Let me start with some qualifiers, lest my headline throws me under the bus before I start the engine. My family shares our life with both rescued mixed breeds and purebred dogs. I’ve written extensively for national rescue publications, interviewing and supporting leaders in the rescue movement. I also applaud each and every boots-on-the-ground worker. I’m firmly committed to the reality of a no-kill nation, and I deplore irresponsible breeders and puppy mills.
All that being true, I still firmly believe that a passionate commitment to remedying the overpopulation of dogs can, and should, coexist with a commitment to breeding. For by maintaining the integrity of breeds, we safeguard our ongoing, evolving relationship with the canine species. Still with me? Let me offer a more detailed cultural and historical explanation of my belief.
In the last two decades, I’ve written many breed profiles, exploring the varied connections man has forged with dogs throughout history. I’ve also interviewed research scientists about discoveries revealing the special communication, working liaison, and unique bond dogs share with mankind. We even share a similar hormonal response when we are pleased with one another! As I both review these new findings and study history, I have an ever-increasing appreciation for 1) the exceptional position dogs hold with humans, and 2) how each breed’s existence and adaptability has contributed to this unique relationship between dog and man.
My objectives (supporting both responsible breeders and rescue) aren’t mutually exclusive. Rich Avanzino, a no-kill visionary and now strategic advisor to animal-welfare foundation Maddie’s Fund, told me a while back that since 2001, the number of animals in homes adopted from shelters had risen from about 17 percent to almost 29 percent. I applaud this progress. After all, many of us have room in our hearts and homes for multiple animals. We can strengthen the rescue system on the national level by backing organizations such as Best Friends, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and the Humane Society of the United States. We can bolster rescue on the local level by fostering or adopting animals, volunteering, and promoting spaying and neutering. But we must not throw in the towel on purebreds.
The remarkable history of dog breeds interacting with man in such varied environments and capacities, after all, illuminates the big picture of the importance of intentional breeding. To preserve this unique species-to-species relationship, we must encourage responsible, accountable breeders to continue breeding purebred pups for soundness, health, temperament, and working ability. And by the way, if a breeder doesn’t run health tests, stand behind his pups, ask you a ton of questions (and answer all yours), run in the opposite direction!
Each breed tells a story
History indicates that dogs were first domesticated some 15,000 years ago. As cultures developed, we diversified our dogs specifically for physical and temperament traits that suited our environments. A Siberian Husky, for example, was bred with a thick coat for the cold, a strong work ethic, and yet a docile temperament to sleep peaceably with humans, keeping them warm on three dog nights. Correspondingly suited to the warm Mexican climate and culture, the short-haired Mexican Chihuahua was popular with the Aztecs, renowned for serving sacred purposes as well as offering friendship.
From this less-than-6-pound Chihuahua to the 150-pound-or-more Saint Bernard, the canine species is the most diverse mammal on land. Within the species, there are hundreds of breeds, each representing an association with mankind and an adaptation to geography, topography, socioeconomic setting, climate, culture, and religion.
- An ancient guardian breed from Turkey, the Anatolian Shepherd was developed to protect livestock, often without a shepherd’s direction or presence. Today the Anatolian works in Turkey and the U.S., securing pastures from predators. He also fulfills an unusual, important job related to his aptitudes: protecting endangered animals. His presence on farms in Africa, for example, deters cheetahs that otherwise might be shot by farmers for threatening livestock.
- The Pembroke Welsh Corgi was developed to take charge of Welsh farmyards, leading poultry to market, working as heelers and drovers, controlling rats, and watching over property. Short legs had a serious purpose, allowing him to avoid kicking cattle. Pembrokes helped farmers by day, and as legend tells, carried magical fairies at night. Today the Pembroke’s keen situational awareness makes him a reliable and yet not overly reactionary home guardian as well as companion.
- The Yorkshire Terrier, bred originally to control rat populations, today generally transfers his spunky spirit into companionship. Bred small but feisty (chasing rats isn’t for the faint of heart!), Yorkies are bright, agile, and quick to warn families of newcomers’ arrivals.
Aren’t many breed traits obsolete?
It’s true: Few Pekingese hide in royal robes, hardly any Miniature Poodles track truffles, and few Norwegian Lundehund hunt puffin birds. Cultures change. So do our dog breeds. But here’s a key point: Intentional breeding allows humans, over time, to select for particular breed traits that facilitate the canine species’ ongoing association with mankind. We’re continually finding new ways our dogs can connect with us.
But not all dogs are suited to particular roles. It’s not a one-dog-breed-fits-all world. Some companion breeds, such as the relaxed French Bulldog, place little value on working. Certain breeds, such as the Australian Cattle Dog, are too intense for sedentary families but make great working companions.
In recent years, some breeds (and some individual mixed breed dogs, too) are evidencing an aptitude for:
- Sniffing out explosives.
- Detecting drugs.
- Soothing (and assisting) aging adults.
- Guiding the sight or hearing impaired.
- Reassuring people with post-traumatic stress.
- Searching and rescuing the injured, lost, or missing.
- Assisting and protecting our service men and women.
- Sensing human cancer, oncoming seizures, and unsafe sugar levels for diabetics.
A breed evidencing an aptitude can be selectively bred for continued advancement of that work. Genes play a role. It is at least more likely that a pup with parents showing aptitude A or B will also, with training, exhibit aptitude A or B.
In addition, some traits developed in a breed for one job may carry over to modern tasks. A Labrador Retriever, bred to hunt and retrieve, can now excel in explosive detection work. And his consistent friendliness (bred into many sporting breeds) carries over to his popularity as a family companion.
The Belgian Malinois, a European herding breed with a strong protective instinct and stamina, today excels as a military dog. A few years ago, when interviewing military dog sources, I specifically asked the handlers at Lackland Air Force Base why certain breeds (German Shepherd Dogs, Belgian Malinois, and Dutch Shepherds) are used. My sources explained that over time, these breeds have shown a reliability performing the necessary tasks. The training programs have developed around the breeds’ inherent abilities.
Similarly, other service dog roles are filled by specific breeds. The consistency of traits evidenced within a breed offers a somewhat reliable prediction of outcome. But of course many individual mixed breeds do wonderful service work. And some purebred dogs flunk out of various training programs. It’s simply a matter of likelihood: It’s more likely a Labrador Retriever will succeed in search and rescue than a dog of uncertain mixed breed origins.
Where do we go from here?
Hand in hand with supporting rescue, we must recognize that as a species in its entirety, the dog and the richness of his ability to relate to man is directly correlated to intentional, specific breeding. To keep our four-legged friends beside us on mankind’s ever-changing road, we must support professional breeders who help maintain established dog breeds, as well as guide new breeds evolving today. Breeders can also be a significant resource, mentoring us as we raise our dogs to their fullest potential.
There will come a day when a no-kill nation is a reality, spaying/neutering by responsible pet owners is the norm, and our shelters are much less crowded. With fewer dogs in need of rescue, we’ll look even more to breeders for pups of a wide assortment of magnificent breeds. Our relationship with the canine species depends on the breeders who value, nurture, and carefully guide the development of each and every one of our wonderful, varied breeds.
Do you agree or disagree with me? Let me know in the comments.
Top photo: Brittany courtesy KJ Yaccino.
Read more commentary:
- I Think Dog-Sharing Apps Are Dangerous
- Let’s Get Behind Programs That Help Low-Income Families Keep Their Pets
- Why I No Longer Shop at My Local Mom-and-Pop Pet Store
About the author: Originally an attorney, Lynn Hayner has been writing for companion animal publications for 15 years. Hayner researches breed profiles, dabbles in animal law issues, and collects stories about dogs and their families in her travels. A lifelong dog aficionado, Hayner is shadowed by her “Who the heck needs a leash, I’ll follow mama anywhere” German Shepherd, Zoey. Follow Hayner (well, hopefully not quite as closely as Zoey does!) on Twitter @lynnhayner.