Review: Dog’s Best Friend

Dog's Best Friend, Mark Derr

Dog’s Best Friend is perhaps the first “academic” dog book I’ve read (it was actually published by the University of Chicago Press, first in 1997, with the second edition coming out in 2004). The book is a hefty survey of the historical relationship between dogs and humans, spanning from the dawn of time to the present day. I picked it up from the library, because I recognized the author’s name from a 2006 piece he published in the New York Times, lambasting Cesar Millan for the incredible damage he has done to Americans’ perceptions of dogs and dog training.

The title seems to be a bit of a joke, for if anything, this book highlights how poorly we often treat dogs. Although humans are responsible for the incredible evolutionary success of the dog as a species, modern people have not done very well by the domestic dog.

As an example of humankind’s mistreatment of the dog, Derr devotes an entire chapter to the atrocities of the AKC and purebred breeders. He explores the genetic and behavioral problems we have introduced to dogs through vigorous inbreeding, purely for the sake of creating an animal that pleases the eye or tickles our fancy. Derr also writes extensively about the shady and often elitist practices of the AKC and other breed registry clubs, who are inclined to consider dog shows a “sport” for the wealthy to create dogs with no regard for the dog’s physical or mental well being.

Derr himself has two Catahoula leopard dogs and his preference for “primitive” or unregistered dog breeds is apparent throughout the book. I enjoyed reading about his adventures in the American wilderness–often in the South–with people who still bred and raised dogs for distinct purposes, but did so without any regard for bloodline or breed purity. If the dog can hunt, it is a hunting dog, regardless of its parentage, and so forth. It’s a world that seems very far removed from my own, and yet I often see many of these types of dogs (often indistinguishable hound crosses) at our local SPCA.

I liked the book and yet it was very unsettling to me. I found myself very swayed by Derr’s arguments about the absurdity of the AKC and the ridiculous promulgation of breeds who would, if left to nature, quickly die out (for example, bulldogs, other brachycephalic breeds, and most toy dogs, who would not last if not artificially sustained by humans). The main point that I got from this book was that we should not seek dogs who are on either extreme of the size spectrum. Both Great Danes and chihuahuas are bred to an unhealthy extreme of size. Dogs should not only be able to live six or seven years, because their hearts cannot sustain their enormous size. Likewise, dogs should not be bred so small that they develop severe anxiety issues and cannot protect themselves from the weather.

Derr’s point, again and again, is that we need to be called to a higher standard with how we raise and breed dogs. Have some respect for the dog’s well being, lifespan, and genetic soundness. Don’t breed dogs just because you think they look funny or pretty if that breeding makes them unable to live a long and healthy life. This argument is why Derr himself has repeatedly turned to “unregistered” and largely unrecognizable local dog breeds; the dogs are purportedly healthier and saved from the reaches of the breed enthusiasts. Essentially, Dog’s Best Friend raises a lot of the difficult ethical questions that we must face if we are people who, like myself, are inclined to desire purebreds.

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3 thoughts on “Review: Dog’s Best Friend

  1. From a canine view, Mr Derr sounds like one of those folks who likes to talk a lot and not think too much. The laws of natural selection aren’t the same in an environment dominated by humans. (I haven’t seen many saber-toothed tigers on the corner of Main and Elm.) Liked your review and you saved me from reading the book. Thanks.

  2. A lot of people have been rethinking breeds. Many of the service dog organizations now cross Golden Retrievers with Labrador Retrievers to strengthen the gene pool while still retaining some of the positive traits (stamina, soft mouth, friendliness etc.) of these two breeds.

    But the question of breeding is also related to what we want dogs to do. We expect them to fit into our lives without much hassle. They are an emotional support for lots of people (read Jon Katz on this topic; he has a lot to say on the subject). And of course many have actual jobs.

    We’ll worry less about breeds once we accept dogs as dogs instead of a furry appendage with no will of his own.

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