Is our obsession with breed causing harm to “man’s best friend?”
Golden retrievers are family-friendly and love children. Labradors love water. Beagles want to track rabbits all day. Rottweilers are territorial. Border collies are obedient and simple to train. These are all images that we conjure up when we think about purebred dogs. We love the idea that dogs fit into neat little packages that can tell us everything about who they are and what they will do. How accurate is this idea, and what are the implications of these thoughts on the welfare of our dogs?
When I was growing up, I loved dogs. I loved dogs so much that I wanted to learn absolutely everything about them. My parents bought me a number of dog-related books that I read constantly. One of those was a dog breed book. This book went through each common breed of dog and discussed a bit about their behavioral and physical traits. I absorbed everything from that book and wanted to base all of my future dog ownership decisions on the words written on those pages.
As I grew up and became involved with shelters and rescues, and later as an animal sciences student at the University of Illinois, I began to realize that dogs don’t always fit into those neat little packages, and that they display a lot more individuality than we have been giving them credit for. The fact is, the sweeping generalizations we are making about dogs make them sound a lot more like products than living beings. We had started to brand the dogs like we would a pair of shoes, a line of clothing, a type of car, or even a chain of restaurants. Take a stroll through the pet store or the internet and you’ll find posts, magazines, and books directed at owners of specific breeds.
Some pet food companies have even taken advantage of this breed branding and market breed-specific foods directed at pet owners of popular breeds. We have expectations on what we’ll get when we bring a certain type of dog into our family, but what happens if the dogs don’t always match the promise of this breed branding?
While I doubt I’m the first person to notice this “breed branding” we’ve done with dogs, it is an interesting avenue of thought to consider. It also explains a lot of the welfare issues that come with pet ownership in this country.
The creation of the purebred dog
To understand why we view dogs in this odd way, we need to go back to the birth of the purebred dogs we’re familiar with today. We have to look back to the Victorian age in England and America. During this time, the emerging middle class needed a way to showcase to others that they had disposable income to spare. What better way to do this than to put your extra money into an animal of no utilitarian value? From there, these owners had to determine who had the best of the best. Subsequently, the kennel clubs (such as the Kennel Club in England and the American Kennel Club in the U.S.) were born.
At this point, Victorian dog owners were breeding dogs together to create new looks and types of dogs. Where dogs had once been bred for practical purposes (working roles), dog breeding had a new focus on appearance. Breed standards, the written description of the perfect dog of a certain breed, were created for these various breeds. Studbooks were closed to ensure only dogs of these pure bloodlines were able to breed together.
Through all of these changes to dogs and the principles of dog breeding, the breeds we recognize today were constructed. For some reason, despite this focus away from function and behavioral traits and towards appearance, our descriptions of these behavioral traits remained part of our general understanding of these dog breeds. We expected past functions and behaviors to travel along with these dogs when selecting exclusively for appearance.
Even at this time, dogs were being branded. Purity was everything in this society and, as a result, was reflected in their dogs. These purebred and physically-predictable dogs were considered far more refined than the common mongrel that lower-class citizens were keeping. Pointers and hunting type dogs were considered more refined, geared toward the elite. The mongrel and bulldogs were considered dirty and mean, only owned by the working class – these traits may have been more a reflection of society’s views of each other than of the dogs themselves.
Breed specific legislation and dogs labeled as pit bulls
How can breed branding negatively impact our dogs? These breed brands can leave some purebreds (and, frequently, mixes) in dire circumstances in cities, counties, and even countries around the world in the form of breed-discriminatory legislation. With these laws, politicians have forgotten about the variability seen in dog behavior, and the influence of environment and owner management on those dogs’ behaviors. The brand in this case is one of a dangerous dog, one many dogs don’t match. Along those same lines, a dog with an “illegal, aggressive” brand is highly desirable to reckless owners who put dogs in situations that encourage aggression and perpetuate this breed brand when they act aggressively. The brand of the pit bull as a fighting dog also allows dog fighters to justify their acts against these dogs. But, when a pit bull is friendly to people and other animals, it’s blown off as being an anomaly because it doesn’t match the image some people have in mind. People don’t want to consider that dogs are individuals, or that humans create dangerous dogs in a majority of cases.
The breed brand of the pit bull has also led to overbreeding of these dogs. One can often look online or in newspapers to find breeders selling “red nose” or “blue nose” pit bulls, and listing these as special or different from other pit bull type dogs. Other than color, there really isn’t much that is different about these dogs from other pit bulls. This is an example of good “breed branding” by breeders. Unfortunately, this means pet owners want the newest, trendy dog, which leads to more unscrupulous breeding to gain a quick profit. This lands many extra dogs and puppies in shelters around the country. There are many friendly pit bull type dogs in these shelters (some purebreds, many mixes) who will be euthanized because their “brand” scares some people away from adopting them rather than getting to know each dog as an individual, and for general lack of enough homes for all of these excess dogs.
Breed branding and assumptions about behavior
Consider, on the other hand, someone getting the “family-friendly” golden retriever. As the dog grows, the dog starts to not appreciate kids pulling on him or crawling over him. His tolerance can only last so long. He growls at a child, or even bites one. Or, maybe he’s fearful and not as social with strangers as we like to think this breed should be. The owner felt the dog would just be friendly by nature, early socialization wasn’t something to be considered. Now, the dog doesn’t match his breed brand. What happens when something else we buy doesn’t meet our brand expectation? We take it back to the store. In this case, this may mean the dog ends up in a shelter or euthanized.
Breed branding—a puppy mill’s best marketing tool
Or, consider the rise of the “designer dog.” In this case, we have the intentional breeding of purebred dogs together to create a hybrid. Even in these cases, where we don’t have a purebred dog anymore, breed branding is seen in some of the claims that are made. Labradoodles are hypoallergenic. Puggles have the adorable personalities of beagles with a smooshed pug face. Unfortunately, there’s even less consistency here with these claims. One need only to search the internet to see a wide variety in the appearance of these dogs. Not all those poodle mixes are hypoallergenic. Not all the puggles look like pugs, or even beagles. At the end of the day, these are mutts with good breed branding. Unfortunately, this has also left a lot of these dogs in shelters or rescues for not meeting their owner’s expectations. Many of these dogs are still being bred, along with purebreds, in puppy mills across the United States.
Puppy mills, commercial breeding operations that put profit over welfare, benefit extensively from breed branding. The entire premise of this industry involves treating pets as products. Their business survives by giving the consumer any breed of puppy they want – what’s currently popular. If people were less concerned about the breed brand, they may be more willing to go into a shelter and get a mixed breed dog. Or, spend time with dogs, looking for individual personalities that match their families, rather than focusing exclusively on the breeds they like best. They may be more interested in meeting reputable breeders and finding out more about the temperaments of their puppy’s parents instead of just trusting the breed brand when purchasing a puppy from an unknown breeder they found online or at a pet store.
Breed branding and working dogs
Even consider some of our working dogs. Police departments and the United States military have extensively used purpose-bred German Shepherds and Belgian Malinois from Europe that often cost tens of thousands of dollars for use in narcotics and explosives detection. The idea here is that a purebred dog meant to do a specific job is worth the price if we assume we will have some sort of consistency in behavior. Recently, we’ve seen some departments now taking chances on shelter dogs – some purebred, some mixes – that display the same high drive and desire to work as these expensive, purebred dogs. This shift in thinking can save taxpayer money, and save the lives of dogs that may be too high energy to live in homes as an average pet. These are dogs that need jobs. These are dogs that, when we get to know them as individuals, not as brands, we find to be fantastic workers.
Consider as well, most service dog organizations that purposefully breed their own stock only have a success rate of 40-50%. Only half of their dogs born into their organization have what it takes to be a service dog. Why not meet adult dogs and evaluate them based on who they are as individuals and select them specifically for these programs?
Breed branding and health concerns
And it’s not just our behavioral expectations that cause harm to dogs. Consider some of the physical traits of our favorite breeds. Breed branding has had a major impact on these as well. The breed standards for these dogs have created some real health problems in many purebred dogs. That cute snoring your French bulldog does – he can’t breathe because his airway is so packed with extra tissue and has become restricted. The stocky front end of the bulldog – she can’t give birth naturally, only through C-section. The cute little hop that the Jack Russel has when he walks – his kneecap keeps popping in and out of place. The buggy eyes your pug has – they can pop out or become injured if he bumps into something. These are health problems breeders could address by making the breed standards more moderate, but owners (consumers) want these dogs to look a certain way. Moving away from the extremely flat faces would reduce that desirability from the consumer – but the dogs would be much better off. Many times even owners overlook these health issues because, “it’s just a pug thing.” The breed branding keeps these issues from being taken more seriously by owners and breeders alike.
The positives of breed branding?
Granted, there are some things we can accurately predict about purebred dogs. If I get a Newfoundland, I will know the general size of the dog I’ll be getting. I’ll know the type of coat he’ll have. I may even be able to predict some genetic diseases and disorders I may have to be concerned about. These all help with my management of the dog, and also with the ultimate decision to bring a dog home. Do I have the space for this dog? Can I afford to feed a large dog? Do I like having to deal with long hair and shedding? These are the positives of a brand image for this dog.
There are even some things to be said for a purebred breeder with a high focus on temperament and behavior. If I adopt a puppy with easy-going, calm parents, I may have a higher likelihood of seeing these traits in their offspring. This isn’t always the case – environment, training, socialization, and management of the individual dog all come into play when we consider behavior. This behavioral aspect of purebred dogs is less predictable than physical traits.
Start the discussion on breed branding
So what’s a better idea when it comes to breed branding? If you’ve never noticed this phenomenon before, start by talking to others about it. Be careful with general statements you’re making about all dogs. Help others see the impacts of breed branding on the welfare of dogs around the world. We often let this breed branding get in the way of our own common sense because it’s so ingrained in our minds – we don’t really notice we’re doing this for the most part. We have to become more aware.
We’ve seen some shelters taking this issue seriously and removing breed labels from mixed breed dogs with an unknown ancestry. Often, when animals come into shelters they’re assigned a subjective breed label. Due to breed branding, these dogs have behavior and personality assumptions made about them by shelter staff and potential adopters. We may unintentionally set these dogs up for success or failure. In shelters who have removed breed labels, we are seeing adoptions for all dogs to increase and length of stay decrease. Perhaps this says something about adopters learning more about the dogs as individuals than how the dogs look and what their breed brands say about them.
Why do we hold these breed brand expectations for our dogs? My guess is we sometimes forget they’re living beings too—not just a product to be consumed. If we spend more time getting to know dogs as individuals, we may have owners who work harder to socialize and train their dogs. We may not have families who expect extreme levels of patience from their dogs with strangers or children.
Dogs are individuals – they are products of multiple variables, just like us!
At the end of the day we need to remember that all dogs are individuals. Dogs are the products of their owners, genetics, socialization, training, and overall management as well. These all come together to make a dog who they are. Right now, we’re focused on claims made about a dog’s breed – something that may or may not actually be in his genes. The sooner we realize that our dogs are more complex and variable than we’ve been led to believe, the sooner we’ll see fewer welfare issues; less breed discrimination; safer and more humane communities; less pet homelessness and overbreeding; and happier, healthier pets staying in homes and out of shelters.
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