Why "pure breed" dogs can't fetch: An interview with James Serpell
by Damian Chadwick | Issue #22
How did wolves transform into today's greyhounds, pugs, and Yorkies? A couple of theories attempt to explain. Most historians believe that early humans adopted orphaned wolf pups and raised them as hunting companions. Another view suggests that wolves brave enough to scavenge for food near humans had higher survival rates and reproduced more freely. Over time, according to this theory, this population of scavenging wolves lost its fear of humans.
Early humans had too few resources to keep animals as "pets" and needed them to work to justify their upkeep. Rural dwellers bred dogs to protect against predators, to help manage livestock, and to hunt. Breeding habits changed, however, when the sport of "dog fancy" arose in Victorian England. A large leisure class sought status symbols, which breeders met with the newly discovered principles of genetics and Darwinian natural selection.
By recording dog genealogies and adopting practices such as line breeding (mating a stud to its progeny), breeders started producing dogs so varied that they seemed as different from their ancestors as from cats or goats. The British and American kennel clubs emerged in the 1880s to codify the physical forms of specific "breeds," manage breeding records, and conduct exhibitions to designate champion dogs. By focusing on a dog's appearance, however, the kennel clubs neglected dogs' other characteristics--namely, their health and behavior. As a result, purebred dogs today inherit hundreds of diseases because of inbreeding.
Through their long association with humans, dogs have been bred to suit human needs. But what are those needs now? Are we meeting them by breeding our dogs into more and more extreme forms without regard to their health and behavior? Dr. James Serpell, the Director of the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society at University of Pennsylvania, has written extensively on petkeeping and human societies. His best-known work on the subject is In the Company of Animals. Stay Free! interviewed Dr. Serpell by phone in March 2004.--Damian Chadwick
STAY FREE!: In a recent Nova program, Dogs and More Dogs, you suggested that pet owners should breed dogs for behavior--as opposed to looks and other characteristics. Given that the majority of Americans live in cities, what would be the characteristics of this pet?
JAMES SERPELL: I conducted a survey years ago to find out whether the things that people want from dogs are different from what they want from cats. Contrary to my hypothesis, there was almost no difference. People want an animal that's affectionate and interactive, that gives them a lot of attention and that lacks those bad traits: it's not aggressive or excitable, it doesn't fart too much. They want a kind of predictability. Since there appears to be a certain uniformity to what people want, why not breed for that? This is how people originally bred working dogs: if you needed a dog to retrieve ducks, you selected for that function, which included having the right shape, the right coat, and other characteristics. It all came in one package, which is the same way that evolution operates, in a sense. Why don't we do that for pets?
STAY FREE!: You'd think it would be obvious. Instead, dog breeding--at least through the kennel clubs--seems to focus entirely on aesthetics. Many breeds can't even perform their original functions. We have purebred retrievers, for example, that can't retrieve. How do breed standards play into this?
SERPELL: Every year, the American Kennel Club publishes The Complete Dog Book, which contains breed standards. For every breed there is a very specific description of how big its nose should be, the color of its ears, and so forth. But when it comes to behavior, it lists vague terms like: "courageous and standoffish." If you spell that out, it means the dog is temperamentally unreliable. We don't want "courageous and standoffish" dogs in urban environments, but that's the breed standard. If challenged, the American Kennel Club will say that they are breeding to function. But it's nonsense to breed a pet with the characteristics of a potentially dangerous guard dog.
STAY FREE!: A lot of purebreds are unhealthy. Bulldogs, for example, need to undergo caesarian birth. Why is that?
SERPELL: Almost all the pedigree breeders birth bulldogs by Caesarian because of the narrowness of the hips of the bitch and the large size of the puppy's head. That's a classic illustration of the problem with breeding standards. The original breed standard for the bulldog was that the head should be as large as possible, so breeders have continually pushed it to accentuate the standard.
STAY FREE!: Are people still trying to use genetics to ensure the purity of a particular breed?
SERPELL: Yes, it's implicit in the process. Breeders consider a mixed breed a horrible thing. There's huge pride in the dog's lineage, its pedigree--as if breeders were talking about their own family trees, as if they're descended from aristocracy. The idea of out-breeding--of mixing with a different breed to mask an unhealthy trait--is anathema, because it destroys the "purity" of the line. Breeders will justify this by saying "If the breed is pure, it's predictable, and people will know what they're getting." But in reality there's still huge variation within a breed. That's due partly to genetics and partly to the way the dogs are brought up, to the environment.
STAY FREE!: Can genetic tests distinguish between breeds?
SERPELL: No, you can't distinguish between dog breeds with existing genetic techniques. In fact, you can't even tell the difference between a dog and a wolf reliably. Some genetic analyses of mitochondrial DNA place the wolf in the middle of all the dog breeds, making the wolf look like another breed. Also, you can have two individuals from the same breed placed miles apart on a DNA map. In England, when they decided to ban the American pit bull terrier, they immediately had trouble identifying the dog. There were so many hybrids, the law had to be modified.
STAY FREE!: I've heard that some vets have attempted to find a "violence gene" in pit bulls. Is this search still going on?
SERPELL: A lot of organizations would hope so. But it hasn't gotten very far for a number of reasons. For one, there hasn't been a huge amount of funding. Researchers in behavioral genet-ics focus on mice and fruit flies, which they can breed very quickly, whereas dogs are expensive to use. The other reason is that the genetics of behavior is enormously complicated; they're never going to find a gene for violence. They may find a gene that, when present in some individuals, predisposes them to be more likely to express violent character traits, but so much is filtered through the developmental environment that you can't predict with certainty which individuals are going to go bad. Even scientists in human population genetics talk about this all the time: how they're going to find a gene for this behavior or for that, but it's really a shorthand for expressing something that's enormously complex. I think we're a long way from having a genetic screen for aggression.
STAY FREE!: Do you see any connection between racist thinking and some of the thinking that goes into dog breeding?
SERPELL: I've never been able to track down an explicit connection, but it's hard to imagine there isn't one.
STAY FREE!: Do other parts of the world practice dog breeding the same way the United States and Britain do?
SERPELL: Each of these countries tends to focus on its national breed, or at least a favorite breed. I remember being startled that there were so many English setters in Norway; it's not a dog you'd see very often elsewhere. The Germans have academies for German shepards with training programs, where they're trained as guard dogs--almost war dogs. They put them through various tests, such things as standing next to an exploding shotgun and not flinching.
For a complete list of genetic diseases in purebred dogs, see siriusdog.com/genetic.htm