Saturday, August 3, 2013

Breedism: what is a breed?

What is a breed, anyway? It may seem like an inane question, but it's a good idea to be clear about what we mean. It can be rather frustrating to take part in a discussion where each party is using the same terms and assumes they mean the same thing to everyone, but where each party attaches radically different meaning to those terms.

A quick consultation with Google provides this basic definition of the noun "breed": A stock of animals or plants within a species having a distinctive appearance and typically having been developed by deliberate selection.

It was popularly believed that our domestic dogs descended from wild wolves tamed by humans, but more recent research indicates that domestic dogs evolved gradually from canine ancestors in response to conditions in their environment, adapting themselves to a niche on the fringes of human civilization. 

These canids differed from wolves in that they were less fearful of humans. They scavenged food from human garbage dumps, living in close proximity to man. These early "village dogs" would have been killed off had they presented a threat, but because they were able to coexist peacefully with humans, their destiny connected with ours, and Canis Familiaris became man's best friend.

Since the appearance of the early dogs, the remarkable flexibility of Canine DNA has given rise to a diverse collection of domestic dog types, with an incredible range of size, appearance, temperaments  and behaviors, which we've grouped into over 400 breeds. If humans displayed same range of diversity as canids, we could have adults ranging from 1 foot tall to 17 feet tall, and we'd have drastically different body types, temperaments, and mental capacities. 

Of course, there is no such range diversity in human biology. What diversity of human appearance does exist is extremely minor compared to that found among the population of the domestic dog. We're all humans, and respond in similar ways to given environmental conditions. In other words, there is only one human race, and the concept of different breeds as in the domestic dog simply has no parallel in humanity.

But I digress. The point I want to make here is that Canid DNA is incredibly adaptable, and that the various breeds of domestic dog have taken on distinct, breed specific characteristics, in response to deliberate efforts by humans to select for those very characteristics. For instance, pointers were bred to point to waterfowl, while retrievers were bred to retrieve downed waterfowl, with a soft mouth. Sheep herding breeds arose from selection for the ability and inclination to herd sheep. Livestock guardians were bred to protect weaker creatures under their care. Each of these working breeds was equipped, over time, with the skills to do it's specific job, from birth. 

Beginning in the Elizabethan era, bull dogs were bred by selecting for temperament and physical characteristics useful in dogs which would torture animals - for instance de-horned bulls or de-clawed bears - for "sport".

When bull-baiting was outlawed in 1835, the "sportsmen" turned to dog fighting, and bred specifically for those characteristics best suited to a life in the fighting pit, tearing apart dogs (A bit of terrier was added to the bull dog for more energy, creating the "bull & terrier"). Such characteristics, copiously documented in diverse places, include, but are not limited to, a hair trigger attack reflex, a determination to continue attacking the victim, ignoring signals of submission, as well as injury to itself, and a freakish insensitivity to pain. This collection of traits characterizes the "pit bull", or the "pit fighting bull dog", which, though called by various names over time, has always displayed the distinctive traits which speak of its original purpose.

There's an old saying "You can take the dog out of the fight, but you can't take the fight out of the dog". Just as frustrated border collies without sheep to herd will take to herding children, frustrated pit bulls, without opponents in the pit to attack, will escape confinement and go looking for neighborhood pets to kill. The propensity for a pit bull to jump out of a moving car or a second story window to attack and kill a little dog is well documented, as is the rather breed specific pit bull behavior of finding ways into other people's houses to torture and kill the animals inside. There have been several such cases just within the past few weeks, and such nightmares are truly heartbreaking for anyone who has the least bit of compassion for animals. 

The foregoing sets the stage for the question: If we have deliberately bred lines of dogs for centuries to produce breed-specific characteristics, why is it somehow "racist" to note the existence of these very breed specific characteristics which we've deliberately produced?

If we can accept the fact that, for instance, border collies must have a job to do, and their job is herding, because it's in their DNA, why do we deny all genetic influence when it comes to pit bulls? These bully breeds are working dogs too, and their work is killing. I'm at a loss as to how the pit bull propaganda machine continues to condemn "breedism", as though there are no genetic factors in a dog's behavior. They speak as though a pit bull were no different from a lab.

Why does the pit propaganda machine shout "racism" and speak nonsensically of "condemning a breed for the actions of a few" when that's not the issue at all? At issue here is our ability to recognize that specific breeds were created with specific purposes. We deny reality at our peril - a quick look at the statistics for serious and fatal injuries from dog attacks over the past 30 years makes it clear that breed, more than anything else, is the most relevant factor, not the owner and not the upbringing.

Bottom line: It's absurd to pretend that breed specific characteristics which were deliberately created by humans don't exist. And to call those who recognize these breed specific characteristics "racist" reveals a profound ignorance on the part of the accuser.

A final thought: When someone speaks of the unfairness of "killing off a breed" what they are actually talking about is eliminating a specific set of characteristics which have proven to be a problem. The fact that sadistic humans created a "breed" to torture animals is no mandate to continue the existence of said breed. Nobody has suggested killing off the domestic dog - only those man-made expressions of temperament and behaviors which have proven to be harmful and cruel.

References - 
Coppinger, Dogs, from
Semyonova, The 100 silliest things people say about dogs, from


  1. The reason that the pit bull apologist will scream "racism", is because they know how emotionally loaded it its, and how even rational people will loose their bearings to where they can't see the forest for the trees.

  2. The new thing is for pit bull advocates to state that all dogs are individuals, should be analyzed as such, and that most dog trainers agree. They seem to think that variation within a breed and variation among breeds are mutually exclusive.

  3. As humans fooled around creating various working breeds (pointers, collies, racing dogs, etc), we diddled around with things on the edges of dog-ness -- a stance, a stare, a gait. We didn't try to change the fundamental characteristics that make a dog a dog and make the domestic dog fit to live closely with us: preference for avoiding conflict and seeking compromise, reticence about using real aggression, the willingness to stop a conflict as soon as the threat subsides or the other gives a cut-off signal.

    When a certain class of people started creating these baiting / fighting dogs, they changed these fundamental things that make a domestic dog a domestic dog. The pit fighting bull dog lost its dog-ness. Its behavior means it really needs to be classified not just as a different 'breed', but as some other species altogether.

    Trouble is, most species (even wild ones) don't arbitrarily attack their own kind. When there is a social conflict, most species have ritual ways of solving them without killing each other. Most species won't even attack some other species life-upon-death unless there's a reason to (defend young or themselves from being eaten, to eat themselves, etc).

    So there might not be any existing species we can put the pit bull type dog into...unless it's a species where we also put human psychopaths and humans suffering Intermittent Explosive Disorder. We can base this new species classification not on numbers of legs or other external characteristics, but on the fact that essential parts of the brain are similar (and unlike those parts in normal brains of dogs, humans, mice, etc).

    Hmmmm, we might even have to invent a whole new clade for them...since they all share not only mammalian but also some reptilian traits.

  4. This states, in a very succinct manner, the Characteristics that were bred into the pit bull....they VERY CHARACTERISTICS that are causing carnage & mayhem to the public today, in a misdirected effort at following their lineage. There is NO PLACE for this breed in modern society; as the article states... it is the CHARACTERISTICS of the breed that are what is in is not singling out or being "racist"... it is merely acknowledging success in a breeding practice that no longer serves any purpose.

  5. As an owner of several pure bred dogs in the past I can attest to the compelling logic of this article. My grandfather bred English Setters for hunting. His line was superb and training the to point, hold and flush the birds was easy due to their linage. I had a purebred beagle who was a master at flushing rabbits and running them back to me so I could get a clear shot. I do not believe I could have trained the Setters to chase rabbits and I know it would have beenimpossible to get my beagle to point and flush birds. Dogs are not people, they do not have morals they have behaviors which are determined largely by genetic imprinting. Pit bulls have no purpose but to kill other dogs or children that they mistake for other dogs. Stop making the killers into victims. Eliminate the breed.

  6. They've lost the safety debate so they seek refuge in the Canine Racism argument.

    Discriminating? Yes. Discriminatory? No.

    Published: December 13, 2003

    It started with a pit bull.

    Frederick Schauer, who teaches a course on the first amendment at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, was reading about some dog lovers who claimed ''canine racism'' in response to measures to curb attacks by pit bulls in New York City.

    That particular race card, he said, was an extreme example of how society has become so obsessed with avoiding any stereotypes that it ignores reality. Pit bulls are more aggressive than other breeds, he said, just as statistics show older people have slower reflexes than the young, and there are more bad drivers in Massachusetts than in Vermont. A fair number of generalizations, he insists, turn out to be accurate.


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