I had an interesting conversation a few days ago:
Why is that people who keep fish and exotic pets are so open to new scientific knowledge about their animals?
Why is that the innovative ways of keeping these animals quickly gain acceptance among their owners, while in the world of dogs, the bulk of the culture has stagnated around a bunch of tired ideas (particularly dominance behavior models and the closed registry system)?
I think the answer has two parts two.
People have been keeping dogs for longer than we’ve cultivated fields, while fish and exotic pets are often only just a few generations removed from the wild.
The best ways to keep these animals are often in a somewhat experimental state, and it’s not always guaranteed that the ways that those who came before had the best way of caring for them.
Caring for dogs is pretty much cut and dry, or at least, that is how it seems.
But the world of dogs, unlike the world of exotic pets or aquarium fish, is very much caught up in some sort of tradition.
When you buy a breed, you buy into a breed history, which may or may not be true, and you also buy into a culture that pays a lot of homage to those “greats” who came before.
Now, maybe those greats had some insight about the animals at hand, but there often gets to be a sort of cult based upon that great’s ideas– even if what that great happens to believe absolute garbage.
Take German Shepherd dogs and the worship of Lloyd Brackett and his cute incest formula. Brackett was an anti-Semite eugenicist who happened to win a bunch of dog shows, so in the world of show GSD, his ideas are treated as if they were wonderful. Of course, I doubt that very many people in GSD’s share his views that the Jews were a “superior race” because they were inbred, but many people who show GSD’s hold onto that same logic.
Of course, it’s garbage.
But if you follow Brackett, you might win a few dog shows. Never mind that the bulk of the show GSD population is slowly deteriorating into a bunch of ataxic-gaited hyenas.
This never gets questioned, of course, because Brackett leads to success within the culture.
And when you buy a dog breed, you’re buying into a culture. You’re also buying into a brand, and within a brand, there are all sorts romantic ideals about what that brand should be.
It is not just within show dogs that people get caught up in the branding. One of the things I’ve always found amusing about the border collie is a belief that this is a traditional farm dog and that its abilities as a farm dog have been made better through trialling. Except that the original collie-type farm dog was not nearly as strongly-eyed or obsessive as a border collie, and in my part of the world, this sort of “collie” still exists in the form of English shepherds and farm collies, neither of which would ever be able to win a border collie trial in the first place.
A border collie is actually a dog created to manage very large flocks. It was never a dog for small farmers, and what’s more, it exists in its current form largely to win sheepdog trials.
But if you buy into the culture, then you accept that sheepdog trials are “traditional dog work,” when they really are something pretty new in the grand scheme of pastoral dogs.
If a dog person wants to think as an aquarist or exotic pet owner does, then one must be willing to go against the grain.
To accept new ideas is blasphemy in much of the world of dogs.
At some point, you almost have to deny the breed brand and also deny much of the wisdom that came before.
Because science tells us that dogs are organisms. All dog breeds are part of the same species, and special beliefs about dogs– like those that deny heterosis exists within crossbreeds– simply aren’t true. No matter what misrepresentations or jun science studies people come up with, the rules of population genetics still work in the world of dogs.
Further, we don’t now everything there is to know about dog behavior, but it is pretty clear that we were wrong in assuming that dog societies and behavior can be modeled on decades-old and somewhat discredited studies on captive wolf packs.
But if you’ve bought a breed where the people most successful in training it in the past have all adopted some form of what might be called dog abuse axioms, then to question the way the dog is trained is also to blaspheme the breed.
But if we are to do what is truly right by dogs, then we have to be willing to blaspheme.
And if you blaspheme, there are countless numbers of people who will come after you. If your breed exists only as a specialists’ dog, then you might very well be run out of it– just for questioning shibboleths.
The sad thing about the world of dogs is that rationalists and skeptics exist in a very small minority within the various dog subcultures.
To question is to deny.
And to deny is heresy.
We have allowed our relationship with the domestic dog to stagnate.
Modern science has been relegated only toward a celebration of health testing, as if breeding out genetic diseases within increasingly inbred populations is the best way to manage them. As soon as someone who knows better points out that this is not a good long-term solution, it is automatically denounced as animal rights issue or “socialism.”
It’s very sad that so much of the world of dogs resembles a religion, and in the past, I’ve actually called much of the world of dogs a series of ersatz religions.
One of the things that religion often does is it puts mental blocks when understanding is not complete or when accepted truths are contradicted with obvious facts. In the former case, dogma will fill in the gaps, and in the latter case, facts will be denied or dismissed (often in a vast conspiracy theory).
I have had very stupid people post things to my blog and to my Facebook page like “If every time you breed it’s a crap shoot, then shoot the crap you breed.” The “if” in this case is what you have to accept if you allow for a certain amount of genetic diversity in a breed– some dogs aren’t going to be winners or have the preferred conformation or temperament one wants in a breed. But if you inbreed, you will get lots of dogs that look and behave alike. Of course, such animals might be fine or even quite healthy, but if an entire population of a breed gets subject to such consanguinity, then the chances for higher levels of genetic load will be heightened and the chance of a real inbreeding depression is almost certain.
But no one cares about that when you’re winning the prizes.
You will be rewarded for pissing away the genes, and it will be successive generations who will have to deal with the consequences.
And it will continue up and until one of two things happen:
The real animal rights agenda comes to power and pushes upon dog breeders a ton of regulations.
Or there is rationalist revolution in the world of dogs.
My hope is for the latter, but I am not holding my breath.
There just isn’t enough blasphemy.