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.
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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.