The domestic dog is the most successful subspecies of wolf in the world. All other subspecies have generally existed in spite of man’s persecution, but the dog thrives because it exists at some level domestication. Western culture exalts the canine, and many dogs living in North America and Europe have much easier lives than many people living in developing countries.
The dog in the West has been bred to be useful. Selective breeding produced many specialist forms, but most of these became antiquated as the Industrial Revolution continued on.
Because of our dog obsession, we began to breed these dogs as pets for the middle class. The fisherman’s dog of Newfoundland was bred larger and larger in Europe and the United States until it was a great shaggy beast that would be more likely to sink a dory from its ponderous girth than ride in it. The great fowling setters of Britain and Ireland were bred so profusely coated that their feathers do nothing but collect thorns and burs. The dachshund outside of its German performance registry is bred with such short legs and such a long back that paralysis from disc slippage is constant worry.
Such developments could have only happened when industrialization had created enough wealth and technological advancements to allow dogs to be bred solely as pets and exhibition animals. The value of a dog could come solely from what its parentage was, not its absolute functionality as a working animal.
One has to remember that this development is not necessarily a bad thing. Dogs that couldn’t perform very often wound up shot or left abandoned, but life for the bulk of domestic canines got better.
But at the same time, the unintended consequence of dogs being valued for what their ancestry represented is that all sorts of weird fads and styles could work their way through breeds, often crippling or severely encumbering them as individuals.
The bulldog, for example, did not typically have the best life as a working dog. Bulldogs were bred to attack bears and bulls– and sometimes big cats, like lions and tigers– in baiting contests that were meant as reenactments of the days when mastiff-type dogs had to battle with any number of fell beasts in the wilds of Europe. In Britain, those beasts had largely been subdued by the time baiting contests became popular, and the dog was bred for the bloodsport. These dogs did not live long, happy lives as gladiators.
In the nineteenth century, the sport was made illegal, and the bulldogs soon found themselves out of work. They could have had the fate of the modern otterhound, a breed of griffon bred for pack work in the rivers. When the otter finally became a protected species, the otterhound found itself without a job, but the introduced American mink provided it a possible redemption– until pack hunting with dogs became severely curtailed. The otterhound now exists almost solely as a fanciers’ dog, a relic of a time when the otter was so numerous as to threaten trout and salmon stock and thus needed to be hounded and harried along the banks and marshes.
But enterprising dog fanciers and dog dealers figured out that the bulldog could be redeemed through crossbreeding with the pug. an import from China by way of the Netherlands, and a few of the smaller, more docile terriers. The goal was to make a bulldog that wasn’t so big and fierce and scary, a bulldog as toned down and tame that a baby could pull its flews not receive even the slightest growl from the beast.
This experiment largely succeeded, and as the bulldog became more and more popular as a show dog, the fad became to breed for the so-called “sourmug” type. This type is the basis on which the modern bulldog, usually called the “English bulldog,” was formed. Breeding for a more and more massive head and narrower and narrower pelvis did cause problems with reproduction, but as we’ve advanced as a civilization, the AI and the Cesarean section allowed us to push the limits further and further.
Bulldogs were a breed that was not particularly popular through most of the middle and late twentieth centuries, but as we’ve moved in the twenty-first century, the much of the West has gone bulldog mad.
The breed was much celebrated on reality television, and when it became known how gentle they were, the public was intrigued. When it became well-known that they didn’t have that much of an activity level– which is largely the result of their constricted airways–the overworked post-industrial middle class went gaga for them.
Over time, though, it soon became well-publicized that the bulldog had atrocious health. About the only condition they didn’t suffer from was matted fur, and the English bulldog is still a relatively large dog. The modern West is an increasingly urbanized world in which weight limits are now being placed upon what dogs can be kept, and smaller-sized dogs are much more convenient to keep in a small space, even if no limits exist.
For decades, North American breed registries have been dominated with Labrador retrievers as their top most registered breed. The same goes for the Kennel Club in the UK. This is a large breed that is noted for its intelligence, and although not all individuals are well-wired for gundog work, many of them clearly are. Some Labradors do well in city. Others eat down the furniture in the studio apartments where they are forced to dwell.
But now, it looks like change is afoot. With the amount of inconsistency in the activity level in Labradors, urbanites have gone out in search of a replacement dog. They didn’t find it in the English bulldog. They didn’t find it in the Chihuahua either.
But after years of looking for that perfect urban pet, the perfect candidate has started to materialize. In the UK, the Kennel Club reports that the French bulldog is about to replace the Labrador as its top registered breed. The French bulldog is also the top dog registered with the American Kennel Club from the Los Angeles zip code.
The French bulldog is an offshoot of that original British dog dealer scheme to produce a nice pet from bull-baiting stock. This type of bulldog became popular in Paris (hence the name “French bulldog”) and Vienna, and it did have a bout popularity in the United States in the early part of the twentieth century, when its close cousin from Beacon Hill was the AKC’s most popular breed and the French dog came along for the popularity ride.
Its health is somewhat better than the English bulldog, but that isn’t saying much. But it is smaller, and it has a short coat and a lower activity level. And it has been bred for docility.
Docile, small, smooth-coated, and phlegmatic. These are the desired characteristics of the post-industrial pet.
These dogs are so much removed from what I understand a dog. To me, a dog will always be a hard-runner who glories in the chase and whose coat is anointed with burs and foul-smelling substances. They are domesticated but not debased. They are relics of a time when man lived right as part of nature and not some entity that is under the delusion that it can be separate from it.
Post-industrial society with postmodern values has pretty much set itself on creating a post-dog canine. If these trends continue, we might long for the days of the big, fat Labradors that their owners believe are just “big-boned.”
At least the Labrador is still a dog, but the post-dog canine, like French bulldog, is but a facsimile of what came before. Through its veins courses the blood wolves that were first forged into the hunting and war mastiffs of yore and then into the brawny bullbaiters of Elizabethan times, which now lie in this bizarre permutation of an extreme brachycephalic toy with the ears of a big-eared bat.
If this breed does replace the Labrador as the most popular dog in the West, then I think we can say that the dog species has reached its nadir. No longer can the fit, active dog thrive in our societies. Domestication will finally end with this sad debasement.
I say this not as someone who hates French bulldogs but as someone who wishes that we were more aware of what we were doing to dogs through our casual selections for pets. If French bulldogs were bred for smaller heads and longer muzzles, I would not have much of a complaint, but then there wouldn’t be much separating the French dogs from those proper Bostonians. And dog breeders like to accentuate the differences between related forms.
The post-dog canine isn’t something that should be celebrated. It is to be lamented.
Lamented, for it will mean that our kind has made yet another step toward denying our own basic animality. No longer are these creatures from campfires of old. They are merely distorted pets for our own convenience, no longer beings in their own right but caricatures of what a dog once was.
They are caricatures of the canine in the glow of the city lights and neon signs.
The campfires have long since burned out.