A couple of weeks ago, this column discussed a documentary that appeared on Channel 8 titled "Dogs that Changed the World." The first segment was "The Rise of the Dog." The second, "Dogs by Design" is the focus on this week's column.
Dogs have been with us for thousands of years. But over the past 150 years, they have undergone remarkable changes and are considered an evolutionary miracle. They have become the most varied species on the planet.
They can be fierce, friendly, hairy, bald, cute, wrinkled, massive or tiny. Today, there are 400 recognized breeds. There is a greater variety of shapes and sizes in dogs than in any other mammal. In fact, no other species has even a quarter of the variety, as that of the dog. Yet, they all evolved from the wolf.
Today, dogs are being trained to solve problems of the future, but for some of them, their survival is in doubt.
Dr. Raymond Koppinger, a biologist, did some experimenting to determine how people make choices with dogs and he found that people tend to choose the extremes, rather than one that looks like all the others. These choices have caused increasing variations. Breeders are inclined to breed extremes and the traits they like will be preserved and exaggerated in future litters.
The Saluki was developed by the Bedouins in the harsh desert of Jordan, where the temperatures can reach 120 degrees. Seeking an agile hunting dog that could chase down a rabbit, they bred for long legs and speed. But they also developed a healthy dog.
According to the documentary, this is one of the finest, most agile and long-legged breeds. It was bred to hunt and, without this dog, these people would not have survived. This dog can move 12 feet with one leap and it can outrun anything on earth. Its stamina and strength are amazing.
The Saluki had an important job to do and did it amazingly well. The job is gone, but the breed remains. This dog is the predecessor of today's greyhound.
The opposite extreme, the Pekinese, was developed in China by the Buddhist monks. These monks bred the smallest and hairiest dogs and chose those with the look of a lion. This is the first breed to have a written standard, to which they strictly adhered. The dogs that fit the standard survived. Those not making the grade were destroyed. These dogs were sacred symbols and removing them from the palace was a crime punishable by death. With the end of the Chinese Empire, these special dogs were slaughtered, so they would not be exploited. However, a few were saved and taken to England. These dogs were bred solely on physical appearance and their health was jeopardized. They remain a popular breed, however.
The Industrial Revolution in the 19th century changed the world beyond recognition. Suddenly, the people of Victorian England had money and time.
In 1860, Queen Victoria was given a Pekinese, which had been illegally removed from China. Portraits of her always show her with this dog on her lap.
Owning a lap dog became the ultimate status symbol. For the middle class with money, dog breeding became the hobby of choice. Thus began a new development in our relationship with the domestic dog. The emphasis shifted from the job the dog could do to what it looked like. New breeds were developed.
In 1873, the Kennel Club of London originated and became the headquarters of the dog fancy. Here were kept the standards of every breed. Dog shows soon followed. These were the highlight of the social calendar, where dogs coming closest to the breed standard would be declared champions.
The variety of dog breeds today is the result of selective breeding. Respectable dog breeders aim to produce the most perfect specimen of that breed. However, in search of this perfection, there has been a narrowing down of the gene pool. In-breeding or linebreeding can make recessive mutations more common.
Today's bulldog is an example of breeding gone wrong. The bulldog was originally a feisty, athletic and powerful dog used to control cattle at the marketplace. When they were no longer needed at the market, the breed went through some amazing changes more suited to the show ring. However, today, the healthy athletic dog is gone and has been replaced by a dog whose puppies need to be delivered by cesarean, because their heads and shoulders are too wide to pass through the birth canal.
Another such dog is the Shar-Pei. These are the dogs with the loose, wrinkled skin. The looser the skin, the more desirable the dog. However, this breed now struggles with skin flaps over the eyes, causing blindness if not corrected, and severe skin problems.
Many think it is time to stop and consider the consequences for the dog. It is time for breeders to change the way they choose their breeding stock. People need to get back in touch with the real dog. Dogs are not backyard ornaments. They have a need to develop their brains and exercise their bodies. When these basic needs are not met, problems develop. It is not fair to blame the dog.
There seems to be a need for one more chapter in this ongoing saga of the development of the dog. Not only have we developed hundreds of breeds, we have a great abundance of mixed breed dogs and now the designer dogs. Can you determine the breeding of your mixed breed dog through DNA testing?
-- Christy Powers can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by snail mail at HC1 Box 210, Strawberry, AZ 85544.