans back in 1875 when we were still acquiring our taste for show rings, rosettes, and aping English royalty. That same fine gentleman who advised against wearing the wrong dog in public warned in no uncertain terms: “The market-price of a mongrel is the price of his hide, minus the value of the rope you buy to hang him.”

Now, how do you suppose we should respond—knowing what we do?

Excerpted from "A Matter of Breeding: A Biting History of Pedigree Dogs and How the Quest for Status Has Harmed Man’s Best Friend," by Michael Brandow. Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press. All rights reserved.

By Michael Brandow

With a background in journalism, dog care, and community activism, Michael Brandow is a sought-after commentator on dog-related issues and has written for publications including the New York Times, Town & Country, ARTNews, the BARk, and Animal Fair. He lives in New York City.

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