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News and insights from special guests—from experts to enthusiasts.

 

Play Ball
Mascot of the El Paso Chihuahuas

He sports a side-of-the-mouth snarl, nicks in his right ear, fiery eyes and a menacing spiked collar.

 The face of the El Paso Chihuahuas, the newest team in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League, “Chico” is the creation of Brandiose, a San Diego design firm owned by longtime friends Jason Klein and Casey White.

“He’s been in a few alleys in his time, and sometimes he’s even come out on the positive side of a fight,” explains Klein. He and White got their inspiration for Chico by asking themselves, “What would the Oakland Raiders look like if they were a minor league baseball team and their name was the Chihuahuas?”

The product of a “Name the Team” contest, Chihuahuas was chosen to reflect the scrappy spirit and fierce loyalty for which El Pasoans are known, as well as the surrounding Chihuahuan Desert. From these elements, Brandiose then created the team’s colors and a marketable family of logos to appeal to kids and families, including Chico swinging a bone bat, crossed (and gnawed on) dog bones below a chewed baseball, and Chico’s signature fierce face.

 The team takes its “canine culture” seriously.

 The four-level pavilion in right field is the Big Dog House, and the open-air top level is the Wooftop. The game program is called “The Paw Print,” fans park in the Barking Lot and among the concession items are nachos served in a dog bowl. Among their social media hashtags is #FearTheEars, which has also become a hand signal.

The first of two “Bark in the Park” nights, during which accompanied dogs were welcome in two reserved sections of Southwest University Park, attracted more than 300 pooches of all sizes. 

Brandiose’s brainchild now is known worldwide. Before the season’s first pitch, orders for Chihuahua merchandise came in from all 50 states and eight countries, and sales have remained strong.

Chico now has many amigos.

Hope Needs a Forever Home

If ever there were an aptly named dog, it has to be Hope. In the spring of 2013, an Oakland animal control officer found the scrawny one-year-old Pit Bull tied to a tree behind an abandoned house. She was severely underweight with no fur, the result of a condition called Demodex, a non-contagious mange that is extremely difficult to eradicate. She was brought to Oakland Animal Services and, predictably, no owner came for her. But she wasn’t healthy enough to be put up for adoption. Besides, the shelter doesn’t have the resources to treat that condition, so there was little hope for her future.

That’s when Oakland Animal Services’ volunteers Steve LaChapelle and Pat Luchak stepped in, agreeing to share foster parent duties for Hope, while they nursed her back to health. Because Steve works as a pilot, he couldn’t provide a full-time foster home, so Pat agreed to care for Hope when Steve traveled. In those early days, Hope was weak and almost completely bald. “Because of the mites on her (from the mange) she had an elevated temperature and was hot to the touch,” explains Pat. Hope needed oral medication and frequent medicated baths to treat her condition, which can get worse from stress. Steve and Pat soon learned more bad news. Hope had a congenital heart problem called Valvular Pulmonic Stenosis. Without surgery she would not live more than another year.

But Steve and Pat never gave up. Steve set up an online “crowd-funding” website, asking friends, family and the public to donate any amount to help cover Hope’s surgery. Steve set an ambitious goal—$5,000.  In less than three days, the campaign raised almost $6,000, from hundreds of people across the country, and even abroad. One generous anonymous donor gave $1,000. About a month later, Hope had heart surgery, and was on the road to recovery.

It wasn’t easy.  The stress from surgery and recovery could trigger the return of the mange. Steve and Pat kept watchful eyes on Hope throughout this period. They then cared for her through a spay surgery and more recovery.

Fast-forward to summer 2014 and you’ll find Hope not only surviving, but thriving. She now has a medical prognosis for a normal, healthy life. She sports a gorgeous coat, a mixture of fawn with white spots. On a typical day, you’ll find her enjoying the company of Steve and his dog, or at Pat’s house with her two dogs and Bob, her second foster dad. As Pat says, “Hope has never met another dog she didn’t like.” The suddenly energetic girl has gone from taking six kinds of medication a day to just one. She enjoys hiking and playtime, often outlasting her older canine roommates. When asked for one word that describes her, both Pat and Steve say “snuggler.” Through her ordeal, Hope has become a bit of a celebrity too; she has a loyal following of almost 600 dog lovers from all over the country on her facebook page.

Now Steve and Pat know it is time for Hope to find her “forever” home. They believe it will be with a person or family who has some dog experience, and a commitment to sustaining Hope’s good health. Given how playful she is, canine “siblings” would be a bonus. Steve and Pat hope to remain in her life, and offer to be lifelong Hope-sitters for anyone who adopts her. While she still lives with Steve and Pat, Hope is available for adoption through Oakland Animal Services. More information about her is available here.

See what a good girl she is!
 

 

Dogs and Lipomas
Are all fatty tumors benign?

Expanding on the topic of tumors discussed last week, this blog is devoted to lipomas, aka fatty tumors. Of all the benign growths dogs develop as they age, lipomas are one of the most common. They arise from fat (lipid) cells and their favorite sites to set up housekeeping are the subcutaneous tissue (just beneath the skin surface) of axillary regions (armpits) and alongside the chest and abdomen. Every once in awhile lipomas develop internally within the chest or abdominal cavity. Rarely does a dog develop only one lipoma. They tend to grow in multiples and I’ve examined individual dogs with more lipomas than I could count.

Should lipomas be treated in some fashion? In the vast majority of cases, the answer is a definite, “No!” This is based on their benign, slow-growing nature. The only issue most create is purely cosmetic, which the dog could care less about!

There are a few exceptions to the general recommendation to let sleeping lipomas lie. A fatty tumor is deserving of more attention in the following situations:

1. A lipoma is steadily growing in an area where it could ultimately interfere with mobility. The armpit is the classic spot where this happens. The emphasis here is on the phrase, “steadily growing.” Even in one of these critical areas there is no reason to surgically remove a lipoma that remains quiescent with no discernible growth.

2. Sudden growth and/or change in appearance of a fatty tumor (or any mass for that matter) warrant reassessment by a veterinarian to determine the best course of action.

3. Every once in a great while, a fatty tumor turns out to be an infiltrative liposarcoma rather than a lipoma. These are the malignant black sheep of the fatty tumor family. Your veterinarian will be suspicious of an infiltrative liposarcoma if the fine needle aspirate cytology reveals fat cells, yet the tumor feels fixed to underlying tissues. (Lipomas are normally freely moveable.) Liposarcomas should be aggressively surgically removed and/or treated with radiation therapy.

4. Occasionally a lipoma grows to truly mammoth proportions. If ever you’ve looked at a dog and thought, “Wow, there’s a dog attached to that tumor!” chances are you were looking at a lipoma. Such massive tumors have the potential to cause the dog discomfort. They can also outgrow their blood supply, resulting in possible infection and drainage from the mass. The key is to catch on to the mass’s rapid growth so as to surgically remove it before it becomes enormous in size and far more difficult to remove.

How can one prevent canine lipomas from occurring? No one knows. Anecdotally speaking, it is thought that overweight dogs are more predisposed to developing fatty tumors. While I’m not so sure I buy this, I’m certainly in favor of keeping your dog at a healthy body weight.

Does your dog have a lipoma, or two or three?

 

Pittsburgh Symphony Goes to the Dogs

Who drives four hours to see a concert? I do. When I first read about the Pittsburgh Symphony looking for a few good pooches to audition for an upcoming performance, I was there. The dogs were needed to round out Leopold Mozart’s (Wolfgang’s, or should I say Woofgang’s — father) “Hunting Horn Symphony,” which calls for barking to accompany the horn soloists. Even better: The world-class event was free, courtesy of the city’s annual spring outdoor arts festival at a great spot: Point State Park, where three rivers meet. I had the pleasure of meeting one of the stars prior to the performance: Sergeant Preston. His owner told me he was rescued off the streets of Houston, where she lived before moving to Pittsburgh. She works for the symphony, but insists there was no nepotism involved — his ability and strong stage presence blew everyone away at the audition. In case you were wondering like I was, he was named for a character in a '50s radio, and then TV show — "Sergeant Preston of the Yukon." His owner tells me that name meshed well with that of her other rescue dog, Nanook of the North. The performers took their places. And they didn't disappoint. The crowd gave it a resounding four paws.

 

Mean Seed Season
The danger of foxtails grows
Foxtails

The season of ripgut and painful vet bills is here. Foxtails, a longtime scourge in the West, can now be a problem in every state. And climate change may add a twist. Studies find that weeds grow faster under elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide; will migrate northward and are less sensitive to herbicides. A botanist who researched their effects on dogs also warns about a deadly disease.

Sporting dog owners may know it best since field dogs routinely charge into thick brush, where they easily inhale or swallow foxtails, and spend hours in grassy hotspots. But dogs playing in the park or yard, hiking, at a roadside stop; any dog, wherever foxtails live, can develop grass awn migration disease.

It begins with a jagged seed. Of the many kinds of foxtails, both native and non-native, only some have harmful barbs. Among them: foxtail barley, found nationwide except in the South Atlantic and Gulf Coast states, according to the U.S. Forest Service; cheatgrass; giant foxtail, and ripgut brome, named for its effects on livestock. The spring through fall season often starts in May, when the green, bushy awns turn brown and seeds disperse. Their spikes help them burrow into soil or be spread by animals. They can also dig down in fur and puncture skin. The foxtail, which carries bacteria, may then keep tunneling into tissue, carving the dangerous path of infection that marks grass awn disease.

The disease is very difficult to diagnose, says University of Wyoming botanist William K. Lauenroth, who studied its occurrence in ten Midwestern states, where field dog owners believe there’s been a sharp rise in cases. One reason it’s hard to pinpoint is that the infection occurs behind the migrating seed.

Many infections show up as an acute illness, according to the findings of Wisconsin resident Cathy Lewis, whose website meanseeds.com provides case histories and information about foxtails and grass awn disease. In 2013, her Springer Spaniel “XL” developed a mysterious respiratory ailment that required draining fluid from his lungs. It began during an outing in January; not the time of year when foxtails come to mind. But the website of Atascadero Pet Hospital in California says they’ve seen pets with “a recurrent abscess that is ongoing for 2 years and once the foxtail is removed the abscess goes away.”

In fact, no plant material was found to confirm XL’s condition. But Lewis has had several other dogs with grass awn infections and recognized the signs, however vague. Today XL is “doing fine,” Lewis says. “He’s back to running field trials, and placing.” That may be due to how quickly she acted on his symptoms: labored breathing, high temperature and lethargy.

Vets say the dog’s body can’t break down the plant material. Sometimes, a foxtail lodges and causes a localized infection. But when it migrates, its barbs keep it moving on a one-way journey to almost anywhere, even the brain. Organs can be pierced, fungal infection can arise, and bacteria pack an extra punch deep inside the body. Head shaking or muscle movement propels it onward. Breathing can draw it further into nasal passages. Inhaled foxtails can travel from the nasal cavity to the lungs; a common site in working field dogs.

But what about the urban hound or beach bum pup? One study of grass awn migration found the most common site in all dogs was the external ear canal. Others were feet, eyes, nose, lumbar area, and thoracic cavity. Warning signs, if any, include extreme sneezing, head-shaking; coughing; excessive licking of a skin puncture, and a high temperature.

According to Dr. Jeffrey Horn’s veterinary blog, “foxtails are very hard to find due to their small size and because they’re covered with infection and scar tissue, and are completely invisible on X-Rays.”

Sporting dog owners hope to make it easier to diagnose and treat grass awn. Lauenroth, who trains retrievers, pursued the matter with a grant from the AKC and sporting dog groups. They suspect barbed grasses, especially Canada wild rye, planted in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program have caused more cases. The grasses occur on lands where field dogs train and trial. The program pays farmers to let idle cropland provide ecological services, such as erosion control and wildlife habitat. The farmers plant approved native grasses and comply with mowing restrictions.

Lauenroth found that plenty of Canada wild rye has been planted in the Midwest, and its sharp awn makes it dangerous for dogs. Canada wild rye is also common along the east coast, he says. But the study dried up due to a dearth of definitive diagnoses to draw on. For vets, finding a foxtail seed in a dog is like searching for a needle in a haystack. Lauenroth says he was unable to extract numbers of cases over the past 20 years from the records of veterinary hospitals.  

What he found were many “foreign body” cases without resolution. Many of those may have been grass awn disease. A study in 1983 found that grass awn migration in dogs and cats accounted for 61 percent of all foreign body-related cases. Most involved dogs.

To make foxtails more visible, vets often suggest giving dogs a close shave called a foxtail haircut. Others swear by headgear that is truly a pup tent: foxtail hoodies, designed to keep mean seeds out of eyes, ears and mouths.

Lauenroth’s advice is to thoroughly brush and comb after outings. The seeds don’t instantly disappear into the body. Also, get to know the few dangerous grass plants in your area.

In foxtail zones like California, it can also mean getting to know other dog owners: many outings at park and beach end with a festive foxtail-pulling party.

Affordable Cure for Parvo
A new parvo treatment comes from an unlikely source
A scientist separates the yoke from a goose egg to make an antibody treatment.

Canine parvovirus is not only costly to treat, but it's also difficult to keep outbreaks at bay. Though parvo has a high survival rate if treated early, many shelters end up euthanizing pups with the disease because of these challenges. The highly contagious virus is a nightmare for shelters because it spreads so easily and can live on surfaces for months. Thankfully, a lower cost treatment may be on the way, thanks to a most unlikely source.

It all began about a decade ago when a mysterious disease--later identified as the West Nile virus--was killing large goose populations at the South Dakota-based Schiltz Goose Farm. A group of researchers, led by Dr. David Bradley, executive director of the Center of Research Excellence for Avian Therapeutics for Infectious Diseases at the University of North Dakota, discovered antibodies in the yolks of goose eggs that they could purify and put back into other birds as a successful treatment. The Mayo Clinic called their find "game changing."

Soon a company called Avianax was formed to explore whether the treatment could be used beyond geese. They found promising links between the goose antibodies and treatments for other diseases, including rabies, dengue fever, avian flu, and some cancers. Their first focus was on the parvo virus and initial trials on their ParvoONE treatment resulted in a stunning 90 percent cure rate in as little as two days.  

Avianax will be running more trials on ParvoONE through November, but if the U.S. Department of Agriculture gives the go-ahead, Avianax plans on selling the treatment next spring for $75 per dose. Avianax is also starting to work on a human application of the antibody treatment for other diseases.

You are Invited to a Canine Science Conference
with free live streaming

If you think I’m beginning to sound like a broken record, Thank You!

That means you stopped by Dog Spies in May 2013 and read a post with the same title. But that was #SPARCS2013, and this is #SPARCS2014; same concept, different location, topics and speakers. During this year’s 3-day event, June 20-22 2014, leading canine researchers will cover three general areas of research that get at the core of what it’s like to be a dog:

Topics that many dogs are sometimes better acquainted with than their humans:

SPARCS is a unique venture organized by Prescott Breeden of The Pawsitive Packleader, Seattle Dog Training and Arizona State University Canine Science Collaboratory. From June 20-22, 2014, anyone in the world can see some of the leading canine science researchers in action — either in-person in Newport, RI, or via free Live Stream to your living room (or bathroom, if that’s where you prefer to take your canine science).

SPARCS is short for the Society for the Promotion of Applied Research in Canine Science, which aptly summarizes the conference goals: (1) to promote research and education in canine science, and (2) to provide a platform for leading minds in canine science to present, discuss and debate modern behavior science. It is an international initiative to discuss what is known (and not known) about dog behavior, biology and cognition. No hooey included.

As a new addition to #SPARCS2014, Do You Believe in Dog? — featuring myself and fellow canine researcher Mia Cobb — will moderate. In conferences, I find that all the great info being discussed moves very fast. A question pops into your mind and you need clarification, but the speaker is already on the next topic.

At #SPARCS2014, Do You Believe in Dog? will act as your pause button, fielding questions and expanding on speaker content. We’ll monitor questions and comments on social media, moderate the daily panel at the end of each day (posing your pressing questions and diving into hot-button topics), and we’ll hold post-talk interviews with each speaker (of course, speakers should be prepared to field questions on Ryan Gosling and his dog). We’re putting a large emphasis on engaging both the live and online audiences, so follow along at @DoUBelieveInDog and #SPARCS2014.

Here are the #SPARCS2014 featured speakers along with their respective talks topics. Visit the conference webpage for talk abstracts and learning goals:

Ray Coppinger, PhD
Aggression: Not a unitary behavior.

Why do breeds of dogs behave differently? > Julie comment: No simple answer here!

Simon Gadbois, PhD
The neuroscience, ethology and semiotics of social behaviour: Get your ethograms and semiograms ready! –> Julie comment: If you know what an ethogram is (without googling it!) I’ll give you a gold star! Here’s a brief introduction to ethograms at Do You Believe in Dog?

Applied canine olfactory processing: What trainers need to know beyond learning theory.

It is not what you like, but what you want that counts: The neurochemistry of behaviour and motivation.
 

Sam Gosling, PhD

Overview of research on temperament and personality of dogs.
 

Kathryn Lord, PhD

Barking and conflict.
 

Patricia McConnell, PhD

 I see what you’re saying: Translating conflict-related visual signals.

Coyotes, Koalas and Kangaroos: What the behavior of other animals can teach you about your dog –> Julie comment: I haven’t seen a talk with this scope before!

James Serpell, PhD

 Individual and breed differences in aggression

What the C-BARQ can tell us about human temperament –> Julie comment: C-BARQ stands for Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire. Get acquainted with it here.

The influence of owner/handler personality on the behavior of dogs
 

Monique Udell, PhD

Integrating ethology, learning theory & cognition in animal training
 

Clive Wynne, PhD

Does the name Pavlov ring a bell? > Julie comment: I’m sure trainers and owners want to know, “Do some approaches to dog behavior have more of a basis in learning theory than others?

Prescott Breeden, BM, CCS

The phenotype of molecules: Why nature vs. nurture is the wrong question  –> Julie comment: And the right question is

#SPARCS2014 also features short presentations from emerging researchers. Check out the SPARCS Facebook page for speakers and topics.

Each year, the SPARCS conference and initiative is made possible by you. “Donations are absolutely optional however graciously appreciated. Check out donation and membership opportunities.

Stay in touch with the SPARCS initiative on Facebook and Twitter.

Did you catch #SPARCS2013? Maybe you watched the Free Livestream or even attended in person. What was it like? And what are you looking forward to at #SPARCS2014?

This article first appeared on Dog Spies, Scientific American. Used with permission.

 

Southern Dog Rescues

J. Courtney Sullivan writes a lot of great things in her New York Times op-ed “Adopt a Dog With a Southern Drawl.” In fact, she covers a lot of the same ground that I detailed in my award-winning 2012 book Little Boy Blue: A Puppy’s Rescue from Death Row and His Owner’s Journey for Truth. Like Sullivan’s beloved pooch Landon, my boy Blue, too, was an adorable puppy with mere hours to live in a Southern facility before a rescue group scooped him up and transported him to the safety of my adoptive home in New Jersey. I traced Blue’s path to very spot where he once was caged a few steps from a gas chamber, and I know the sense of relief all too well that Sullivan describes—and that is felt daily by the many thousands of us who have opened our hearts and homes to these wonderful dogs.

There is, however, one word in Sullivan’s op-ed with which I must take issue. She writes: “Three years ago, at 8 weeks old, he was hours from being euthanized in an animal control facility in Tennessee.” The word euthanized is inaccurate, and its pervasive use in news coverage only shades the reality of what is happening daily with easy-to-adopt dogs and puppies like Landon and Blue.

Euthanize means to end a life as a means of ending incurable pain or suffering. Giving a dog a lethal injection when he’s 16 years old and stricken with bone cancer may qualify as euthanasia, but killing a friendly, healthy puppy like Landon or Blue most certainly does not. The reason South-to-North rescue transports have exploded in number since about 2008 is that what’s going on in some animal control facilities is pure and simple killing for convenience. Calling this killing euthanasia is an act of ignorance. Euthanasia is a polite word for a horrific reality when it comes to what is happening to these dogs and puppies.

I can’t speak for Landon, but in Blue’s case, the taxpayer-funded facility (please don’t call it a shelter) where he was dumped had a year-after-year kill rate of about 95 percent—an adoption rate of just 5 or 6 percent each year—unless private rescue groups were able to intervene. More than 500 communities across America are now showing every day that the reverse of those figures is possible, that homes can be found for more than 90 percent of the dogs who enter such facilities. Having sky-high kill rates has nothing to do with euthanasia. It also, in some cases, has nothing to do with a lack of resources other than human will. In Blue’s case, as his expiration date approached, he was sitting in a $562,954 kennel addition less than a decade old.

So while I congratulate Sullivan on her op-ed and agree with its content, and while I praise the New York Times for running it to raise awareness, I would ask that all of us writing about this situation strike the word euthanasia from our vocabulary. How we tell this story affects the way readers understand it, and sugar-coating reality doesn’t do anybody any good, especially the dogs still in the cages who will never experience the wonderful lives that Langdon and Blue enjoy.

Learn more about “Little Boy Blue” at www.little-boy-blue.info.

Drop Outs and Bloopers: Behind the Scenes of Canine Science

I judge dogs when I meet them, but not in the way you might expect. You see, every dog and owner I meet gets filtered through a lens called “Potential Canine Science Study Participants.”

The growing field of canine behavior and cognition research is not built on the backs of lab beagles. Instead, research depends on the kindness and interest of dog owners who sign up their dogs to join any of the canine studies around the globe.

So whenever I meet a dog in NYC, I’m thinking, “Would your human companion be interested in signing you up for a study at the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab?” And, just as important, “Would you, Mr. or Ms. Dog, be interested in participating in a study?” Nine out of ten times (not an exact science) the answer is yes.**

But dog participation doesn’t always go as planned. Which leads to one of the most interesting yet overlooked sections of research papers — the section that reports the dogs who didn’t make it into the final results. A blooper reel of sorts. These nuggets hidden in dense research papers offer little windows into the world of dogs and canine research methodologies. Why did a dog not perform according to plan? Was the dog not interested in playing along with the tasks required by the study? Or maybe the owner or experimenter goofed up the execution. Let’s take a look:

A 2010 study by Kundey et al. dropped six subjects:
– One dog was excluded due to “interference from a squirrel.” Let’s all take a moment and imagine what that could look like.
– Another dog was excluded for “excessive activity.” Which could be code for this.
– Another dog was excluded for food aggressiveness. Obviously not helpful in a study that involved food.
– Other dogs were excluded for experimenter or owner error.

Another study by Range et al. (2009) required dog subjects to “give a paw” to an experimenter numerous times. A number of subjects didn’t make it into the final results:
– A pair of dogs “was excluded because one of them (a border collie) tried to herd the partner dog instead of concentrating on the task.”
– Two subjects were excluded because they “refused to cooperate with the experimenter to give the paw 30 times in the assessment session.” I’ll give a high five to the dogs who cooperated. They must be expert patty-cake players (but in all seriousness, raising a paw is often considered a submissive behavior, not a game of patty-cake).
– Another dog “had to be excluded because the owner decided to stop the experiment after her first dog was tested.”
– And finally, “one died because of old age before the assessment session could be conducted.”

 

So when working with dogs, not everything is going to work for every dog, and things don’t always go as planned. After all, do other areas of science have to worry about a squirrel mucking up their study?

 

**This participation rate is high because, like most canine behavior research, our work incorporates a variety of methodologies that are a good fit for dogs with different personalities: some studies include food and treats while others don’t, some include the presence of other dogs, others don’t, some include the direct participation of owners, other don’t … some include nuts, Mounds don’t … you get the picture. Owners complete a short online questionnaire and bam! They’re added to our database of “People interested in participating in canine science studies at the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab.” They’ll then be contacted about our future studies. And, for a somewhat comprehensive list of canine behavior and cognition groups around the globe, check out my website. Other canine research groups are looking for study participants too!

Images: Flicker Creative Commons: dogs and squirrel.

References
Kundey et al. 2010. Domesticated dogs (Canis familiaris) react to what others can and cannot hear. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 126, 45–50.
Lorenz, K. 1954. Man meets dog. London: Methuen.
Range et al. 2008. The absence of reward induces inequity aversion in dogs.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 106, 340–345.

 

This story was originally published on Dog Spies, Scientific American. Reprinted with permission

A Proposal to Stop Breeding Dogs
On the whole, human breeders have not improved on nature.

On a flight last year, I sat next to a woman from India on her way to London from New York, where she had been visiting her first grandchild When she heard I wrote about dogs, she turned her attention to the one aspect of her daughter and son-in-law’s life she could not understand—their dog. On her walks around Central Park with the dog and her granddaughter, the dog drew the most attention and comment.

He was a black, blue-eyed French Bulldog for whom they had paid $3,000 to a veterinarian/breeder in New Jersey. They had already spent that much again on veterinary bills in less than a year. 

 Defenders of the purebred dog industry talk a lot about responsible breeders, and I once tended to follow their lead. But shortly after the Atlantic Monthly published my article, “The Politics of Dogs,” in March 1990 [It is hard to find on-line because of a class-action lawsuit regarding electronic rights, but it can be found.], I began to hear from people who had, like this couple, gone to a responsible breeder only to end up with a dog with problems. Many of the genetic conditions to which pedigreed dogs are prey do not follow strict lines of inheritance—they skip generations or move through aunts and uncles. They do sort by breed, but that is because those breeds have arisen from a small number of founders—in short, they are inbred, dangerously so, and this tight knit extended family shares most strongly genetic diseases and physical characteristics. Outer beauty conceals inner flaws.

French Bulldogs, for example, are prone to von Willebrand’s Disease, a blood disorder, as well as spinal problems, a cleft palate, and heat stroke. Many airlines no longer carry brachycephalic breeds—those with pushed in faces—because they have a tendency to die in flight from breathing problems related to overexcitement.

In light of that, the woman asked, why do so many people spend so much money on these dogs? This conversation occurred months before the sale of a Tibetan mastiff puppy at a luxury pets’ mart in Hangzhou, China, to a Qingdao property developer for 12-million yuan (about $1.9 million), reportedly a record price for a dog. It is easy here to invoke the 19th and early 20th century economist, Thorstein Veblen and his theory of conspicuous consumption. 

To Veblen, such dogs are objects of conspicuous consumption, animals with no intrinsic value that nonetheless are made valuable by the fact that someone goes to great lengths to obtain and maintain them despite or because of the expense involved in doing so.  Put another way, possession of such a being marks you as a person with so much money that you can obtain and maintain an animal with no useful talent.

 That would certainly be the case with the Tibetan mastiff, which according to some assays is merely a reconstruction of a once mighty landrace of large livestock protection dog, which it resembles the way a teddy bear resembles a grizzly cub.

Clearly spending that much on a dog must be considered conspicuous consumption of the most extreme sort.  It is also a mordant commentary on the Chinese Revolution, for half a century ago, Mao Zedong sought to rid China of pet dogs he considered objects of bourgeois recidivism—that is, conspicuous consumption.

Currently the recidivists have won. In China and other countries with a growing urban middle class, people are buying more and more dogs, eschewing their local dogs for Western pure breeds. To them, the pedigree signifies quality.

When Veblen used the Pekinese as an example of an object of conspicuous consumption, purebred dogs were relatively new on the scene and well beyond the means of most people.  A century later, the dogs are no longer rare, nor are their prices, even at $1,000, so outrageous, especially when buyers are convinced they are getting excellent bloodlines, superior quality, and specific behavioral characteristics.

Those beliefs fuel demands for purebred dogs produced by commercial breeders—let’s just call anyone engaged in the large scale “production” of puppies for profit, a commercial, or mass, breeder, and recognize that some are better than others, which is not an endorsement of any of them.

Demand for purebred dogs shot up following World War II when returning veterans, establishing their lives in burgeoning suburbs, sought them out as accompaniments to their new homes, cars, and families.  The pedigree provided by the rapidly expanding American Kennel Club, the largest registry of dogs in the world, proved these acquisitions were not the old family mutt, but refined and sophisticated pets. Demand fueled the growth of mass breeders, pet stores, dog shows, regulations to fence and leash dogs, and unwanted dogs.

I estimate that by some point in the 1990s half of all dogs In America were purebred, and a great many of them were from mass breeders.  That was a problem because they too frequently bred dogs without regard for their temperament or genetic soundness and failed to socialize them during the critical first three to four months.  If dogs are not socialized to humans during that time, they might have difficulty ever becoming fully socialized and often have behavioral issues.

The problem with these breeders has been known for decades and several national animal advocacy groups have campaigned against them for years without much result. Although there are many political explanations for the failure to end the retail trade in dogs, these groups have not invested in the sort of intense, dedicated campaign required to shut it down.

Instead, we get things like the Humane Society of the United States forming a group, Breeder’ Advisory and Resource Council, to advise it on matters relating to responsible dog breeding.

Mass breeders are a significant part of the problem of purebred dogs, but not the only one. My colleague and fellow Psychology Today blogger, Marc Bekoff, has argued for a full halt to breeding more dogs as long as millions of perfectly fine, adoptable animals await new homes in shelters or the homes of breed rescue group volunteers. With so many dogs in need, he says, the compassionate and humane thing for someone wanting a dog is to adopt one. 

I believe he is right, and I would add that the breeding of dogs as it is now done should stop until ways can be found to minimize the risk of a dog being born with an inherited deformity or illness. That includes behavioral problems. These conditions disproportionately seem found in puppy mill dogs, but not exclusively. Some of these conditions, especially cytoskeletal ones like brachycephaly are so extreme that puppies must be delivered by caesarean section and subsequently have difficulty breathing normally and dissipating heat. The book on these inherited ailments is long and growing longer. Most are due to the heavy inbreeding and common use of favored sires in breed formation.

It is worth remembering here, that breeds are formed through consolidation from an existing population, when a few animals are used to create the Platonic ideal of the ‘breed,’ and through amalgamation, in which representatives from several similar landraces are crossed to create the perfect representative of all.

No matter which method was followed, the resulting dog was said to represent the breed in its pure essence and be more intelligent and talented than any of its naturally breeding predecessors. With few exceptions involving specialized behaviors that have been enhanced through selective breeding, that is untrue. Nonetheless, like mantras, the histories of these new breeds and accounts of their prowess were repeated so often, they became truth—to everyone but the rulers of the American Kennel Club. For decades they have publicly maintained that the AKC issued pedigree proving that for three or more generations the dog in question is an official Chesapeake Bay Retriever or whatever the case may be does not represent quality, does not guarantee that the dog is healthy or possessed of a good temperament. They did that because they wished to avoid possible consumer lawsuits involving dogs with serious defects and flaws. 

Despite those disclaimers, the AKC has continued to a promote the virtues of purebred dogs, like the problematic French Bulldog, the eleventh most popular dog it registered in 2013, and the larger English bulldog. It was the fifth most popular breed registered in 2013, even though nearly 72 percent of the bulldogs evaluated by the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals had crippling hip dysplasia; none could whelp naturally. 

The argument is sometimes made that breeds are important biological artifacts but, in fact, over the decades breeders have altered their appearance—and perhaps their behavior—and perhaps their behavior—substantially.  Many breeders say that they are attempting to improve the breed they love, but the very notion that a breed needs improvement suggests that it has problems.

Few if any breeders can predict that all puppies in a litter will be free of congenital defect, but in many cases the odds are stacked against them from the start by a plethora of problems and conditions associated with their breed.  Breeders and kennel clubs should focus on ridding the breeds they love and promote of those inheritable conditions, and the way to do that is to stop engaging in dangerous breeding practices and to avoid breeding dogs who have them in their bloodlines. 

Dogs deserve no less.

 

This post first appeared on Mark Derr's blog, Dog's Best Friend on Psychology Today. Used with permission.

 

 

 

 

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