Konrad Lorenz was an Austrian zoologist who won the 1973 Nobel Prize for Medicine, which he shared with Nikolaas Tinbergen and Karl von Firsch for their discoveries in animal behavior. These three men are considered the founders of the science of ethology, scientific study of animal behavior.
In addition to being a scientist, Lorenz also wrote popular books on animal behavior and natural history.
One of his best known texts is known as Man Meets Dog in English. It was first published in 1949, and it includes many anecdotes and theories about dogs and other animals. His most notable ideas in the book is the now discredited aureus and lupus dog theory in which he contended that most dog breeds derive from golden jackals and only a few derive from wolves.
But if one can get past those sort problematic postulates in the work, one discovers that Lorenz was a very astute observer of animals and a fine writer.
Of interest to this blog, Lorenz devoted a chapter of the book to dog breeders. In the English translation, this chapter is called “An Appeal to Dog Breeders.” Lorenz was deeply dismayed at the exaggerations and distortions that were starting to appear in purebred dogs through breeding for competitive dog shows, and he wanted to get dog breeders to start breeding “real” dogs again. Regular readers of this blog will find that his complaints have a very modern sound to them:
Circus dogs which can perform complicated tricks demanding great intelligence are very rarely equipped with a pedigree; this is not because a mongrel costs less, just the opposite, for fabulous fees are paid for talented circus dogs but rather because of those physical characteristics that make good performing animals. It is not only their higher intelligence and better aptitude for this work, it is above all the fact that they are much less “nervy” and have a better temperament for bearing stress, that are characteristics of mongrels, that make qualitatively superior performances possible. It is therefore no accident that the best description of the canine mentality in A Man and His Dog by Thomas Mann is about a mongrel: a hen house dog.
Of all the dogs that have been my constant companions only one was fit for the show bench. This was an Alsatian [German shepherd dog], Bindo, who was certainly a noble creature, an aristocrat of impeachable character but in fineness of feeling and sensitivity of soul not to be compared with my herding bitch, Tito, who daughter of the woods and fields, had no pedigree at all. My French bulldog did have a pedigree but he was a throw out: he was far too big, his skull was far too long and so were his legs, his back was too straight and despite that I am convinced that there was never a champion of this breed that could approach my Bully for mental qualities.
It is a sad but undeniable fact that breeding to a strict standard of physical points is incompatible with breeding for mental qualities. Individuals which conform to both sets of requirements are so rare that they would not even supply a foundation for the further propagation of their breed. Just as I am unable to think of any great intellectual who physically approaches anywhere near to an Adonis or of a really beautiful woman who is even tolerably intelligent, in the same way I know of no champion of any dog breed which I should ever wish to own myself. It is not that these two differently directed ideals are basically opposed to one another; it is hard to understand why a dog of perfect physique should not be endowed with equally desirable mental attributes – but each of the two ideals is in itself so rare that their combination in one and the same individual becomes a thing of the grossest improbability. Even a dog breeder who genuinely aspires to both ideals will find it well-nigh impossible to achieve his aim without a compromise. In dog – as in pigeon breeding – this compromise between two breeding ideals has been circumvented by separating show and working strains from each other. In pigeons it has already gone so far that show and working pigeons have become two distinct breeds of bird, and I think that as far as dogs are concerned, the Alsatian is already well on the way to the same cleavage.
In former times when the dog was more a utility animal than it is today, mental qualities were unlikely to have been neglected when animals were chosen for stud. On the other hand, however, character defects do appear in some types of dog which are used solely for working purposes. A much-respected authority on dogs is of the opinion that the lack of one-man fidelity in certain types of gun dog can be attributed to their vocation. Dogs of these breeds have been selected primarily for their fine sense of smell and it is quite possible that animals lacking in single-minded fidelity to one master were preferred: today, it is a recognised fact that there are hunters without a sporting sense sometimes even gamekeepers who often leave the search for wounded game to paid underlings and it is essential in a good gun dog that he should work as well with one of these as with his own master.
But the matter becomes serious when the omnipotent tyranny of fashion, the silliest of all silly females, begins to dictate to the poor dog what he has to look like and there is no single breed of dog the originally excellent mental qualities of which have not been completely destroyed as a result of having become fashionable. Only where, in some quiet corner of the world, the dogs in question have gone on being bred for use and without any deference to fashion has such destruction been avoided. In their home, there are still some strains of Scotch Collie in which the original excellent traits of the breed are extant but the pedigree specimens which first became popular all over central Europe as fashion dogs at the turn of the century have been subjected to an almost incredible process of mental deterioration in terms of both character and intelligence. If for a breed that becomes a fashion there is no breeding establishment that knows how to give the necessary support to the physical qualities of the animals, its fate is sealed. Even undoubtedly honest breeders who would rather die than use a dog that fell short of the desired standard by one iota do not consider it unethical to breed from physically beautiful but mentally defective dogs.
Dog-loving readers, for whom I am writing this book, believe me in this: your pride that your dog conforms almost exactly to the ideal physical standards of his breed will dwindle with type but your annoyance at psychological defects, such as nervousness, viciousness or excessive cowardice will not as time goes on.
Time does not immunise against such defects rather it heightens them. An intelligent mongrel who is faithful, intelligent and plucky will in the long run give you more satisfaction than your champion which probably cost you a fortune.
As I have already intimated, it would be quite possible to make compromises in the choice of physical and mental properties and this contention has been roved by the fact that various pure breeds of dog did retain their original good character traits until they fell a prey to fashion. Nevertheless dog shows in themselves involve certain dangers since competition between pedigree dogs at shows must automatically lead to an exaggeration of those points that characterise a breed. If we look at old pictures that for English breeds of dog go back to medieval times, and we compare them with the pictures of the current representatives of the same breeds, said representatives appear as grotesque caricatures of these noble examples. In the Chow-chow, that has become a fashion object only over the last decade, this is particularly evident. Around 1920 the Chow was still a truly natural dog, very close to its original wild form: pointed nose, Mongol-type slanting eyes and straight, sharp ears gave the face an extraordinarily fascinating appearance that is typical of Greenland sled dogs, Samoyeds and Huskies (Eskimo dogs), in short all the strongly lupine breeds. Nowadays in breeding Chows the emphasis is on giving it characteristics that make it look like a soft toy: the nose is wide and short, almost like that of a Great Dane, in the flatter face, the eyes have lost that lovely slant, the ears disappear into the excessive abundance of fur. Even in the character, the wild predator full of temperament, that still seems to breath the air of the great outdoors has become no more than a pomaded teddy-bear… except of course for those that I breed. But according to the rules of all the breeders’ associations, my Chows should be regarded with disdain because even today they are one hundred and twenty eighth Alsatian.
Another race I am really fond of and whose physical deterioration I observe with great sadness is the Scotch Terrier. Thirty five years ago, when my second dog, a Scotch Terrier bitch, Ali followed me, dogs of that breed were an exception featuring courage and faithfulness. None of the dogs I have had since then have defended me more furiously than Ali and none have had to be saved from desperate battles with no quarter shown with much stronger opponents so often. But I have never had to save a cat so often from any other dog and none, except for Ali, has ever followed one up a tree! These were the facts of the case: Ali was chasing a cat that, to escape, got up onto the lowest branch of a plum tree; a moment later it had to take refuge on a second branch, a metre and a half higher, on the crown of the tree where it settled down. In just a few seconds the cat had to beat a retreat, looking for a still higher branch because Ali had climbed up to the second one as well. The dog was struggling now not to lose his balance as the branches were very thin. He did not fall to the ground only because he was able to straddle one of them that he held tightly between his legs. For a moment he stayed there head down but he managed to straighten up and he barked furiously at the cat sitting a metre higher on such a thin branch that it almost did not support the weight. At this point, something incredible happened. Ali tensed all the muscles in his strong body and threw himself at the cat, grabbed it between its teeth and for a moment hung from the animal that tried desperately to hold on, until the pair of them fell a good three metres onto the ground, where I had to intervene to save the cat. Ali, despite the hard bump, did not let go of the prey. The cat escaped unharmed but Ali limped for weeks, the result of tearing a muscle. Unlike cats, dogs do not always manage to fall well on their paws.
That is what those little Scotties were like thirty-five years ago! And today? I get angry and very sad when I meet the dogs in my native Vienna, where there are so many of them and they are so loved, and I see how the current representatives of this breed behave. Certainly my shaggy Ali with a slightly bent ear as the result of a scar was not likely to have had much success in a dog show, up against these beauties with bows in their coats. But to offset that, they cringe before dogs that would have run away howling from my Ali.
But there is still time. There are still Scotch Terriers even here in Central Europe that do not fear a St. Bernard and would fly at the legs of the strongest man who dared so much as a threatening word against their owners. But there are only a few of this kind left and one will look for them in vain amongst the champions at a dog show.
So I put a question to those breeders who are genuinely interested in the future of dogs: would it not be worthwhile to breed just for once from such a faithful and courageous dog even though in the distribution of physical points he fared much worse than those triumphs of modern hairdressing?
People have been complaining about the effects of competitive dog showing for a long time.
But the madness still goes on.
Maybe things are starting to change.
Lorenz may have had a hard time convincing dog breeders of the 1940’s that their breeding practices may have been harmful.
But by now, the problems have become so much worse that only extreme mental gymnastics and denialism can one offer these practices any sort of defense.
Maybe things are just so bad now that they will have to change.
Let’s hope so.
Because they must change.
It was true in 1949, and it’s more true in 2012.