Tuesday, February 10, 2015

A Matter of Breeding by Michael Brandow

Misto found it all quite fascinating.

Let me cut to the chase: A Matter of Breeding is a very good book.  An important book.

Go out and buy it, and above all encourage others to go out and buy it before they plunk down a lot of money for a pedigree pooch.

The core message of the book is hard to argue with: that the world of dogs has been wrecked by the petty pretensions and puffery of puppy peddlers and pretenders.

The fact that this is still going on -- and that dog health is being ruined even as good dogs die at the pound -- is a matter of scandal.

Author Michael Brandow parks the wreckage of dogs at the feet of snobbism.

He is right, but he misses another aspect, which is that both dogs and people are social pack animals. Pack behavior drives human snobbism, but it also drives a search for a "lead dog" or "priest class" to tell us what to buy, and what to do.

To the extent folks go to "all breed" books copied from one to another, or to breed clubs where truth is as rare as hen's teeth, people are bamboozled, led on, misinformed, snookered, and hoodwinked. Not everyone is buying pedigree dogs in order to vault up the social ladder. Some people are simply poor consumers.

Brandow writes well, and the book is well-researched. To be sure, there is one glaring error on page 15 dealing with Basenjis, but because of the way that error reads, I park it squarely at the foot of a sloppy editor, and not the author. For those interested in the full history of the Basenji, or "Congo Terrier," see here.

Michael Brandow makes the following points in A Matter of Breeding:

  • Pedigree dogs are just mutts with a story -- often a story that is entirely fake and/or created in the last 100 years. The simple truth is that all dogs are crosses, and yesterday's "designer dog" is today's pampered pedigree.
  • The health and welfare of dogs has been horribly twisted by human vanity and the desire to feel "unique" and "special."  It is human vanity that has made us suspend common sense and embrace a world of dogs selected for obvious defect while winking at jaw-dropping levels of incest and inbreeding leading to predictable disease and misery.
  • Most Kennel Club breeds are demonstrably less useful in the field, or as pets, than their cross-bred counterparts. Whether poacher or terrierman, shepherd or musher, pig hunter or bird hunter, few serious working dog people turn to Kennel Club-registered stock. Kennel Club "working" dogs are rarely selected for work, and almost always for looks. Since work is not a primary selection filter, kennel club dogs tend to be weaker where it counts. At the same time, Kennel Club dogs from working breeds tend to be hard-wired just enough to make poor pets. Too many of these dogs live as fish out of water -- with just enough of the working code retained inside to make them feel trapped, frustrated, and unfulfilled in city apartments and suburban backyards.
  • Snobbism created closed registries. There can be no "in crowd" without an "out crowd." There can be no high price unless there is contrived scarcity. Exclusion and sniffing social pretension is what snobbism and the cult of pedigree dogs have in common.
  • People buy dogs like they buy hats and for much the same reason -- they are looking for a personality, a look, and an identity. They see themselves as intrepid, but do not actually want to go out into forest or field. They want to be posh and landed, and never mind the fact they actually work at the post office. They want to be people in the know, despite the fact that they do not know much of anything. For a thousand dollars, a dog offers it all: a persona, the insinuation of royalty, and a parroted and potted history memorized from Wikipedia and the back pages of an all-breed book.
  • The Kennel Club is the last bastion of eugenics, racism, and the death camps of World War II. In this world, sound science always takes a hind post and a dog born with a coat or nose that is the wrong color, or a leg that is a little bit short, is likely to be culled at birth. Blood purity rules all. Just-invented canine histories are trotted out as a reason to either celebrate or to condemn. It is not an accident that both the Nazis and the Kennel Club ended up embracing racial purity, mass sterilization, and gas chambers -- they share historical and intellectual roots.
  • Pedigree dogs are an English vice. The segregation and segmentation we see in the world of dogs was copied from feudal hierarchies pushed into turbo-drive by the burgeoning job and social stratification of the industrial revolution. Because social stratification and hierarchies do not fit as well with the American mindset, it is not too surprising that the AKC has become the first big kennel club to fail, with registration numbers falling like a rock over the course of the last 20 years.
  • Kennel Club standards are destructive nonsense.  They are often written by people who have no idea of what is important in a dog or a breed, and the "standards" are not even standard -- they are being changed all the time.  Coat color, nose color, ear shape, eye shape, coat length, leg length, length of back, and head shape are all given points despite the fact that, in almost every case, they do not matter a whit. Meanwhile, all-important traits such as health, temperament, and work history are afforded zero points.

If all of this sounds a bit familiar, it should.

All of these points have been made by others in the past, as well as by myself on this blog. In fact, this little blog is sourced over a dozen times in this book. What? I have a reader? Excellent!

Despite the fact that A Matter of Breeding was not entirely new to me, it was still a therapeutic read.

You see, if you own a dog -- any dog -- people will ask you what breed it is.  

Remember it HAS to be a breed
for people to give a damn. 

A former professional dog walker, Michael Brandow sums how it stacks up in the mean streets of Manhattan:

If a new breed was in the White House and I was walking an inbred cousin, the puparazzi demanded in no uncertain terms to know: "Is that a Portuguese water dog?" or "Is it per chance a Petit Basset Griffon Vendéen?" When Charlotte got a Cavalier King Charles on Sex and the City, I had no choice but to answer countless times the query of the season: "Is that a cavalier?" Nine weeks after Best in Show hit the theaters a wave of Norwich Terriers hit the sidewalks, followed by "is that a Norwich or Norfolk?" Border collies became burdensome when shown at Westminster. I stopped accepting St. Bernard's after Beethoven's 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th. When Disney released another sequel to a remake, pavements were blighted with black spots and all over New York resounded with "Isn't that a Dalmatian?"

Meanwhile, any mutts in my care were invisible to the purest, completely off their social radar. Like bird watchers in Central Park, the hobbyists were looking for particular types, specimens they could call out and label, then store upstairs for obscure and arcane purposes. Canine cataloging seems to bring some strange sense of pride and accomplishment, and the more esoteric the question, the better it reflects upon the inquirer who, in the vast majority of cases, already knows the answer. The real goal in the breed guessing game is to make known, to the dogs owner, walker, and anyone within earshot, that the contestant is up on all the four-legged facts as revealed on Animal Planet or Hollywood's latest Chihuahua extravaganza.

Exactly right.

And yet, suppose you have two puppies that are about as alike as chalk and cheese?

One is long-legged, the other short.

One is black, the other brown.

One is 11" tall, square, and slim in silhouette, and weighs just 9 pounds.

The other is 10 inches tall, longer-backed, and heavily built, even if only 12 pounds in weight.

Inevitably, I face questions from housewives in Lulu Lemon yoga pants who stop as they waltz in to Starbucks to get their grande, iced, sugar-free, vanilla latte with soy milk.

Your pups are so cute! How old are they? Nine months. Born three weeks apart.

Are they brother and sister? No, different mother and father. Born three weeks apart.

What breed are they? Jack Russells.

Both of them? Yes. They're small working Jack Russell terriers.

They don't look the same. Are you SURE they're the same breed?  Yes. They're working Jack Russell terriers. These are hunting dogs. They're a type, not a breed.

This last answer leaves them confused. These cute little things cannot be hunting dogs. And they cannot be the same breed. It's one pigeon and one hole, not a hawk and a duck, and one hole. And what was that he said about type? What the hell is that? How is that different from breed?

They cannot ask too much without revealing their own ignorance. They hesitate. They look at the pups again. They are both very cute, but they can't be the same breed. Can't be. They don't look the same at all. Isn't a breed defined by cookie-cutter conformation?

And so, in the end, they smile and wander away, unable to process the answer because the answer is about the true nature of the beast, and that's more than most people who wear Lulu Lemon Yoga pants can process on a Saturday morning.

He must have gotten snookered they tell themselves, a smile on their face. What a moron.


PipedreamFarm said...

Oh the number of times we were asked what other breed was part of our Border Collie mixes (because we have some smooth coated dogs) to which I would answer "Border Collie".

Then there is the astonishment when we tell them "these two are littermates" and one is smooth coated black & white and the other is rough coated tri colored.

Mary Pang said...

I can barely look at a bulldog, dalmation or great dane anymore. It's cruel to breed dogs to a physical standard which virtually guarantees they will suffer.

2 Punk Dogs said...

Just this morning someone on our walk said "what kind of dog are they?" People are always disappointed that we say possibly pointer/terrier mix & don't know for sure. Once someone thought they were jack russell terriers; yeah, sure, giant long tailed jack russells at 45 pounds each! :)

Gaddy Bergmann said...

Wow, what an awesome blog, and what an awesome blog entry! I've been reading you for a few days now, ever since I was referred to your entry on the "The Heugervein Wall Dog" from another blog. Now with this entry, I've subscribed to your blog, and ordered /A Matter of Breeding/ as well.

This is exactly the stuff the public really needs to understand: that "breeding away" from genetic disorders is no substitute for genetic diversity, and just as importantly, a more thorough understanding of what dogs really are.

We got our first dog when I was a boy, and it was a mix. My parents got her, not because they understood the importance of outcrossing, but simply because mixes are cheaper than purebreds. I cringe when I remember that at first I was disappointed not to get a pedigreed dog. Eventually I realized just how lucky I was to get a "real" dog, whose parents were unrelated, and whose health and behavioral repertoire were still intact. I've had other mixes since then, including the two wonderful dogs I have now. Today, it saddens me to realize that, if I was once that ignorant, many millions more must still believe that nonsense about pure-breeding.

Whether with dogs or other animals, we need to abandon this obsession with breeds, and get back to types. The question is, how?

jeffrey thurston said...

Love this post- I relate to it. One of my Jacks is 14" square with long legs and long hair- the other is 11" short with smooth hair and stubby legs. People look at me funny when I tell them they're both Jack Russells and I explain how it's a breed but not really because two pups from a Jack Russell litter may not both be JRTs- if one is all brown he's a terrier but not a Jack Russell- still a great hunting dog! They look at me goofy. I know we deny but I think there's a certain snobbery in having an actual dog who can still work= I'd rather have a working type dog that is real than any AKC inbred mess. Give me a square-legged East German Shepherd or a real Iditarod Alaskan Husky or a Jack Russell... I'm a snob THAT way...

seeker said...

Ah, yes. The great uninformed. They seem to think they know so much. My two Jacks are similar but they are also wrong wrong wrong. Long tailed, 8 inches tall and 13 lbs apiece. Then they look at the two Ratties, again one too small and one just funny looking in his plain brown suit. I know that they are all terriers true but not quite within standards. Three are too small, two are too chunky (shorties) and one the wrong color. Of course Ratties can be brown, but he looks more like a Jack Russell in body and size than anything else complete with the tipped ears and he spans nicely. My dogs confuse the experts and I enjoy it. Why should we make it easy for them, when we need to make it easy for us and our dogs? Good luck with your babies and hope your girls settle their differences soon. I just wouldn't leave them alone together until they do but then you know that.

Debi and the Jack/Rat pack

Jackie said...

I'll never forget the look of horror on some NJ housewives face when she walked up to my terrier/poodle mutt and said, "Oh, is that a shih-poo? I love shih-poos?!" And I'm like, "Eh, she's some kind of mutt."

Acted like I stabbed a puppy right in front of her.

I can only imagine her horror if she knew my dog also delighted in hunting down rabbits and various rodents.