Pup links!

Actor Frederic March and his cocker spaniel in the rain. Source: LIFE Magazine Archives.

And now for some dog-related links:

The Dogs of “Mad Men.” OK, Dogster made another great list, assigning breeds to characters from AMC’s original series “Mad Men.” I think they’re spot-on, and the descriptions are priceless. Roger Sterling is totally a weimaraner and, weirdly enough, I can actually see Joan as an Aussie. (Dogster)

On Expensive Medical Treatments for Your Pet. Preach it! I think this is all that needs to be said on this prevailing and backwards mentality: “No one has ever noticed that a friend has a really nice new couch, and said: ‘well, gosh, I’d feel terrible buying such a nice couch, considering how many mosquito nets the Gates Foundation could have given out in the developing world with that kind of money.’ Ever. But people WILL say that to you for choosing to spend your own money to save a living creature that really matters to you.” (Lazy Self-Indulgent Book Reviews)

A Collection of German Shepherd Champions Over Time. This actually makes me kind of sad. Look how beautiful and strong the GSDs from the early 1900s looked. Today? They look like weirdly deformed half-dogs. It’s almost like a flip-book to deformity as you scroll upward quickly. Sigh. (Les Anges Gardiens)

Are Your Pet Adoption Listings Hurting Pets? An exhortation not to try to rope in potential adopters with sob stories; be honest about the dog’s strengths and weaknesses and you’ll give everyone a fair hand, including–or especially–the dog. (Dogged)

Woman’s Best Friend. As mentioned last weekend, this is my new pin board, featuring photographs and artwork of women and their dogs. Crazy dog ladies, enjoy! (Pinterest)

Why “designer dog breeds” make me uncomfortable

Labradoodle. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

“Designer dogs” are increasingly in vogue. It’s not uncommon to see a labradoodle or a goldendoodle–big dogs who look like animated Muppets–galloping down the street. Cockapoos, maltipoos, anything with a “-poo” suffix are a dime a dozen these days. Puggles have entered into mainstream consciousness. The dogs are always cute. They seem happy. But I admit that I always get a little uncomfortable when I meet someone who owns and intentionally sought out a “designer dog” breed.

Here’s why.

What bothers me is NOT that people are making “new breeds.” People have been doing that for centuries. The majority of breeds recognized by the AKC today were the “designer dogs” from Victorian England. I get that and I’m not distressed by it. What really bugs me about designer dogs is that they are bred solely for cuteness and convenience. This also means that the majority of “designer dogs” are bred by puppy mills. The goal of these breeding facilities is to churn out these fluffy puppies as fast as possible to get them into the hands of the insatiable and regrettably unscrupulous public.

Maltipoo. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Just a few months ago, I ran into a young woman about my age who was walking what appeared to be an animated stuffed animal. The cream-colored fluff ball on a pink line weighed all of two pounds. I asked her if I could pet him, and she said yes. She told me that he was a five-month-old maltipoo, which she chose because “it’d fit well in my little apartment.” Yes, the little creature made my heart nearly burst with how adorable and tiny he was, but as I walked away, I couldn’t help but feeling sad that this animal had been micro-sized just for human convenience.

In 2007, the New York Times ran an article on the explosion of designer dog breeds and examined the prime profit-maker for these franken-puppies: The giant puppy mill, paradoxically named Puppy Haven Kennel, in Wisconsin. (Mercifully, about a year after this article was published, the Wisconsin Humane Society bought the puppy mill and sought to re-home the 1,100 dogs it rescued.)

The article makes the link between the existence of these terrible mills and the public demand for cute, convenient dogs. The writer cites Katherine C. Grier, a cultural historian and author of Pets in America, who says:

 “The dogness of dogs has become problematic. We want an animal that is, in some respects, not really an animal. You’d never have to take it out. It doesn’t shed. It doesn’t bark. It doesn’t do stuff.”

In the busy 21st century, people want dogs who act more like cats: They should be small, fastidious, independent, and require little attention or training. It’s a nice idea, but that’s not really a dog. But people promote and market “designer dogs” as if they were all of these things, as if they were nothing more than a new lamp to go with your living room, like this appalling article suggests. They’re “hypoallergenic”! (A myth that has been debunked.) They don’t make any noise! They don’t shed! They’ll never need any training! These are not dogs. These are glorified stuffed animals.

Any time we mass produce an animal to fit our own flights of fancy, we’re doing a grave injustice and we should be ashamed of ourselves. In a country that demands instant gratification and convenience, it’s no wonder that we have designer dogs and puppy mills around every corner. I only wonder if this is something that will ever change.

Why I would never get a bulldog, and other thoughts on eugenics

Source: Wikimedia Commons

In my months of dog study, I’ve learned a lot about how modern dog breeds are predominantly the story of a massive eugenics program. Earlier dog breeds were selectively bred for working purposes. You have two dogs who are good at herding sheep? You breed those dogs together, regardless of appearance, and get a litter of pups who are probably pretty attentive to livestock. But with the advent of the Victorian era and the Western world’s obsession with perfection, we started getting the first “designer” dog breeds. We started to create dogs purely based on looks–to be beautiful or, as in the case of the English bulldog, to be kind of funny- and ferocious-looking.

I think the English bulldog is an unfortunately strong example of eugenics gone awry. I’ve come to believe that it’s abusive to breed animals who look like this. Why?

Here are a few reasons. We have been intentionally breeding these dogs with malformed skulls. We’ve pushed their noses in so far that they can hardly breathe properly. Brachycephalic breeds like bulldogs and pugs are known to die in heat and humidity because they cannot breathe and pant like normal dogs are supposed to. This is absurd. We are risking the life of animal–and for what? Because its funny face amuses us.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Dogs from this group have very shallow eye sockets and are therefore prone to more eye problems than other breeds. If you’re unfortunate enough to be born a pug, your eyes are continuously bulging out of your head and susceptible to debris and injury. If your eyes bulge out too much, your eyelid might not be able to close completely, which means your eyes will be perpetually dry and infected. Why is this happening to you, poor little pug? Because that’s the way the humans want you to look. Sorry, dude. (The bulging eyes of breeds like pugs and bulldogs have been known to pop out if they are pulled too harshly by the neck. That is one of the most terrible things I have ever read.)

Breeding brachycephalic dogs has also deprived them of a dog’s greatest sense: Smell. Brachycephalic breeds cannot use their noses as well as dogs with more normal, elongated snouts. Eugenics has stripped these dogs of one of the qualities that makes them the most “dog”! This is terrible to me. Brachycephalic dogs are also more susceptible to skin infections in the folds of their face and heart disease than other breeds.

Many English bulldogs have to have caesarean sections to give birth because we’ve repeatedly bred these dogs to have excessively large skulls. That is criminal. No dog should be forced to undergo a serious operation to give birth. And that’s what we are doing by repeatedly breeding these unfortunate animals. For what reason? Because we like the way they look. We force these dogs to suffer innumerable health problems purely because their appearance pleases us.

In short, I would never buy a puppy from anyone who bred brachycephalic dogs. I think it’s an abusive way to breed an animal.

This same argument could be extended beyond brachycephalic dogs, though. Any dog that we repeatedly breed, regardless of genetic conditions, is susceptible to being tortured by our desire for physical beauty. I’ve seen a gorgeous German shepherd only a year old who could not walk because idiotic, cruel breeders bred from dogs with severe hip dysplasia.

All dog breeds could benefit from more responsible, conscientious breeding. We ought to take more seriously our responsibility for the well-being of these animals that we repeatedly breed for our own purpose and pleasure. It it is ungenerous of us to knowingly bring them into the world with substandard health.

What are your thoughts on this issue? Do you agree, disagree?

Review: The Dog Who Loved Too Much

The Dog Who Loved Too Much, by Nicholas Dodman

The Dog Who Loved Too Much is the precursor to famed veterinarian Nicholas Dodman’s other book, Dogs Behaving Badly, which I read a few months ago. Overall, the books contain essentially the same information, except that Dogs Behaving Badly is alphabetized by chapter according to behavioral problems.

That said, this book was still interesting to me. I tend to be very behavior/training-heavy in my reading interests, and so it’s nice to get the medical perspective on these issues. While serving as an accomplished and respected vet, Dodman is also a behaviorist on a basic level. He wants to get to the root of each dogs’ problem rather than just throw a handful of expensive pills at them.

I always enjoy reading the bizarre stories he tells about the dogs he’s treated. Dodman alone has convinced me never to consider a bull terrier (not that I would any way). My heart broke over his extended chapter on treating bull terriers, who are commonly plagued by a variety of genetic, behavioral, and psychological disorders (including chronic tail chasing, among others). People are totally responsible for this. It’s a cruel way to practice eugenics. Bull terriers deserve better, but their warped genetic heritage has decreed that they will be perpetually plagued by these disorders.

Books like this start to give me some anecdotal fear, though. German shepherds are almost always featured in these stories about dogs behaving badly. This is probably because they are still one of the most popular dog breeds in America. But then I start to get worried that German shepherds are an inherently problematic breed. I know this isn’t fundamentally true and that every dog, purebred or not, can have a host of psychological problems, but I still get worried. I was also astonished at the sheer number of messed-up English springer spaniels that Dodman has seen. From Dodman’s stories, GSDs and springers seem to be the most common problematic breeds. This is from a purely anecdotal perspective, though, and so I try not to get too anxious about it. Although I am against breed stereotyping, I do wonder what most veterinarians would say if you asked them which breed tended to have the most issues…

Overall, it’s an interesting book and Dodman is a commendable writer and researcher. I think I would recommend Dogs Behaving Badly first, though, since its categorized chapters could be a more helpful behavioral guide.

Review: The Hidden Life of Dogs

The Hidden Life of Dogs, by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

I recognized Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s name from the many book blurbs she wrote for the other dog books I was reading. I’d heard The Hidden Life of Dogs mentioned as a “much-loved” text, one woman’s insight into the “mysterious” lives of canines. It was short and so I thought, what the heck, I’ll read it.

The book is written in a memoir-like style and covers Thomas’s years of life with a large pack of Siberian huskies and one dingo (where this dingo came from, I don’t know, since Thomas lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and made no mention of ever visiting the Australian bush). Thomas spent time on Baffin Island observing wolves and her admiration for wolves comes through in her interactions with her dogs. Throughout the book, she constantly uses “wolf language” to describe how her dogs interact: They’re operating in a pack, there’s a hierarchy, there’s general suspicion toward humans, etc. Even her attraction to the husky breed indicates this desire of hers to keep wolves as pets.

Early on, we are introduced to the stud-bolt husky Misha. Misha is the celebrated wandering warrior, the Aragorn, if you will, of this story. Misha comes to live with Thomas and quickly makes it clear that he doesn’t want to stay in her fence. He nimbly scales the 6-foot wall and disappears. He escapes and wanders for hours and is often gone for days. Thomas says she would get calls from people six miles away saying they’d found her husky.

Though she lived in busy, urban Cambridge, Thomas made no efforts to curtail Misha’s adventures and instead decided to follow him on his treks. What she discovered was that Misha had an unusually excellent internal GPS system. He could always find his way home. He never got lost. He navigated Cambridge traffic like a seasoned pro and was never hit by a car (which seems a miracle in itself). Her time tracking Misha led her to bring other huskies into her home and within a few years, she had a veritable pack on her hands.

The part about following Misha intrigued me, but after those journeys, Thomas’s narrative and observations failed to maintain my interest and my respect. Thomas doesn’t seem to think that her dogs required any training or obedience–she prefers that they live according to their natural instincts. This is a nice idea–if you’re the type of person who can put up with 10 unruly dogs in your house. Thankfully for her sanity, Thomas appears to have been this type of person.

But that’s not even what bothered me the most. What really irked me was Thomas’s lack of care and concern for her dogs’ sexual health. None of her 10 dogs get neutered or spayed, not even the two pugs who lived indoors. So, naturally, puppies happen. Thomas writes about at least four litters that her unsupervised female dogs endure.

The most upsetting story that Thomas includes is an afternoon spent walking the neighborhood with her little dingo, Viva. Viva is only a few months old at the time and had just entered her first heat. Thomas says she was walking slowly with Viva when, out of nowhere, an English springer spaniel comes bounding over the fence and attaches himself to Viva. Viva is scared, Thomas writes, cries through the whole experience and never indicated that she wanted this dog’s amorous attention. “I realized dogs could rape,” Thomas concludes after this little anecdote–as if she was free of blame from the entire incident. On the contrary, Thomas is the only one who should feel guilty here. First, she never spayed her dog. Second, she had the idiocy to take her dog, unleashed, on a walk around the neighborhood while the dog was in her first heat. Third, she just stood there and watched while her dog got raped. The springer, though aggressive, was just doing what dogs do. Thomas, who should have had some foresight as the rational animal in this situation, appears neglectful, irresponsible, and downright stupid.

Viva has her puppies when she is just a puppy herself, just over 8 months old, and suffers through labor, as Thomas depicts it. Viva does not seem to be an instinctively competent mother, something which Thomas pities her for. Another bitch in the house, Koki, gets impregnated by another one of Thomas’s huskies around this same time. Koki is more confident, Thomas asserts, and a higher-ranking female in the household. One day, Thomas comes home and finds the house eerily still. None of the dogs will greet her. She goes upstairs and she finds Koki in Viva’s litter, holding one of Viva’s pups in her mouth. All but one of Viva’s pups are dead. Koki, apparently, is responsible for the deaths of these puppies. This is a horrific incident–and again, one that could have been avoided if Thomas had been a responsible dog owner. Instead, she justifies Koki’s infanticide with Koki’s belief that these lower-ranking puppies had to die so that her own puppies could succeed. I don’t know how I’d characterize Koki’s motives in killing another dog’s puppies, but I feel like this is a stretch without any evidence.

In a related point, my other big issue with this book is Thomas’s gross anthropomorphism of her dogs. I suppose this can only be expected, since Thomas is herself a respected anthropologist. But the motives and emotions she assigns to her dogs are almost always human motives and emotions and impossible to prove. She rarely gives any supporting behavioral or physical evidence that this emotion is, conclusively, what the dog was thinking or planning; rather, she just “knows.” I find this highly suspect.

Toward the end of the book, Thomas and her family move to a spacious property in Virginia where she builds a large, fenced enclosure for her remaining pack to live outdoors. She begins to lose daily contact with her dogs and, unsurprisingly, they become increasingly wild and wolf-like.

Thomas’s conclusion is that dogs don’t want or even necessarily need people in their lives. I think this is a ridiculous notion. The only reason Thomas reached this conclusion is because she was letting her dogs live like wolves by the end of the book. Of course they weren’t acting like dogs; dogs, as we know them, are defined by their dependence upon and relationship with humans. Not so for wolves–or, apparently, for Thomas’s wolf-like pack of huskies. Wolves don’t need people just like Thomas’s dogs didn’t need people. These animals were not acting like dogs. They dug an enormous den and tunnel system for their private use, bred as they pleased, and generally ignored Thomas’s existence.

She turned her dogs back into wolves and then somehow claims to have mystic insight into the lives of dogs. Hardly. The only thing Thomas uncovered was that, if left to their own devices, a pack of 10 huskies will devolve into animals with wolf-like natures and behaviors. They will be barely recognizable as dogs, because, for all intensive purposes, they’re not really dogs anymore.

If it’s not already clear, I have little respect for Thomas as a dog owner and as an observer of canine behavior. I think she ran an interesting experiment with her dogs and drew some misapplied conclusions from that experiment. Were her dogs happy? Yes, I think so. But they weren’t really dogs. For Thomas to claim to have some hidden insight into the lives of dogs is woefully inaccurate. But to have insight into the lives of dogs turned back into wolves? Well, then maybe. If that’s what you’re interested in, then this is the book for you. If you’re actually interested in dogs, save your time.

Breed Love: Rough collie

Rough Collie named Jack
Rough collie. Source: Flickr user LesPaulSupreme

What little girl hasn’t dreamed of having her own Lassie? OK, so I haven’t stopped dreaming. I love rough collies. I love watching them move. Whenever I see one, I can barely resist the temptation to run up and throw my arms around its neck and bury my face in its incredible mane. I restrain myself–but only with the greatest exertion of willpower.

Thanks to “Lassie,” collies experienced an enormous popularity spike in the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s. Unfortunately, for almost all breeds, popularity comes at a price. For collies, it was quite a big one. Irresponsible breeders who jumped on the popularity bandwagon nearly destroyed this breed by reproducing dogs with Collie Eye Anomaly and bad hips. Today, these congenital defects still run rampant in the breed lineage. The popularity of the rough collie has diminished steadily since its heyday in the 50s and 60s and today, these big, beautiful dogs are somewhat uncommon–even though anyone could identify one on the street and call it “Lassie.”

My mom’s family was one of the many American families who jumped on the collie bandwagon. When she was young, her parents brought home a rough collie puppy they named Missy. Mom spoke fondly of Missy, but her stories indicate that Missy was somewhat neglected and developed a worrisome stereotypy in the back yard. As soon as Missy went outside, she would run for hours along the fence in the exact same loop. Mercifully, my grandparents realized Missy was going insane and they gave her to nearby farmers, where she lived a hopefully happy and long life.

Our Rough Collie, Sadie
A rough collie puppy. Source: Flickr user Gary_Troughton

That sad story aside, I’d definitely consider a rough collie if the opportunity presented itself. I am very wary about the breed’s remaining health challenges, but I would pursue a collie rescue or puppy if that is what we decide is best for us. There are many appealing traits of the rough collie. Unlike most reserved herding breeds, collies are very friendly and outgoing. They’re intelligent and loyal. And almost always totally gorgeous. I should stop thinking about this right now. I’m really tempted to keep looking at these collie rescue groups (linked below) and all of the beautiful dogs who need homes…

Rough collie links: