The Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show begins Monday and runs through Tuesday at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Hundreds of dogs of all kinds and sizes are welcomed in posh hotels and make PR appearances in classrooms, at hospitals and on television talk shows for days. It all should be wonderful – especially on the heels of a blizzard and just when everyone feels the need of a little jollifying.
Here is a picture of the Best in Show winner at Westminster in 2012, a Pekingese named Malachy:
And here is the winner for 2011, a Scottish Deerhound named Hickory:
It’s hardly possible to find two more different animals. That Peke looks like an animated mophead with eyeballs and yet, they are both members of the subspecies Canis lupus familiaris – the domestic dog. They could (theoretically) interbreed. They share 99% of their DNA.
Humans have selectively bred dogs for centuries to emphasize all kinds of traits and to fill all kinds of roles: small, cuddly companions and lapwarmers for noble ladies, hunting dogs for all kinds of game, herding dogs for all manner of flocks in all kinds of terrain, guard dogs, search and rescue dogs, sled dogs, and so on. My recent article, "Why Pitbulls Are Not Too Dangerous to Be Pets," detailed some of the more unfortunate purposes for which humans have bred and still breed dogs (yes, the American Staffordshire Terrier will compete at Westminster).
The point of dog breeding in modern times is that there is a breed for everyone’s tastes and lifestyle – assuming one wants to have a dog. The trick is in making the correct match. If you are a sedentary apartment-dweller in a large metropolitan area, don’t fall in love with a large, high-energy breed requiring a lot of exercise and room to roam!
Reputable dog breeders, such as the breeders of the show dogs at Westminster, consider their puppies as members of the family and agonize over making the “right” placements. In addition, a puppy from a reputable breeder comes with a guarantee that you can bring it back if it doesn’t work out in your family for some reason.
No such guarantee comes with puppies from pet shops and the notorious “puppy mills.” Even if the dogs are advertised as AKC registered – if the breeder is breeding litter after successive litter with the purpose of selling as many puppies for as much money as possible, that’s the definition of a puppy mill. The Humane Society and The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, as well as the American Kennel Club are working to shut down puppy mills on the grounds that they abuse dogs.
There is another reason to worry about a puppy mill puppy: genetic disorders. Reputable breeders agonize over generations of genealogies for their breeding stock and cull puppies which show undesirable or recessive traits that lead to disease later in life. Puppy mills are notorious for overbreeding “popular” dogs. In the 1950s, such television shows as Lassie and Rin Tin Tin popularized Collies and German Shepherds to the point that inbreeding for commercial purposes nearly destroyed the breeds. Boxers, Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, and Dalmatians have also experienced the bloodline “pollution” of excessive breeding due to popularization.
Boxers are known for heart conditions, corneal ulcers, cancer, and thyroid disease. Other breeds have more than their share of hip displaysia, convulsions, and epilepsy. And, of course, when pet owners abandon their sick animals, as they often do – they end up in Rescue.
All four of the Boxers we adopted have had heart murmurs. Chaunsey and Jeff both died from heart attacks. Jesse has recovered from ulcers on each of his corneas and Brody is beginning to show small growths on ears and legs that could become malignant. Rescue families deal with the traumas of abused dogs from puppy mills. We love them and then we lose them.
If the physical abuse of animals is considered immoral, then so must indiscriminate over-breeding.