"A Matter of Breeding" by Michael Brandow is a detailed and unflinching socio-cultural history of dogs, viewed with humor and sarcasm, and explains how a long tradition of valuing them based on fancy looks and fanciful lineage has not been helping them, but rather, doing just the opposite (the Kindle edition can be found here). I wrote the Foreword for this book, and I've written about this topic before in an essay called "How Many Dog Breeders Do We Really Need?" (please also see also). Mr. Brandow's timely and significant book substantially fills out and extends many of the points many others and I have previously raised.
The old adage "more about the people than the dogs" barely scratches the surface here. In the wake of an eye-opening BBC documentary called "Pedigree Dogs Exposed" (which surprisingly few dog lovers seem to have seen), and ample studies on declining canine health given major media coverage in recent years (again, overlooked entirely), this book exposes in lurid detail what we've done to dogs over the ages, and then dissects the underlying social and psychological motivations at work.
Mr. Brandow hopes that by learning the real history behind our beliefs and prejudices about our companion species, and the many consequences for dogs today, we'll begin breaking the ultimate barrier to their "improvement," the goal stated in so many breed club charters since this business of pedigree and conformation began. Until we make that cultural hurdle, Mr. Brandow argues, and reconsider how the balance might be tipped more in favor of dogs than our own self-image, science has its hands tied on "improvement."
Along with vast amounts of historical material, Mr. Brandow gives us first-hand narratives from the journal he kept while working as a fulltime dog walker to Manhattan's elite. What better setting for field research into the roots of class pretension and fashion trend-setting behind the Westminster Dog Show? And what better place to find the casualties of the bad breeding practices it promotes? As a hired hand who bites the hand that feeds him, Mr. Brandow must care for pets so inbred that they're constantly sick and in need of special care. A spy inside opulent households, he exposes some of the more visibly deformed breeds, like English and French bulldogs, as so troubled that something as simple as taking them for a daily walk almost requires carrying a veterinarian technician's handbook. Show ring honors, he says, have been little comfort to the dogs in his life, and concerns over blood "purity," formal perfection, clubbiness, and brand-name recognition have left many breeds riddled with inherited illnesses, and in some cases deliberately disabled to meet unforgiving breed standards. Labs and goldens, two of the most fashionable brands to own today, count among the afflicted he knows up close and personally, and some of these are actually the high-priced progeny of Westminster champs.
From the time dogs were first standardized into the commercial breeds we seem to think are needed today, they've been shouldering the heavy burden of carrying on elitist traditions. Etched onto their fancy-coated backs, Mr. Brandow says, are archaic beliefs about class and race we're no longer supposed to have about each other, but which are still socially acceptable to have about the species closest to us. Dogs are used to demonstrate their owners' spending power, social standing, refinement, taste, and even racial purity - in other words, to show off our own breeding in a broader sense.
There is a major and avoidable pedigree health crisis
The conclusion of "A Matter of Breeding" is clear: Dog shows, registries, breed clubs, breeders, and social-climbing consumers are largely responsible for what seems to be turning into an all-out pedigree health crisis. But Mr. Brandow says they're not entirely to blame. This habit of making dogs say something grandiose about us, rather than doing something positive for the dogs themselves, is as old and deeply-rooted as anything human. For centuries, prior to neatly-packaged kennel club versions anyone with the right price can buy today, more general but still identifiable types were used by upper classes as symbols of privilege. Finer families kept special strains of hunting hounds and bird dogs. Laws in England and Continental Europe forbade lower classes from being seen with greyhounds, deerhounds, and other types that outclassed them. Poaching concerns aside, says Mr. Brandow, the ultimate aim was to keep the signs of social distinction in the hands of a few. Not just looks were embellished but behaviors like setting, pointing, and retrieving were also isolated and stylized for ritual hunting pageant - "extracted from the wolf and exaggerated to the point of parody" - further demonstrating the differences between highbred animals from highbrow kennels and mere mongrels anyone could have. Under the influence of the status-conscious English who eventually became the world authorities on dogs, versatile, all-rounder types that did it all, many of which would be considered lowly curs by today's standards, came to be frowned-upon.
So, the arrival of dog shows in the nineteenth century was not as immediately "corrupting" as critics, often snobbish upper-class sportsmen who'd used specialized types to pursue aristocratic pastimes, made this out to be. Still something new did come with standardized breeds and formal shows of Victorian England. Mr. Brandow says that during a time of rapid socio-economic change dogs were made more distinctive than ever before to fill a demand for more clearly-defined status symbols. Easily-identifiable breeds, the vast majority of which would become pets, served this purpose on an open market where dogs became like any other surplus luxury items. Dogs came to be valued even less for their skills, intelligence, health or durability, than for their ability to live up to beauty pageant ideals that marked them as custom-made products costing a lot. Dogs that weren't quite "show quality" would be valued for resembling prize winners closely enough in the eyes of amateurs to confer prestige wherever they went.
As the influence of the show culture spread, certain older types of purpose-bred dogs like bulldogs and collies, were, in fact, recast as cartoon versions of their working ancestors. Others were pure theater alone, and contrary to popular knowledge, these never served any function but to be born meeting their arbitrary breed standards. Once "breediness" was achieved for types superficially distinct enough to give competitors more ways to win prizes, dubious breed histories were written to make average consumers proud of pets said to have ancestors who once lived in castles. Owners (now called guardians by many) walked their canine blue bloods with distinction, and across the Atlantic the American Kennel Club (AKC) promoted these newfangled types as a way to improve our own family trees with pedigree papers. So the story is not all doom and gloom. Paraded around the ring are many laughable examples of human vanity and the absurdity of social climbers.
We don't need ornamental dogs
On a more sober note, once "breediness" was achieved based mainly on appearance, the door was closed to new blood, a necessary ingredient to survival, not just for breeds but also for species. Diversifying dogs into a catalog selection based on superficial traits like coat color worked against the genetic diversity that increases the chances for good health. A heightened interest in "good" breeding and blood "purity" in times of social insecurity led to dogs being inbred as never before, except perhaps court dogs of old which like today's show dogs did not need to be healthy or functional but only ornamental. New racial theories of eugenics were added in the nineteenth century as a "scientific" overlay to old prejudices, the result being that dogs were inbred beyond the point even needed to maintain their purely formal traits. This, Mr. Brandow says, along with forcing dogs into anatomical extremes unsound for any living creature, is what set any breed doomed to popularity on a path toward those disastrous rates of, for example, cancer, epilepsy, hemophilia, hip dysplasia, and other maladies we've come to accept as "normal" for many brand-name favorites today. Mr. Brandow gives examples of how even working dogs have been impacted by the show culture, and of a new trend toward cross-breeding (or "miscegenating") health and usefulness back into them.
Small signs of progress aside, the ongoing snob appeal of so-called "purebreds" is what allows their biggest fans, despite a wealth of information now available on why not to buy them, to overlook any bad news, or to rationalize the pedigree health crisis because they have too much of themselves invested in loving dogs for the wrong reasons.
"A Matter of Breeding" is surely is going to rub people in many different ways, ranging from hearty acceptance to outright anger and denial. Nonetheless, it's an essential and incredibly well documented read for those who want to know more about how we have strongly, selfishly, and negatively affected the awesome beings whom many call their BFF, the very beings who depend on us to have their best interests in heart and mind. Agree or not, Mr. Brandow's book is a serious, significant, and most timely message that deserves a global audience. It really is that good.