We can all agree that puppy mills are bad. Some of us disagree about whether breeding dogs, even responsibly, is ethical. But what I often find gets lost in the breeder vs. rescue debate is whether or not continuing to breed purebred dogs is necessary. I would argue that, for the most part, it is not, and we should rethink what the human insistence on purebreds is actually doing to dogs.
Dog breeds are a purely artificial construct. As humans started selectively breeding dogs for distinct purposes, distinct breeds started to emerge. That was all well and good when we actually needed dogs for hunting, herding, or draft work. But as dogs moved out of the fields and into our homes, breed standards became meaningless — and looks and temperament started to run the show. This has resulted in dogs with exaggerated breed traits that often render them inherently less healthy.
Breeding gone bad
Let’s talk about the English Bulldog for a moment because I think it epitomizes everything that is wrong with dog breeding. Once a hardy, athletic little dog, English Bulldogs are now beset with a list of health problems so long — cardiac and respiratory diseases chief among them — that they have an average lifespan of just 6.25 years. Why? Because people started breeding these dogs to exaggerate their wrinkles, their head size, and other features we thought were cute (and, I should point out, conform to their breed standards). Now most of them are unable to breed without human intervention and live relatively short and limited lives. As Temple Grandin puts it: “I mean, look at the Bulldog – that’s a monstrosity.” How is continuing to breed these dogs for these traits ethical?
You might say that this is just one example of breeding gone horribly wrong, but there are plenty of other dogs out there being bred by “responsible” breeders for traits that are inherently harmful. Many of the giant dogs live only slightly longer than the Bulldog’s 6.25 years because their bodies give out earlier than small or medium sized dogs’ do. Cancer runs rampant in Boxers. Over half of Cavalier King Charles Spaniels have heart mitral valve disease, and they are also prone to syringomyelia — a painful and devastating condition caused by their tiny skulls. Many of our most popular family dogs — like Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherds, and Golden Retrievers — have hip and other skeletal problems. Dachshunds have a very high risk of intervertebral disc disease, which can result in paralysis, and brachycephalic dogs all have varying levels of problems with breathing. Even something as seemingly innocuous as floppy ears is associated with increased health problems, even if those problems aren’t life-threatening.
Many purebred dogs who no longer serve their original purpose have found success in more modern jobs. Instead of retrieving dead birds, Labradors are now guiding the blind and sniffing out drugs. Instead of herding sheep and guarding the farm, German Shepherds are now on the front lines of the battlefield and police work. Even I can agree that breeding dogs for these purposes may still be necessary (even though many shelter dogs have proven to be effective as working dogs), but I won’t agree that those dogs have to be purebred.
Let’s talk about bomb-sniffing dogs for a moment. Walk around any airport, and you’ll find a variety of dogs doing this job — German Shepherds, Belgian Malinois, and Labrador Retrievers. If you were to breed the best bomb-sniffing Lab and the best bomb-sniffing Shepherd, would the resulting mixed-breed puppies be any less likely to excel at that job than their purebred counterparts? No. But they might be a little healthier.
Is a Border Collie-Australian Shepherd mix any less competent in the pasture than either of those individual breeds? Probably not. Breeds like these came to be when farmers took their best herding dogs and selectively bred them over the years without regard to appearance. Even today, farmers know that what matters is a dog’s ability to get the job done — not his pedigree. (Just ask this website where ranchers go to buy and sell working dogs, many of which are purebred, some of which are not, and some of which seem to be selectively crossbred.) It’s no coincidence that some of the healthiest dog breeds out there are the ones that are bred for working, where health and endurance matter.
So what’s the answer?
For many dog breeds with hereditary problems, the answer to longer, healthier lives means diversifying the gene pool. Some English Bulldog enthusiasts have begun mixing other bully breeds back into the Bulldog’s gene pool, to create the Olde English Bulldog, which more closely resembles the English Bulldogs of the 1820s. Some Dalmatian lovers have tried introducing English Pointers back into the mix to help stop the spread of hyperuricemia. But kennel clubs and others who are more concerned with pedigrees than the health of the dogs are resistant to the idea of diversifying breed genetics.
I’ve often wondered at the sanity of people who are willing to pay a premium for glorified mutts like Puggles and Goldendoodles, but I’m starting to think those breeders are onto something. The way forward for dogs just may be intentionally mixed breeds like these. By focusing so much on the purity of breeds, people have unwittingly done a lot of harm to our best friends, but we also have the power to undo all of it, if we’re willing.
So, the next time you are looking to bring a pooch into your family, ask yourself if her pedigree really matters.