Friday, May 14, 2010
The Always New and Continuing Evolution of Dogs
A repost from this blog, circa February 2007.
A lot of people want the undifferentiating affection of a dog, but are not entirely willing to pay the price: forced awakenings at 7 am, expensive fencing, veterinary care, shedding coats, barking, and strange smells in the living room.
Dogs are small tyrants that crap on your rug, chew up your glasses and steal your sandwiches.
If you own a dog, you can still ride off into the sunset, but you better be back by 8:30 to feed it, and by midnight to put it to bed for the evening.
In the era of schooners and candles, when people lived on large farms with slow traffic, things were probably a little bit easier. Back then a large dog could sleep in the barn and roam more-or-less at will.
Now a lot of folks live in condominiums and multi-story apartment buildings surrounded by six-lanes of traffic. Others are retirees looking for less work. The result is a growing market for small dogs that are as easy to take care of as a cat.
In fact, what is wanted today is a dog that acts like a cat, and a cat that acts like a dog.
Towards that end breeders on both ends of the spectrum are working towards a middle ground, with cats that have affectionate personalities and legs too short to jump up on the furniture, and dogs that do not shed, rarely bark, and are so small they can be tucked inside a handbag.
I suppose all of this is simply a logical extension of Robert Bakewell's earlier efforts to control sires in order to produce animals for a particular function.
Cats, of course, were slow to domesticate as prior to the rise of the "indoor" cat, felines were free to roam and cross-breed at will.
Dogs, on the other hand, have been the product of controlled breeding for so long that most Kennel Club breeds now seem to specialize in two or three genetic defects. As a consequence, more and more prospective pet owners are are now looking at cross breeds in some hope of avoiding expensive veterinary work to "fix" defective canine hips, eyes, knees and teeth.
Another factor, of course, is that a lot of the small "toy" breeds are so fru-fru that no self-respecting heterosexual man is eager to be seen walking one. A Toy Poodle? A Papillon? Please.
A cross-bred small dog at least offers the potential dignity of being something a little "outside the box."A small dog described as a "little mutt" or "attack rat" by the husband, can be described by the wife as a Shitpoo (a Shih Tzu crossed with a Toy Poodle), a Cockapoo (a Cocker Spaniel crossed with a Toy Poodle), a Schnoodle (a Schnauzer crossed with a poodle), a Bagel (a Beagle crossed with a Bassett Hound) or a Puggle (a Pug crossed with a Beagle).
Pardon me if I do not join the Kennel Club crowd which clucks and moans about "little mongrels" being cranked out by puppy millers and "back yard breeders".
How, I would ask, does that differentiate these new dogs from most Kennel Club breeds? After all, most of the dog breeds on earth today are less than 140 years old, and most were invented by puppy peddlers doing their business between 1860 and 1900.
The harsh truth is that most canine breeds were not forged by honest field work, but by professional breeders seeking to sell dogs for the pet trade.
In short, the true history of most dog breeds is one of "backyard breeders" creating contrived names and fake histories for their dogs and producing enough of the dogs in a short enough period (a puppy mill by any name) to create a "class" of dogs to fill a Kennel Club ring.
And it's not like the Kennel Club breeds cannot be improved by a little outcrossing!
The Yorkie has such serious teeth problems that they invariably require attention from expensive veterinary dentists.
The Pug's bulging eyes make it prone to eye injury, and nearly every one of them is born caesarian.
The Toy Poodle is a barker and often mentally unbalanced.
Dachshunds are prone to serious back and joint problems.
Papillons and Chihuahuas have all kinds of health problems, not the least of which are that their bones may be so light they can break jumping off the couch.
The Lhasa Apso is a walking mop requiring more grooming than a Hollywood starlet, and is often a mental case as well.
Of course, most cross-breeds are not all that successful, and only a very few show a marked advantage over a common pound dog.
That said, enough crosses are working out that a few crosses are developing into regular replicable breeds. The most obvious candidate for "new breed" distinction is the "Labradoodle" -- a cross between a Labrador Retriever and a Standard Poodle. In Australia, this very tractable dog has been standardized and now breeds true after more than 15-years of focused work. In the U.S., however, most "Labradoodles" remain hybrids which, when crossed with each other, throw a wide array of very different-looking pups.
Contrary to what many hybrid dog advocates will tell you, a hybrid dog is not always healthier that its purebred cousin. Genetic loads are never revealed in one breeding, and "hybrid vigor" is not a perfect curative for all canine ills.
A final note is that when dogs are combined, the positive characteristics of a breed are not necessarily those that are transfered.
The tale is told of the time when Marilyn Monroe met Albert Einstein and coyly mewed, "Professor Einstein, we should get together. With my looks and your brains think of the wonderful babies we could produce." To which Einstein is supposed to have replied: "Yes, but what if they have my looks and your brains? That too is an equal possibility."