This week saw pedigreed pooches and the people who own them descend on New York City for the 2015 Westminster Kennel Club dog show. For many, the top dogs of Westminster represent perfect, standard-conforming specimens — living proof of impressive ancestry and thoughtful breeding. But a new book by author, social critic, and former Manhattan dog walker Michael Brandow is challenging many long-held beliefs about purebred dogs.
Brandow says his book, A Matter of Breeding: A Biting History of Pedigree Dogs and How the Quest for Status Has Harmed Man’s Best Friend, runs contrary to Westminster and everything for which it stands. The author hopes his work might influence people who have typically looked to the show ring before selecting a family pet.
“Maybe they’ll lighten up on their ideas of blood-purity and how dogs need to look,” says Brandow, whose book details historical influences on cultural beliefs about and preference for purebred dogs as pets.
According to the American Kennel Club, each of the 184 AKC-recognized breeds has a distinct personality, and researching the right breed to match your lifestyle is an essential task before choosing a pet.
Although Brandow contradicts that position now, the author admits there was a time when he didn’t doubt it, recalling a discussion with friends when he decided to get his first dog back in the ’90s.
“The first thing that came to my mind was, well, what breed?” Brandow remembers. “And they said, what are you talking about ‘what breed?’ Just go to a shelter and get a dog — and that’s when it suddenly dawned on me.”
By ignoring the impulse to select a companion based on breed, Brandow ended up with Sammy, an intelligent mutt who shared his life for 14 years.
“People are doing that more and more now; they’re not just going straight for this idea that you have to find a breed that’s perfect for your personality and lifestyle,” says Brandow, adding that selecting a pet based on breed won’t guarantee a certain behavior.
The author points to a legacy of breeding for looks and a lack of genetic diversity as the causes of many behavioral and health issues in purebreds. In A Matter of Breeding, Brandow writes that Cocker Spaniels — once a popular family pet — have become very aggressive, noting the phenomenon of “Cocker rage syndrome.” Brandow also notes that despite the fact that Bulldogs lead the pack when it comes to veterinary bills, people continue to purchase these puppies born with pedigrees (via cesarean section) and the breed surges in popularity. The author believes these breed-specific concerns aren’t enough to deter consumers who long ago internalized imported English ideas about lineage and aristocracy.
“There’s still this ability to overlook all the illnesses in their breeds, which are getting worse all the time,” he tells Dogster.
The question of who is healthier — mutts or purebreds — was the topic of a 2013 University of California, Davis, study Brandow references in his book, but the answer was interpreted differently by both sides of the debate. The study of 90,004 dogs over 15 years found that 10 genetic disorders were found more often in purebreds, and one disorder was more common for mixed dogs. The prevalence of 13 out of 24 genetic disorders was about the same in purebred dogs and mixed-breed mutts. The UC Davis news release was titled “Purebred dogs not always at higher risk for genetic disorders, study finds,” while others, like Veterinary Practice News, used the same data to conclude “Study Shows Mutts Genetically Healthier.”
Brandow believes the study was misframed by UC Davis in a way that encourages consumers to see purebred dogs as better than mutts — a perception he sees as sadly common.
“It’s rooted in all these elitist beliefs, and this idea that you’re getting a quality dog — you’re not getting a quality dog, not as it would normally be defined. You’re buying into the snob appeal basically, and that is very much alive whether you watch Westminster or not.”
In A Matter of Breeding, Brandow also explores the uncomfortable idea that society’s preference for purebred dogs is simply a holdover from the eugenics movement.
“I really think that we’re pawning off these archaic beliefs about class and racial purity that we’re no longer supposed to have, and we’re putting them on the backs of dogs,” he says.
“You can’t have it both ways. We’re subjected to the same laws of biology as they are. Either you believe in blood purity and racial profiling or you don’t.”
Brandow’s comparison of dog breeding to racism is one that many dog fanciers challenge. Many also take issue with his assertion that showing dogs does not improve a breed, but weakens it.
“Take the Border Collie,” he offers. “The real Border Collie people, the United States Border Collie Club, fought for years against kennel club recognition. They knew, because every working dog has been ruined by the show ring.”
Brandow recognizes that much of his book will be disputed by those who love, show, or breed purebred dogs.
“I’m hoping I don’t have to wear sunglasses at the local dog run in Washington Square Park and go incognito,” he jokes, adding that the reviews from early readers (including some with a purebred dog of their own) were surprisingly promising.
“I think the public is primed for it in a way,” Brandow explains. “I think a lot of celebrities are starting to set good examples by coming out against dog shows and against breeding in general.”
“Ryan Gosling with his mutt — I love to see things like that,” he says.
Whether you agree with Brandow’s anti-dog-show stance or not, the book offers an interesting look into the history of various breeds as well as how humankind has changed the way dogs look and live. As for any bias against purebred dogs themselves, the author doesn’t care if your dog looks like the Westminster champ or the famous actor’s mutt.
“I love all dogs. I just don’t care what their coat colors are.”
What are your thoughts on purebred dogs? Let us know in the comments.
Read more about the 2015 Westminster Kennel Club dog show:
About the author: Heather Marcoux is a freelance writer in Alberta, Canada. Her beloved Ghost Cat was once her only animal, but the addition of a second cat, Specter, and the dog duo of GhostBuster and Marshmallow make her fur family complete. Sixteen paws is definitely enough. Heather is also a wife, a bad cook, and a former TV journalist. Some of her friends have hidden her feed because of an excess of cat pictures. If you don’t mind cat pictures, you can follow her on Twitter; she also posts pet GIFs on Google+.