Purebreds To "Rasse" Theory: A German Critique Of Dog Breeding
Just like ideas about racial theory, the notion of seeking purebred dogs is a relatively recent human invention. This animal eugenics project came from a fantasy of recreating a glorious past and has done irreparable harm to canines.
BERLIN — Some words always seem to find a way to sneak through. We have created a whole raft of embargoes and decrees about the term race: We prefer to say ethnicity, although that isn’t always much better. In Germany, we sometimes use the English word race rather than our mother tongue’s Rasse.
But Rasse crops up in places where English native speakers might not expect to find it. If, on a walk through the woods, the park or around town, a German meets a dog that doesn’t clearly fit into a neat category of Labrador, dachshund or Dalmatian, they forget all their misgivings about the term and may well ask the person holding the lead what race of dog it is.
Although we have turned our back on the shameful racial theories of the 19th and 20th centuries, the idea of an “encyclopedia of purebred dogs” or a dog handler who promises an overview of almost “all breeds” (in German, “all races”) has somehow remained inoffensive.
In an article about a Dresden exhibition on “The Invention of Human Races”, one colleague wrote that after 250 years, the German term Rasse has returned to its original meaning, being used to describe “domestic animals”, although this usage is just as inaccurate from a scientific perspective. No one flinches when we refer to dogs, horses or cows as purebreds, and if a friend’s new dog is a rescue, we see no problem in calling it a mongrel or crossbreed.
Fantasy of a glorious past
In one way or another, people have been selectively breeding dogs for as long as dogs have existed. That is why we treat dog breeds as if they were part of the natural order of things that are free from any association with the shameful history of a nationalist, colonialist age.
But that is simply not true. Dog breeds are a product of the same era that invented the idea of dividing humans into separate races, an era when pseudoscientists fiddled around with craniometry, offering a supposedly scientific basis for differentiating between “master races” and “primitive people”. Those are the same pseudoscientists who threw around sinister terms such as “Aryan”, seeking to assign almost every nation distinct “racial” characteristics, and finally creating eugenics, which supposedly aimed to improve human “races” through selective breeding.
What was going on, when these new breeds first appeared?
In reality, the invention of dog breeds is like a huge animal eugenics project, which often has the absurd aim of recreating a supposedly glorious past. The revivals of ancient breeds such as the Hovawart or the Irish wolfhound are romantic projects motivated by a fantasy about returning to a glorious past, a Lord of the Rings of dog breeding.
In the mid-nineteenth century, when a town councilor named Heinrich Essig created the Leonberger, a large, heavy, nowadays dark yellow dog, he was explicitly trying to breed a dog that would look like the lion on the coat of arms of his home town Leonberg. The Leonberger had no practical use. It wasn’t bred to guard sheep or drive cattle, to rouse wild game or retrieve dead poultry. It didn’t have to run alongside a coach or pull a sled; it had no palace or even a farm to guard.
So what was going on, when these new breeds first appeared?
1874 diagram of domestic dogs
Love and bulldogs
For many dogs it was good news: Sometime in the 19th century our relationship with dogs changed, partly because industrialization was more dependent on human labor than animal labor. As working conditions became even more inhumane for the underprivileged people living in the cities, dogs began to enjoy a more elevated status among the more privileged classes.
In Great Britain, where this change happened faster than anywhere else, people were following the example set by the royals: Queen Victoria proclaimed that her (many) dogs were part of her family, and they posed alongside her for official portraits. Edwin Landseer, one of the most famous painters of his time, became a kind of court painter of dogs (and as a consequence, the black-and-white variety of the Newfoundland breed was named Landseer in his honor).
Of course, people have always loved their dogs, but the sentimental Victorians began creating love stories about them. Dogs were no longer working animals, but officially four-legged friends. There was no one in Victorian England who had not heard the story of Greyfriars Bobby, a terrier who watched over his master’s grave for 14 years.
Charles Dickens, always quick to embrace trends, hastily incorporated a dog into Oliver Twist and even sought the professional advice of a certain Bill George — the most famous dog dealer in London at the time, a pioneer of the discipline — in order to make his canine character more lovable. As a young man, George had organized dog fights (including ones that pitted dogs against lions), before the introduction of the first animal protection laws caused him to switch paths and he was responsible for establishing bulldogs as beloved pets.
The breed is now a symbol of hypermasculinity, but it has paid for its status with a wide array of health problems resulting from selective breeding. Since they were no longer fighting dogs, owners wanted them to compensate by looking even more aggressive, with flat noses and jutting lower jaws. Towards the end of the Victorian era, British soldiers began to be referred to as “bulldogs”, showing how closely related images of humans and dogs were.
Old German Shepherd Dog, circa 1895
Form over function
The second revolution was that after millennia of dog breeding that focused on making sure the animals were well suited to carry out specific jobs, looks began to take precedence. For a long time, it didn’t matter what a good sheepdog looked like – the now rare old German herding dogs, which escaped the great selective breeding project, might be Schafpudels, Strobels, or Fuchses, with shaggy fur, double coats or long double coats, black or with black markings, fox red or white.
However, German Shepherds — the standardized breed — were subject to the stud book’s “law of blood”, which divided old German herding dogs into a “Horand von Grafrath” or a “Graf Eberhard” (a pedigree that had a degree of inbreeding of almost 40%). The idea of distinct breeds focused on the subtle differences in dogs. Even now, the names chosen by dog breeders carry a suggestion of nobility.
A good horse has no color.
In Great Britain, which set the standard in dog breeding, they were more playful, but no less determined. Just as with cucumbers and pumpkins, they turned dog breeding into a kind of sporting competition. In 1886, Charles Cruft put on the First Great Terrier Show, which soon became known as Cruft’s Greatest Dog Show and remains the largest dog show in the world. But defining the breeds that they had artificially invented posed a problem. In Germany, Caesar — one of the dogs bred by Heinrich Essig — was sometimes referred to as an Alpenhund, sometimes a St Bernard, and sometimes even a Leonberger.
Good dogs over “pure” breeds
Enter John Henry Walsh, a sports journalist who wrote under the pseudonym “Stonehenge” and was one of the founders of the All England Tennis Club. Driven by the English spirit of competition, Walsh developed a highly complex set of regulations. His famous book Dogs of the British Isles set out the famous “standards”.
The book introduced the meticulous measuring of ears, muzzles and height, an idea that was unfortunately already familiar from the pseudoscience of human races. There’s an old Icelandic saying that a good horse has no color. The same could not now be said for dogs. Walsh, who thought it was more important to create good dogs than “pure” breeds, came to bitterly regret the part he had played.
But the genie was out of the bottle, and the standards ushered in a wave of discrimination in dog breeding. As early as 1894, the National Observer bewailed the scourge of “alien immigration”. When we start to speak of races, sooner or later, racism rears its ugly head.
Although, John Henry Walsh spared the Brits the use of such fraught vocabulary. Of the many words in circulation to describe these “races” of dogs (kinds, sorts, strains), he chose not race but breed. This means that, in England at least, today’s debates about identity politics are not burdened with that added layer of complexity.