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It’s Time to Rethink Purebred Dogs

You don’t need to go this far to see that there is something seriously wrong with the world of pedigree dogs

You don’t need to go this far to see that there is something seriously wrong with the world of pedigree dogs

Something we learn early as we get into the world of dogs, or just advice on buying our first puppy, is that kennel club-approved, purebred dog breeding is the only way to go.

While not all pedigree dog breeders are responsible, the only responsible breeders are breeding pedigree dogs, we learn.

The only way you should ever get a mutt or mix is from a shelter, and then, you have to be prepared for a very unpredictable outcome, especially if it’s a puppy - you simply have no idea what you’re getting.

First, I would like to start off with letting everyone in on a secret - brace yourselves - but dog breeds don’t actually exist (and the same goes for all other breeds of animals and plants we have created).

We made them up.

It’s debatable what the first job of the first domestic wolf - or dog - was, but let’s say it was guarding. Then you have a “type”, a guard dog.

To be best at their job, they have to be large, powerful, confident and aggressive.

Then you have a rabbit hunting dog. It has to be fast, light, with long legs and lightning-fast reflexes.

A herding dog needs to have a low prey drive or they would kill the livestock, but they need to be agile and athletic, intelligent, and have a strong drive to run and round up the livestock.

A dog meant to hunt small game and keep vermin at bay must be small (to go into burrows), and extremely aggressive and tenacious.

This is how different “types” of dogs were created. They were then split into several subtypes, like sheep dog vs cattle dog, hunting spitz vs sledding spitz, et cetera.

But there are only about a dozen subtypes of dogs. Why, and how did they become several hundreds of breeds?

Various livestock guardian breeds

Various livestock guardian breeds

Geographical difference for one.

For example, all of these livestock guardians above, are virtually identical in structure and temperament (and this is only a small sample of the recognized breeds). They are found all over rural areas from the Pyrenees to Turkey to Central Asia.

And so, with the invention of registries and shows, what was simply a landrace, has become many different breeds due to differences in geographical location, and minor differences in size and appearance.

Or the Bichon breeds. Originally simply a long-coated companion dog from the Mediterranean, now there are six breeds, from France, Italy, Cuba and Madagascar. It’s the same dog, with only minor differences like the coat texture being a defining characteristic.

Sighthounds are all bred to do the same thing, which is to outrun and kill small prey, mainly hares. The Scottish deerhound and Irish wolfhound are the exception, being bred to take down deer and wolves respectively, and the whippet and Italian greyhound stand out by being smaller than most other sighthounds. But other than that, any difference between the various breeds are negligible.

A selection of sighthound breeds

A selection of sighthound breeds

And France, for example, has at least 26 different breeds of scenthound. There can’t possibly be a need to keep that many breeds which are so similar, in isolated gene pools. Some of these breeds are literally only differentiated by their color.

So far, we can summarize it as this:

  • Humans domesticated the wolf, and needed dogs for many different purposes
  • These different purposes created certain traits in structure and temperament, leading to “types” or “landraces”
  • Until kennel clubs and show breeding were invented in the mid-late 19th century, there was no need not to cross within these types
  • Crossing between the types, like a water dog to a sled dog, would be pretty pointless and was probably not done

When kennel clubs and dog shows were invented, dogs were all of a sudden judged by their appearance first and foremost. Though there are still to this day dogs that compete in both confirmation shows and real, breed-specific trials like hunting or herding, that is the exception, and the two often result in different types within the same breed! (See the Labrador retriever and greyhound for two well-known examples of this.)

And so, the splits are made even further, deepening the wedges in the gene pool. In some countries/kennel clubs, you are not even allowed to cross different types in the same breed (like smooth collie vs rough collie, or between the Belgian shepherd varieties). Or if not outright banned within registries, it is often frowned upon.

Show vs working Labrador retriever. Note that the show dog is female while the working dog is male, meaning the difference would be even greater if the two dogs were of the same sex.

Show vs working Labrador retriever. Note that the show dog is female while the working dog is male, meaning the difference would be even greater if the two dogs were of the same sex.

There is a “myth” going around the internet, that “all dog breeds were originally crossbreeds”. This is a bit of an oxymoron, because how can you cross to create the first breed - if there are no breeds to cross with? As I have shown, breeds were typically created by separating landraces based on minor details.

A few modern breeds have been created through careful, planned crossbreeding, however, the most well-known examples being the Eurasier (three breeds, 1960s) and Dogo Argentino (twelve breeds, 1920s).

With kennel clubs and registries, our innate love of categorizing and naming things came out in full force.

So really, this is what I mean by “dog breeds don’t exist”.

They aren’t species, natural groups of animals that even if closely related and able to produce viable offspring, don’t group together in the wild and don’t interbreed. It has been hundreds of thousands if not millions of years since the family trees of species split, and there is a clear difference in their niche and genetic makeup.

Dog types have existed for a few thousand years - dog breeds as we know them today, only up to 150 years. And they really are nothing else but a close family of similar animals.

But I’m not here to bash the practice of purebred dogs. Just provide some food for thought.

There are good things about purebred dogs, like mentioned at the top - the size, appearance and temperament is fairly predictable (more the former than the latter).

But if you cross a bichon frisé with a bolognese, you know you are getting a small, white, fluffy companion dog. And if you cross a Labrador retriever with a golden retriever, you are in no way getting an inferior family or bird hunting dog compared to a purebred of either breed.

So why this dogmatic, aggressive opposition to ever crossing breeds even within the same type?

“All crossbreeding is irresponsible”, we are told.

“The only people who do it on purpose are backyard breeders or puppy mills looking for a quick buck”, they say, even as people sell their mixed puppies from health-tested parents for $600, while the pedigree breeder sells their puppies for three times that, the only real difference being a piece of paper.

“Accidental matings are the exception to that, but any responsible owner would immediately take the pregnant dog to the vet for an abortion!”
I don’t know about America or elsewhere, but I hear this a lot in Sweden, where I’m from.

A LUA dalmatian with 0.001% pointer blood.

A LUA dalmatian with 0.001% pointer blood.

A case that really shocked me, and showed just how dogmatic many breeders can be in this, is the example of Fiona the dalmatian.

She’s one of many dalmatians that were the product of a single outcross in the 1970s. A dalmatian was bred to a pointer, and the subsequent generations were all bred back to pure dalmatians. This was done to add some vital new blood to the dalmatian, as the breed is plagued by high uric acid levels, which create stones in the urine bladder of the dog. This condition has led to everything from amputated penises to dead dogs (bursting bladders).

So a single pointer was added to the breed, and Fiona was 13 generations removed from her pointer ancestor (making her 0.012% pointer, and 99.98% dalmatian). When she was imported to the UK, other dalmatian breeders were disgusted at this “filthy mongrel” walking around pretending to be a dalmatian, and winning at shows, at that!

These are people obsessed with purity, to absurd levels.

There are entire breeds of dog created around the same time as this - see the eurasier - and no one is calling them a mongrel. But apparently, add blood (needed for the health and survival of the breed) well after a breed is established, and the results are “filthy mongrels”.

I can give you other examples of outcrossing to save a breed’s health, because it is becoming more popular, and I am very excited about it.

rethink-dogs

For example, the Norwegian lundehund.

This old puffin-hunting breed from Norway experienced two population bottlenecks (meaning only a small number of animals had descendants), in the 1940s and 1960s.

The effective population size (meaning no matter how many dogs are in existence, this is how many they are “equivalent to”, as genetically distinct individuals) may be as low as 13. Imagine carrying an endangered species into the future with only 13 animals.

As such, the lundehund suffers from severe gastric problems (a third of the dogs die from the same gastric disease) and fertility problems. Females often can’t become pregnant, or they have small litter sizes (every fifth litter only produces one puppy).

This breed needs urgent help, so the Norwegian kennel club approved outcrosses to three related breeds; the Norwegian buhund, the Norrbottenspets from Sweden, and the Icelandic sheepdog. This is a new project and the crosses have not yet been crossed into the main population, so we have yet to see how it will affect the breed in the long run.

rethink-dogs

Another example is the Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever, which originates in only nine founder dogs, and has an effective population size no higher than 18.

This is devastating to the breed, and they suffer from severe, fatal genetic illnesses. A single outcross to an Australian shepherd has been made in an attempt to save the breed.

You see, there is a lot of talking going around about the breeding of unhealthy deformity in dogs - like extremely short faces, bulging eyes, deep wrinkles, legs far too short, backs far too long, or chests so wide and hips so narrow the dogs can barely move properly or give birth naturally, and more.

But like I wrote under the first image, you don’t need to go that far to find something seriously wrong with a dog breed. Some are very “natural” in their confirmation, but are plagued by genetic illnesses, which came about by generations of tight inbreeding.

Not inbreeding today - inbreeding when the breed was founded, or saved from extinction (most breeds in Europe were near the brink after the second world war, and had to be reconstructed at least in part, or saved with only a handful of dogs remaining). For example, the toller.

They are so genetically “dense”, that even if you cross two dogs from other sides of the planet, who don’t share a common ancestor for generations, they are as genetically similar as full siblings. That makes avoiding inbreeding impossible, if your 6th cousin is still as close genetically to you as a brother or sister.

These three - the dalmatian, the lundehund, and the toller - are just examples. There may be more that I don’t know about, but there needs to be many more of these projects. Most breeds desperately need new blood. But this dogmatic obsession with “purity” prevents that.

I think this will be the new way to look at pedigree dogs in this century. 150 years of breeding dogs in closed-studbook, incestuous families for the sake of “the perfect look” or “purity” has been disastrous for the dogs.

Crossbred cows

Crossbred cows

But I think we can go even further, and this is where it will get controversial, if it hasn’t already.

I don’t see this focus on “purebred is the only way to go” in any other animal, especially livestock and horses. In those animals, there are just as many breeds as there are dog breeds - sometimes even more! But farmers and breeders freely cross between them at will, to reach a superior animal.

For example, a certain breed of cattle produces good-tasting meat, but it has impractical horns, so it is crossed to a similar breed that lacks horns. Or this chicken is a very good egg layer, but this other one - albeit a slightly poorer layer - has very good constitution and stays healthy longer.

I’m not as involved in other animals as I am with dogs, but I have not seen any animal where people are as obsessed with purity as in the world of dogs. Not even close.

People usually don’t like crossbreeding because their minds immediately wander to the backyard breeder, or the casual dog owner who crosses her chihuahua with the neighbor’s maltese, because the puppies will be so cute!

Well quite frankly, I don’t think it’s any better if this casual dog owner breeds her chihuahua to the neighbor’s chihuahua and the puppies will have pedigrees.

It’s still irresponsible breeding simply for the sake of creating cute puppies, purebred or not.

A backyard breeder is still a backyard breeder, whether the puppies have pedigrees or not.
A puppy mill is still a puppy mill... you get my meaning.

Various crossbred dogs with cute names are becoming more popular. But they are giving responsible crossbreding a bad name.

Various crossbred dogs with cute names are becoming more popular. But they are giving responsible crossbreding a bad name.

Also, people’s minds wander to the 21st century phenomenon of “designer dogs”.

This is a strange term slapped onto all the 1st generation crossbreeds with silly names like “cockapoo”, “springerpoo”, “goldendoodle”, “pomsky”, et cetera (mostly poodle crosses, since people seem to think any dog with poodle in them is hypoallergenic, which is not true).

I don’t doubt that most of the time, these are irresponsible practices only done to create something “unique-sounding”. I think these names like “cockapoo” are really dumb, just call it a “cocker spaniel poodle mix”, and you sound more honest and less silly.

But I say the term “designer dog” is strange, because A) these dogs aren’t really designed, they are just random, usually first generation crosses, and B) what are all modern breeds of dog, if not designer dogs? Everything that is not a feral dog, has been purposely “designed” by humans.

I see this term “designer dog” being thrown around like a derogatory term for literally any breed of dog (no matter how responsibly done) created from around the 1980s-onwards. And it’s not helpful.

I think it’s time, in addition to outcross projects (where the eventual result will be indistinguishable from the original breed, and only carry less than 1% of the outcross breed, but be healthier), to start thinking about breeding “breedless dogs”.

Or, if it sounds better, “responsibly bred mongrels”, bred for health, temperament and function, whether that function be hunting, herding, or companionship.

One example of this that comes to mind is a man - I won’t mention names - who is doing his own outcross project with the Irish wolfhound. After previously breeding malamute wolfdogs, he crossed some of these into pure Irish wolfhounds, in order to improve the breed’s health.

This is not done in cooperation with any kennel club, but the resulting dogs look and act like Irish wolfhounds, and have health, vitality and lifespan that the purebred dogs simply don’t (Irish wolfhounds live on average 5.5 years according to Finnish study, 6.5 years in a British study - the most long-lived breed in the British study, the border terrier, averages 14 years).

This is your TL;DR

  • The original way of breeding dogs for thousands of years, was to breed the best dog to the best dog within types, for function and health
  • The “modern” way of breeding dogs (1850-onwards) is to breed within several hundred different tightly inbred breeds and even breed types, mostly for looks and “purity”
  • Other domestic animals are not plagued by the same attitude, that any crossbreeding automatically means = irresponsible breeding, but intentional crossbreeding for health and/or function is seen as normal
  • Many dog breeds were created or reconstructed from such a small gene pool, they are inbred beyond redemption and will face extinction, unless careful outcross projects are done
  • Perhaps it’s time to start rethinking the concept of “purebred” dogs and dog breeding altogether, and go back to the original way of breeding them, pre-kennel clubs and dog shows