As strange as it may seem, the dog fancy’s sins began with the Enlightenment and stem from its rationalist, scientific values.
This may seem a bit of contradiction, but the best way to understand the dog world is that began with science but a science that largely ignores the modern concepts of population genetics. The modern science of population genetics says that closed registries that celebrate breeding only an elite within that closed off population are a recipe for long-term disaster.
But that’s something we’ve only understood since the twentieth century. The beginning of the scientific dog breeding actually start at almost the same time as scientific selective breeding systems were starting to be used to improve livestock.
And this begins almost a century before the development of an institutionalized dog fancy.
It begins with advent of the English Agricultural Revolution in the middle part of the eighteenth century. This was the era in which the manorial systems were replaced with fenced and walled off pastures and fields, and new techniques of crop rotation and selective breeding increased farm outputs.
The English Agricultural Revolution was important for the development of the Industrial Revolution, for now it became possible to feed large numbers of factory workers in the cities. And the Enclosure that came with the Agricultural Revolution displaced large numbers of people who readily moved into the cities to find work in factories.
Without the English Agricultural Revolution, there would have been no Industrial Revolution, and the rise of the British Empire in the nineteenth century probably never would have happened either.
But it is the part about selective breeding that affects dogs the most.
Now, before the eighteenth century people did selectively breed dogs and other domestic animals. However, it was not a systematic effort. The world relied heavily upon types we would now call landraces, and selectively breeding landraces is a much slower going system. Regional variants of the same basic animal develop in this system, which is why you have shaggy saluki-types in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan and smooth-coated ones on the Deccan Plateau. It also is why naturally bob-tailed collie-type sheepdogs were common parts of Wales but were virtually unknown in the North of England and the Scottish borders.
All domestic animals had pretty much followed this path for thousands of years, but systematic selective breeding of domestic animals would change all of that.
The most famous scientific selective breeder of the English Agricultural Revolution was Robert Bakewell of the Dishley Grange House in Leicestershire. Bakewell created improved strains sheep, beef cattle, and workhorses using a system that included a lot of inbreeding.
Bakewell lived before Mendel laid the foundations for modern genetics, and he lived long before there was even a concept of DNA.
All he pretty much knew was that if you selected for a trait and bred tightly for it, you would soon created a population that had those traits almost universally.
Understanding that one could do that with domestic animals meant that one could create new, greatly improved strains fairly rapidly using incestuous matings and rigorous selection.
The dog fancy’s roots are definitely out of Bakewell’s selective breeding notions, but I had always thought that it took quite some time before these ideas ever got applied to domestic dogs.
It turns out that I was wrong about that.
Only six miles from Dishley Grange is Quorn Hall, and at the same time Bakewell was doing his selective breeding experiments, a man named Hugo Meynell was working on producing the ultimate foxhound.
Contrary to what one might assume, foxhunting is not an ancient English custom. Indeed, the practice started in the seventeenth century and began to develop into its modern form in the eighteenth century. Before men rode to hounds in pursuit of the fox, they rode to hounds in pursuit of the deer. However, the violent political upheavals of the seventeenth century had resulted in deer becoming quite scarce in England. Displaced people poached deer, and they soon were found only in a few parks and forests.
However, the English aristocracy wanted to run their hounds, and it wasn’t long before they switched their hounds from hunting deer to running an animal that most Europeans regarded as vermin. The red fox eats of a lot poultry. It also takes a lot of game birds that were kept for shooting purposes, and foxes do occasionally take the odd lamb.
So the deer hound packs were converted into foxhunting packs.
With the foxhound begins the modern Western concept of a breed.
Martin Wallen writes:
The first dog in the modern era intentionally bred following a scientific method was the English foxhound. This method proved so successful that it became the model throughout the nineteenth century as people developed increasing numbers of dog breeds. Significantly, the creation of the foxhound coincided with the fundamental shift in agriculture toward the understanding that animals and landscape formed an integrated system of resources capable of supplying human needs through methodical management and improvement. This same understanding of systems also began to examine what had hitherto appeared an incomprehensible variability among animals—especially dogs—as a parallel to the no-less-troubling variability among humans, and to arrange the varieties into taxonomies that grouped beings with similar qualities into categories that came to signify essential qualities in individuals (Cultural Critique, no. 70, Fall 2011, pg. 127-128).
Wallen points out that Meynell used Bakewell’s system of “scientific breeding” to produce the hounds:
The “science” that men like Meynell… and Bakewell put to use involved restricted breeding between closely related individuals and destruction of animals that did not clearly manifest the desired qualities. Just as Bakewell judged his animals with an ideal measure of rapid meat production (Overton, 165; Pawson, v), Meynell evaluated his hounds against the conceptual ideal, the telos of “foxhound,” characterized as “fine noses and stout runners,” the canine element vital to the success of hunting foxes in the modern countryside (Hawkes, 4; Vyner, 15). Although Meynell and the others did not set out to create a “breed,” they plainly intended to create an improved hound that would serve a single purpose they valued within the institutional framework that cast animals as resources. Instead of adapting their activities to available hounds, they created a distinctly modern hound that facilitated their sport. Toward that end, they regulated their hounds’ sexual activities and life cycles, segregating serviceable individuals into a group delineated by recognizable and consistently reproduced qualities. The segregation is actualized in the pedigree granting inclusion to the hounds conforming to the standard, and excluding those that do not. (John Hawkes, Whipper-in—or the man who controlled the pack—for Meynell, clarifies what “exclusion” would have meant when he recounts that “in the spring of the year, [Meynell] broke in his Hounds . . . and he drafted them according to their defects” ; “to draft” a dog means to kill it.) With such power of judgment, these privileged men created an actual breed that would reliably and consistently pass on its qualities to future generations, and that would only ever act and look in defined and expected ways (pg. 137).
Meynell’s entire outlook of foxhounds and foxhunting was heavily informed by the Enlightenment, and his ideas about breeding and training foxhounds appeared in a pamphlet called The Meynellian Science: or Fox-hunting upon System. It was written by his whipper-in, the aforementioned John Hawkes. The idea that hounds could be rapidly improved as cattle could be definitely caught on.
Over the next century, breed improvement programs of this nature would run deep into the world of dogs. The zeitgeist of improvement through consanguinity and ruthless culling is still very much a part of the world of dogs today.
Never mind that this is running in direct contradiction with what we now know about population genetics. Too many dog breeders think they just inbreed and select their way out of problems that are actually the result of a closed registry breeding system that celebrates breeding from an elite.
The modern concepts of conservation breeding require conserving as many genes as possible and allowing outcrosses to other breeds. Virtually every dog breed in the closed registry system is in need of some sort of conservation breeding program, including many breeds that exist in large numbers.
This is not say that Hugo Meynell and Robert Bakewell were bad people. They simply didn’t know what we do now, and their methods were good science for their day.
Modern science says that we’re causing lots of problems by holding onto the old science, and if dog breeding today were as concerned with keeping breeding current with contemporary science as Bakewell and Meynell were, modern fanciers would be changing their ways.
But the dog fancy isn’t changing.
As the nineteenth century progressed, dog shows became more important than the actual function of the dogs. The same methods that were used to produce the superior foxhound were used to produce the deformed bulldog.
It’s currently being use to produce the freakish creatures that now comprise the “exotic” strains of American bully.
Inbreeding depression issues are rampant in the world of purebred dogs, as are the rise in inherited diseases, but all we get are complaints about dog food and blame-shifting to the puppy millers.
The system we have put dogs into is simply wrong for them.
The Meynellian Science of Breed Improvement goes on and on.
And the only “improvement” being a sort of ironic gesture of what was once the most modern way of animal husbandry.
Our modern Western concept of a “dog breed” began with foxhounds, not with dog shows. And there is no other animal in the UK that is more associated with the establishment than the foxhound. It was a creature bred by the elite to hunt an ennobled quarry. Where once the Anglo-Saxon and Normans had run the deer through forests, now came the red-coated hunters on horseback in pursuit of the little red dog with the black stockings. The fox became an ersatz deer, and the foxhound became the symbol of the English conquest of nature, which it exemplified through its improvement through “scientific breeding” and the simple fact that it was used to kill a wild dog that never knew any master.
The foxhound and the foxhunter are now reviled in their native country. The fox is given greater nobility in a nation without wolves or any other wild canids that now cannot be killed. Foxhunting is now under a rather porous ban, which may change with the Conservatives winning big in last week’s general election.
The policy toward the both animals has changed as the symbols have been manipulated and shifted in the public conscience.
As the dog fancy continues to crumble in North America, it is possible that we might be able to set a new course. Maybe we’ll reject the Meynellian science for some real science, and do what is right for the dogs. Conserve the populations, not preserve them as closed off entities.
This is not a call to end all purebred dogs. To say so is nothing but engaging in igniting a strawman. It is simply a call for better breed mangement strategies that look beyond closed registries and contests that reward breeding only from elite dogs.
We must have a concept of a breed that is better than the eighteenth and nineteenth century one.
Because that concept is not serving the dogs well.
It’s serving the egos well.
Just not the dogs.