Make Health, Not Show, the Breed Standard
Alexandra Horowitz is a professor of psychology at Barnard College and a researcher of dog behavior and cognition and. She is the author of “Inside of a Dog: .”
It is now well known both within and outside scientific communities that elements of many breed standards are linked to inherited disorders, sometimes quite horrible and painful ones. In research reported in 2009 in The Veterinary Journal, Lucy Asher and colleagues detailed the number of disorders related to “conformation” — breeding to a prescribed standard. They looked at the 50 most popular U.K. breeds (a list that overlaps broadly with the U.S. list), and found that with every breed, at least one aspect of the standard predisposed members of that breed to have an inherited disorder.
Bulldogs and pugs have a brachycephalic (broad and short) head, leading to often severe obstructions in breathing. Many large breeds have debilitating hip and elbow dysplasias even in youth. Rhodesian ridgebacks are predisposed to dermoid sinus, leading to neurological problems. Shar-Peis are prone to eye ulcerations. The Cavalier King Charles spaniel may have a brain that is too large for its skull, an extremely painful condition called syringomyelia.
Breed standards could be revised to reduce the incidence of these disorders. The pug’s predisposition to spina bifida, linked to its curled tail, could be reduced if the standard did not instruct, “the tail is curled as tightly as possible over the hip.” Dalmatians with patches are less likely to be deaf, but the standard says, “patches are a disqualification.” Change these, improve the breed.
Finally, breed standards include personality descriptions. Unfortunately, personality is not genetically determined: just as a person’s personality derives from more than her genome, a dog is not merchandise whose behavior (outside of a few hard-wired ones, like pointing) can be predicted ahead of time.
While many owners may see breed-typical personalities in their dogs (we humans do tend to spot just the evidence which supports our theories), there is simply no guarantee that a dog will behave just so. Witness the cases of cloned — genetically identical — pets who have, to their owners’ great surprise, quite different personalities.
Since the vast majority of dog owners are not showing their dogs, but adding them to their families, the alleged predictability of personality is problematic. When a dog does not behave in accordance with her “billing,” owners call this a “behavior problem” — the single greatest reason for relinquishment of a dog to a shelter. Thus, inadvertently, breed standards lead potential adopters to treat them more like products with reliable features.
Dogs are individuals, and should be treated thusly.
Content Source: The New York Times