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National Museum of Animals & Society Blog
There is something fascinating about looking at portraits from centuries ago of people with their prized pets and seeing what sort of animal suited a particular person. Oftentimes you see royalty posing with their hunting hounds or lapdogs, their animals every bit the status symbols as the modern starlet’s. However, there is distinctly less variety in the animals seen in such portraits than is seen today. Usually there is a spaniel or two, perhaps a greyhound or wolfhound. Why, when there are thousands of dog breeds to choose from today, was there such a lack of variety then?
The answer is both unexpected and startling. According to the National Geographic documentary The Science of Dogs, just 100 short years ago, 88% of the current breeds of dog available today did not exist. Today, there are over 500 breeds of dog in existence, with new hybrids and designer pooches available every few years. Why the boom? Certainly dogs did not suddenly expand their mating horizons on their own.
During the Victorian era, humanity became obsessed with creating the perfectly functioning society, hence the industrial revolution and the sharply realized class system during that time. In this quest for perfection, man began exploring an idea called eugenics, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the science of improving [a population] by breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable characteristics.” Eugenics was a question of whether, in creating the most efficient society, man could also create the most efficient man by breeding out “undesirable” traits. While the study of eugenics on humans after the horrific ethnic cleansings of the last century (most notably the Holocaust) has fallen out of public favor, it is an idea that has remained alive and well for dogs.
While cats and other domesticated pets have also seen a boom in breed variety, there is a greater variety in dogs than in any other mammal. This is because dogs possess uniquely malleable DNA that allows specific genetic traits such as size, temperament, snout shape, tail length, etc. to be easily altered by selective breeding. In just a few short generations and breeding cycles, humans are now able to breed the perfect dog to suit their needs. But what is the effect on dogs as a whole?
A documentary produced by the BBC entitled Pedigree Dogs Exposed explores some of the downsides of human meddling in animal affairs in this arena. The film illustrates that, while humans are selectively mating dogs for specific traits, this has the unintended side effect of also breeding dogs for any negative traits that may come along with those genes. And as the breeding for the desired trait continues and becomes more focused, the harmful trait also becomes more focused. In creating the custom-made pooch, humans may also be creating genetically unhealthy animals.
This creates an interesting dilemma: humans have created an infinitely customizable pet, and yet, in our increasingly self-centered modern world of personalized technology and instant gratification, where will the customization all end? When does the welfare of the animal become more important than the aesthetic desires of his master?