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The Psychology of Breedism and the Politics of Dogs Revived

The production of dogs, many of whom have highly compromised lives, continues.

Key points

  • A controversial, but factual essay published in 1990 about the downside of dog breeding, is now available to the public.
  • Mark Derr offers an important historical perspective about his essay that the AKC asked to be removed, but the magazine refused.
  • Breedism and the production of dogs who live highly compromised lives still exists.
  • There have been few changes in the mindset and motivation for breeding dogs for utility and looks, rather than for their quality of life.

“I opened a Pandora box and released a Frankenstein monster." —Labradoodle Creator, Wally Conron

In 1990, dog expert Mark Derr published what has become a classic essay in The Atlantic called "The Politics of Dogs" and it is now available online. The byline reads, "An organization created to protect the purity of dog bloodlines has become...misguided in its view of 'quality' and guilty of encouraging destructive forms of inbreeding that have robbed dogs of traditional skills and left them vulnerable to crippling disease."

Aurora Aybar Valencia, Pexesl, free download.
Source: Aurora Aybar Valencia, Pexesl, free download.

I've been asked repeatedly if I have access to the paper so that I could share it, and until yesterday I have not. Having this essay become widely available is a hugely important move because it concerns itself with a topic that simply won't go away—humans continuing to make designer dogs who live highly compromised lives, some of whom have trouble breathing, mating, and giving birth, and living extremely short lives—because of human desires.1

Two people wrote to me: "Sadly, this essay could have been written today with few changes" and "This piece is disturbingly prescient."

I'm pleased Mark could take the time to answer a few questions and provide a unique historical perspective about this most important topic and many others 32 years after he wrote his seminal paper.

Marc Bekoff: Why did you write "The Politics of dogs?"

Mark Derr: I had been hearing for years that the American Kennel Club (AKC) was ruining dogs. I decided to find out what that meant.

MB: Who was your targeted audience?

MD: Thoughtful people interested in animals, especially dogs.

MB: How was it originally received?

MD: It was originally received as a total condemnation of the all too common practices of breeding dogs primarily for profit and looks. The fact that I showed how the talents for which particular breeds had been valued were being lost, and that I pointed out how collectively breeds were prone to hundreds of genetic diseases and defects, many lethal due to inbreeding and other deleterious practices, caused a ruckus that persisted some time and even now lingers.

Virtually every major follow-up study has confirmed what I found. After the piece ran, I heard from reporters around the country that they had been threatened with physical violence for writing negatively about the AKC, but I never sought to confirm that. The AKC did demand a retraction from The Atlantic, which was flatly refused. Every word in the article was fact-checked by the magazine's intrepid fact-checker.

MB: Have things changed over the past 32 years?

MD: They have changed in several ways. One is that as soon as the article appeared, the AKC went on what can only be called an imperial expansion annexing breed clubs--these clubs are in fact the membership of the AKC, which is a club of clubs. A score or more new breeds were added and no changes were made in breeding practices; that is to say, inbreeding has continued to produce genetic disasters.

The AKC has adopted the language of a dog's utility, weaving it into the narrative of what each breed is used for if it is in the working dog category; and it has opened some of its agility competitions to non-purebred dogs. But beyond that, it continues to perpetuate many myths about purebred dogs.

In terms of popular coverage of dogs, I routinely see themes from "The Politics of Dogs" struck in feature stories about dogs, even while some publications continue to print stories that perpetuate breed stereotypes.

MB: Are you pleased with these changes and what more needs to be done?

MD: The primary thing that needs to be done is to change the way dogs are bred—that is, if they have a purpose, they should be bred according to responsible genetic standards, and they should stop being bred to achieve a certain look that pleases their human companions. Beyond that, we need to start seeing the individual dog and treating the individual rather than our conception of what that animal should be.

MB: Is there anything else you'd like to tell readers?

MD: We need to remember that when we take on responsibility for an animal, we should expect they will be with us for a dozen years plus or minus and cannot be traded in on a new model the way some people trade in a car.

I am always amazed that these two different species—human and dog—forged a bond in the late Pleistocene that has remained strong despite the fact that we humans have often failed to uphold our end of the bargain.

References

In conversation with dog expert Mark Derr, the author of six books, ranging from Some Kind of Paradise, an environmental history of Florida, How the Dog Became the Dog, Dog's Best Friend, and A Dog's History of America.

1) Joyner, Lisa. 10 dog breeds with the shortest life expectancy—Due to issues with breeding. Country Living, April 29, 2022. In this essay we read: "Flat-faced dog breeds, including French Bulldogs and Pugs, have the shortest life expectancy, a new study has found. According to vets at the Royal Veterinary College, brachycephalic dogs don't live as long due to the increased risk of breathing problems, skin fold infections and spinal disease they face. Despite flat-faced dogs having record-high puppy registrations in 2020, experts are calling people to stop and think before buying a dog with a short snout." More than 30,000 dogs were sampled and the results for average age of death showed, "French Bulldogs live just 4.53 years, while English Bulldogs and Pugs live only 7.39 years and 7.65 years, respectively."

It’s Best Not to Judge Dogs by Their Covers.

Dog Breeds Don't Have Distinct Personalities.

A Matter of Breeding: How We've Greatly Harmed BFF Dogs.

How Many Dog Breeders Do We Really Need?

Should We Be Making Lilac Dogs and Glowing Bunnies?

Derr, Mark. The Politics of Dogs. The Atlantic, March 1990. (A PDF of the original essay can be seen here.)

Thompson, Malorie. New Data Finds Purebred Dogs Nearly 2x More Likely to Get Cancer Than Mutts. One Green Planet, August 15, 2022.

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