Some dogs tug on people's heartstrings to their own detriment and demise

Dogs are very popular companions animals, and despite the fact that there are millions of sheltered dogs who need homes, some people still choose to buy dogs from breeders (please see "We Don't Need More Purebred Dogs With So Many Dogs in Need," "How Many Dog Breeders Do We Really Need?" and numerous essays here). A recent essay (available online) by Dr. Zazie Todd called "Irresistible: Emotions affect choice of breed despite welfare issues" considers the results of a new study. Dr. Todd begins, "Knowing a breed of dog may have health problems does not stop people from wanting one, because emotions get in the way."

The research paper under discussion by the University of Copenhagen's Dr. Peter Sandøe and his colleagues is titled "Why do people buy dogs with potential welfare problems related to extreme conformation and inherited disease? A representative study of Danish owners of four small dog breeds." Also available online, the abstract reads:

A number of dog breeds suffer from welfare problems due to extreme phenotypes and high levels of inherited diseases but the popularity of such breeds is not declining. Using a survey of owners of two popular breeds with extreme physical features (French Bulldog and Chihuahua), one with a high load of inherited diseases not directly related to conformation (Cavalier King Charles Spaniel), and one representing the same size range but without extreme conformation and with the same level of disease as the overall dog population (Cairn Terrier), we investigated this seeming paradox. We examined planning and motivational factors behind acquisition of the dogs, and whether levels of experienced health and behavior problems were associated with the quality of the owner-dog relationship and the intention to re-procure a dog of the same breed. Owners of each of the four breeds (750/breed) were randomly drawn from a nationwide Danish dog registry and invited to participate. Of these, 911 responded, giving a final sample of 846. There were clear differences between owners of the four breeds with respect to degree of planning prior to purchase, with owners of Chihuahuas exhibiting less. Motivations behind choice of dog were also different. Health and other breed attributes were more important to owners of Cairn Terriers, whereas the dog’s personality was reported to be more important for owners of French Bulldogs and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels but less important for Chihuahua owners. Higher levels of health and behavior problems were positively associated with a closer owner-dog relationship for owners of Cavalier King Charles Spaniels and Chihuahuas but, for owners of French Bulldogs, high levels of problems were negatively associated with an intention to procure the same breed again. In light of these findings, it appears less paradoxical that people continue to buy dogs with welfare problems.

Data very clearly show French Bulldogs die extremely young

The researchers also include data from Agria, a Swedish insurance company, that provides "sobering information about the median age of death," merely 2.5 years for male French Bulldogs and 3.8 for females. 

PLOS open access
Source: PLOS open access

Dr. Todd's summary is excellent, and here I simply want to note a few things she writes about to call attention to a significant problem for dogs people choose to buy, many of whom have gone on to have short and miserable lives. She writes, "The researchers found that the dog’s distinctive appearance, breed attributes and convenience were all motivations in getting a dog. Personality was also important. These motivations varied by breed. Distinctive appearance and personality were particularly important for owners of Cavalier King Charles Spaniels and French Bulldogs. For Chihuahua owners, these were less important, but convenience played a bigger role. Owners of Cairn Terriers were less motivated by appearance and more by breed attributes."

Dr. Todd also notes, "The results suggest there is a real challenge for people trying to promote improved welfare, since it seems that factors other than good health are important contributors to the decision to get a puppy. People’s motivations to get each breed were different, and in some cases the features of the breed that potentially cause problems also tug on our heart strings. Care-giving might also increase the attachment bond." 

She also includes a valuable email she received from Dr. Sandøe, the lead author the study. He wrote:

“In all, this study prompts the conclusion that the apparent paradox of people who love their dogs continuing to acquire dogs from breeds with breed-related welfare problems may not be perceived as a paradox from the point of view of prospective owners of breeds such as Chihuahuas and French Bulldogs.  

Thus apparently available information about the problems in these two breeds has not served to prevent their growing popularity because fundamental emotional responses to the phenotypic attributes of these breeds are highly effective positive motivators.”

In their essay Dr. Sandøe and his colleagues conclude:

In all, this study prompts the conclusion that the apparent paradox of people who love their dogs continuing to acquire dogs from breeds with breed-related welfare problems may not be perceived as a paradox from the point of view of prospective owners of breeds such as Chihuahuas and French Bulldogs. Thus apparently available information about the problems in these two breeds has not served to prevent their growing popularity because fundamental emotional responses to the phenotypic attributes of these breeds are highly effective positive motivators. These findings illustrate the need to find better ways to motivate prospective owners to demand dogs that [who] do not suffer from welfare problems related to extreme conformation and inbreeding.

Loving dogs to (early) death

While some might argue these and other doomed dogs at least have had a life, as some people also argue about food animals whose lives are replete with deep and enduring suffering before they're killed and wind up on some human's plates, I don't find this to be a convincing reason to continue breeding dogs who suffer because of what humans find appealing. It's essential to take into account the dog's perspective, and put humans' self-serving interests on hold. Some dogs are being loved to death, and very early deaths indeed. 

I hope Dr. Todd's essay and the research paper by Dr. Sandøe and his colleagues will enjoy a broad global audience. It's singularly unfair to continue breeding dogs who will have short and miserable lives. This self-serving practice needs to be stopped. As the researchers conclude, our "findings illustrate the need to find better ways to motivate prospective owners to demand dogs that [who] do not suffer from welfare problems related to extreme conformation and inbreeding."

Marc Bekoff’s latest books are Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence and The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age.

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