|This article was written for the January 2010 issue of Dogs Today.
When the BBC Documentary Pedigree Dogs Exposed was released in August of 2008, the effect was immediate, as the Kennel Club scurried to get in front of the story which showed the phenomenal health impact caused by selective breeding of dogs in a closed registry.
What could the Kennel Club say to try to rebut what people could see with their own eyes?
But the collective leadership of the Kennel Club valiantly tried to find one, and at last they expressed outrage that the documentary had suggested that the Kennel Club's breeding theories were not so different from the eugenics system embraced by Adolph Hitler.
"What," they screamed?!! "The Kennel Club did not invade the Sudetenland!"
Of course not; no one said they did.
But surely the Kennel Club knows it own history?
All right then, let's start at the beginning.
Plato's Point System
The core eugenics idea -- that the scientific breeding of people might improve human capabilities -- was first proposed by Plato, who suggested that human breeding be regulated by the state, with the best being bred to the best, based on a numerical ranking system.
Several thousand years later, this same idea was proposed for canines by John Henry Walsh who created the dog show points system still used by the Kennel Club today -- a point system in which brains, talent, and health are given no points, and appearance alone is valued.
What most people may not know is that the Kennel Club did not originally embrace a closed registry system. That idea came later -- over Walsh's initial objection.
What was the driving force behind the Kennel Club's embrace of a closed registry?
In part, it was economic; breeders sought to create artificial markets for their show dogs, and by so doing they hoped to drive up the price.
Another factor, however, was the notion that race-mixing was bad, and that racial purity, in and of itself, was a desirable thing. Monarchs should only marry other members of royal families. Whites should not marry blacks, Jews should not inter-marry with Christians.
After all, had Darwin not suggested things were the way they were for a reason?
His cousin, Francis Galton, had said what was true in nature followed with humans.
If people were rich and privileged, were they not "better," than those who were not?
If so, then clearly "contaminating" human genetic stock by mixing one class with another was a bad idea.
And if it was a bad idea for people, was it not bad for dogs as well?
It did not take much for the idea to seep over into the Kennel Club where the "better" dogs were deemed to be those winning ribbons. It was best to keep out the rougher types still working out in the field, said the breeders. After all, so many were of "pedigree unknown."
Eugenics was a popular idea in the 40-year period straddling either side of the 20th Century. Such British luminaries as Havelock Ellis, H. G. Wells, William Beveridge, John Maynard Keynes, Arthur Balfour, and Winston Churchill embraced it. So too did such American luminaries as Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Emma Goldman, and Margaret Sanger.
These were not bad people trying to do evil -- they were good people who thought a new, supposedly scientific, theory might hold promise.
A Human Dog Show
In America, the embrace of Kennel Club breeding theories and eugenics policies came together most visibly in the person of Leon F. Whitney.
Leon Whitney was a veterinarian and prolific dog writer who wrote books like The Complete Book of Dog Care (still in print), How to Breed Dogs, and Animal Doctor: The History and Practice of Veterinary Medicine, among many others.
Whitney was a "dog man's dog man," going so far as to collect early breed types and have them taxidermied for the ages. His stuffed dog collection is still housed at Yale University.
In fact, Leon Whitney was such a famous dog man that when the American Kennel Club published Our Dogs: A Century of Images and Words from the AKC Gazette in 2003, they included an essay of his, despite the fact that this 151-page book was already crowded with more than 100 color photos.
What's not often mentioned in dog show circles is that Leon Whitney was also a radical eugenicist, and secretary of the American Eugenics Society.
The braiding together of canine and human eugenics theories was complete with Whitney. In 1928 we find Whitney writing in The Journal of Heredity on "The Inheritance of a Ticking Factor in Hounds" while at the same time carrying on a fast and furious correspondence with the leaders of the American and British eugenics movements.
In the 1930s, Whitney went so far as to create a human version of the dog show. Whitney called these "Fitter Family" contests, and held them at state fairs, where families would compete for prizes to
determine who had the best facial characteristics, posture, health, and habits.
In 1934, having already served as head of the American Eugenic Association for a decade, Whitney authored The Case for Sterilization, which was written as a popular "platform piece" for encouraging the passage of state-based eugenic sterilization laws. The book noted, with some approval, that Hitler had already sterilized one percent of the population of Germany. Whitney saw this as a good start.
One of Hitler's staff wrote Whitney, asking him for an autographed copy of his new book so that the Fuhrer himself might read it.
Whitney, of course, complied immediately, and shortly thereafter he received back a personal letter of thanks from Hitler who, records show, was fascinated by the American and British eugenics movements and modeled some of his own Lebensborn program, started in 1935, based on their ideas.
Leon Fradley Whitney died in 1973 never apologizing for anything he did as part of the American eugenics movement, and never renouncing either the actions of Nazi Germany or Adolph Hitler.
The American Kennel Club, to this day, salutes him as a great mind and important influence in the world of dogs.
The Fear of Foreign Blood
Today, most of the world has renounced the idea that people are better or worse based on skin color.
No thinking person salutes sterilization or infanticide as a way to improve the human race, nor do they honor the notion that we should have centralized control of breeding in order to achieve racial purity.
"Fitter family" contests have gone the way of the buggy whip. The "one drop of foreign blood" test of racial identity has faded into obscurity.
Even on our farms cattle, chickens and sheep are more likely to be hybrids than not.
Everywhere, except in the world of dogs.
In the world of dogs, The Kennel Club and the AKC still hold "breed purity" as the be-all and end-all of their existence.
Here coat color and texture still matter more than physical health or performance in the field.
If some of the puppies in your litter are not quite up to show quality, sterilization is the answer. A "spay-neuter contract” is the term of art in the Kennel Club.
Change "the standard" of some breeds to get rid of dapple or merle coats associated with congenital deafness?
Outcross to improve health?
Coat color matters. Breed purity matters. Sterilization and euthanasia are the solution.
And if anyone asks about the history of all this, express outrage.
The Kennel Club did not invade the Sudetendland!