From das­tardly dachshunds to car-friendly cavapoos, the won­der­fully told story of con­tem­po­rary ca­nines

The Guardian - Review - - Nonfiction - Kathryn Hughes

“Why are mon­grels a dy­ing breed?” Jilly Cooper won­dered out loud in 2013. She might equally have asked “What­ever hap­pened to pedi­grees?” She was re­fer­ring to the fact that the dogs you meet these days are sel­dom pure-bred or mutt, but tongue-twist­ing mashups: lab­dradoo­dle, pug­gle, cavapoo, zu­chon, beaglier. The emer­gence of these art­ful hy­brids in re­cent years is the re­sult of the mar­ket­place’s de­mand for an an­i­mal de­signed with hu­man needs in mind: loyal but not clingy, con­fi­dent yet chilled, fluffy as a puff­ball but mer­ci­fully in­clined to hang on to its own hair. And ex­actly the right size to fit into your car.

Dogs, then, are largely hu­man­made man­u­fac­tures, their chang­ing shape and pro­lif­er­at­ing forms the con­se­quence of fan­tasy, hope and greed (a good cross­breed with all its pa­pers now goes for as much as its pedi­greed par­ents). Se­lec­tive breed­ing is how it’s done, the care­ful match­ing of mates in or­der to pro­duce pup­pies with ex­actly the de­sired char­ac­ter­is­tics. It’s both in­cred­i­bly sim­ple – dogs are gen­er­ally de­lighted with what­ever blind date you’ve set up for them – and pro­foundly pow­er­ful. For within just a few gen­er­a­tions, you can change the shape of a snout or tame a nasty tem­per. Within a few more gen­er­a­tions you could, in the­ory, have in­vented a whole new breed.

In this fas­ci­nat­ing book, three lead­ing his­to­ri­ans of sci­ence ex­plore the ori­gins of the “mod­ern” dog. For mil­len­nia, ca­nine com­pan­ions were roughly sorted into types suited for cer­tain tasks. There were big dogs to pull peo­ple out of the snow and lit­tle dogs to turn the spit, medium-sized dogs to run af­ter sheep and “toy” dogs to sit on ladies’ laps. But with the dawn­ing of the 19th cen­tury came a new de­sire to count, mea­sure, reg­u­late and im­prove the nat­u­ral world. Draw­ing on the ex­per­tise of live­stock farm­ers who had worked out how to pro­duce fluffier sheep, milkier cows and porkier by Michael Wor­boys, Julie-Marie Strange and Neil Pem­ber­ton Johns Hop­kins, £29.50 pigs, coun­try gen­tle­men set about tin­ker­ing with their sport­ing dogs. Spaniels, bea­gles and re­triev­ers were re­fined and de­fined into sta­ble cat­e­gories that could be guar­an­teed to breed “true”.

At the same time, ex­plain Michael Wor­boys, JulieMarie Strange and Neil Pem­ber­ton, there was an­other set of peo­ple who had skin in the dog-breed­ing game. They com­prised the “Fancy”, a loose group­ing of ur­ban work­ing-class men who traded dogs for profit. Of­ten op­er­at­ing out of pubs and bar­ber shops, the Fancy was in­ter­ested in spec­ta­cle and show. It liked pretty dogs, rat­ting dogs, dogs with a bit of pep to them. In­fu­ri­ated by the way the coun­try gents on judg­ing pan­els kept giv­ing gongs to their friends and re­fus­ing to say why, the Fancy in­sisted on com­ing up with a stan­dard­ised set of “points” for each breed against which an in­di­vid­ual an­i­mal might be as­sessed. Now there were earnest dis­cus­sions and brisk dis­agree­ments about the cor­rect an­gle of an ear or the de­sired curl of a tail.

All this sounds sen­si­ble. But the Fancy started tak­ing things too far in its scramble to win prizes and make trades. In­tense over­breed­ing re­sulted in bull­dogs that looked like mon­strous toads, blood­hounds so slob­bery they could barely get their food down, and toy dogs that were noth­ing but “gog­gleeyed abor­tions”. What was needed, huffed the gen­tle­men, were com­pe­ti­tions that moved away from the beauty pageant and to­wards the field trial. Un­til you’d seen a dog tear­ing round a muddy meadow in a thick driz­zle, you couldn’t be­gin to form an opin­ion on whether or not it was up to snuff.

Tem­pers started to fray to the point where, in 1880, one breeder sued the news­pa­pers for li­belling his prizewin­ning blood­hound. The case went on for two days and in­volved 13 ex­perts lining up to give their opin­ion on whether it was fair to de­scribe Napier as “slack loined”. In­creas­ingly, though, such bick­er­ings were fil­tered through the more gen­eral pre­oc­cu­pa­tions of the day. By the 1890s, there was plenty of xeno­pho­bic chat­ter about how ca­nine “alien im­mi­gra­tion” – all those dachshunds and schip­perkes flood­ing in from the con­ti­nent – was caus­ing “Dog­dom’s De­te­ri­o­ra­tion”. Mis­ce­gena­tion was blamed, too, for a cer­tain low­er­ing of the doggy moral tone: a pedi­gree bitch who had an ac­ci­den­tal mat­ing with a mon­grel hadn’t sim­ply spoiled a sin­gle lit­ter, she had ru­ined her womb for ever.

Wor­boys, Strange and Pem­ber­ton have pro­duced a mag­nif­i­cent book – a won­der­fully lively text that traces the sources of our own ob­ses­sion with doggy de­sign and of­fers a gen­tle warn­ing about what is at stake when we fid­dle too far. A labradoo­dle … our fix­a­tion with doggy de­sign is dis­sected

To buy The In­ven­tion of the Mod­ern Dog go to guardian­book­shop.com or call 0330 333 6846.

The In­ven­tion of the Mod­ern Dog: Breed and Blood in Vic­to­rian Bri­tain

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