Barking mad

Over thousands of years, we have carefully cultivated dogs from wolf packs to coddled pets. Has our obsession taken some breeds too far?

 
  Bulldogs undoubtedly make great companions, but they also come with their share of problems.   Wagsie/Flickr  (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Bulldogs undoubtedly make great companions, but they also come with their share of problems. Wagsie/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

 

Tens of thousands of years ago, mankind domesticated the grey wolf. The exact details are still very much steeped in mystery, but, looking back, it’s clear that this event sparked the ultimate fairy tale: our first friendship with another species.

Dogs stood by our side, guarded our door and slept at our feet. We became emotionally connected, and today man and his best friend are inseparable. But the reasons we domesticated our canine friends have changed. Once working companions, dogs are now mostly seen as family members or “fur babies”. A side effect of this change is that many breeds are now on the verge of extinction.

Domestication is a behaviour almost unique to humans. Over several millennia, we’ve domesticated species for a range of reasons, including food, warmth, transport and company. Without domestication, there may only be a few million of us around — instead, we’re now at the 7 billion mark and inhabit every inhabitable part of the planet. Dogs have been with us for thousands of years, and were probably the first animal to undergo this transformation.

 
  Humans domesticated grey wolves thousands of years ago, resulting in the multitude of domestic dog breeds we know today.   Katerina Hlavata/Flickr  (CC BY 2.0)

Humans domesticated grey wolves thousands of years ago, resulting in the multitude of domestic dog breeds we know today. Katerina Hlavata/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

 

The most likely story goes as follows. At an unknown time (at least 11,000 years ago) and an unknown location (probably in Asia, the Middle East or Europe), grey wolves started to hang around human campfires. Both humans and wolves are pack animals, so working together would have made more sense than being apart. Those early dogs were probably used for guarding, hunting and as a source of food for our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

But then everything changed — or, rather, we changed everything. The Agricultural Revolution saw many human cultures transition into a lifestyle of agriculture and settlement. Dogs adapted with us over the centuries. Their ears became floppier, their jaws slacker, and their temperament more docile; they were less frightening than their grey wolf cousins. Dogs learnt to obey commands in human tongues, and before long they were reading and responding to our facial expressions.

Then came the Middle Ages, and with it an explosion of dog breeds. Today there are around 400 recognised breeds, each with their own unique traits. Dogs are the most varied mammal species on the planet. 

 
  The modern dog is remarkably diverse, with over 400 breeds currently recognised.   Mary Bloom/Shearin and Ostrander  (CC BY)

The modern dog is remarkably diverse, with over 400 breeds currently recognised. Mary Bloom/Shearin and Ostrander (CC BY)

 

Sixteenth century England saw the rise of bull baiting, a gladiator-style sport in which dogs took on a fully-grown, fired-up bull. It’s fair to say the odds weren’t with the canines, and a great deal were killed or injured. At first, large mastiffs were used for bull baiting, but through cross-breeding a new breed of dog emerged, aptly named the bulldog.

The original bulldogs were stockier than their predecessors, with large heads and strong jaws. Focus was put on strength and agility, and over the course of 500 years they were selectively bred for the strongest and fastest traits.

In 1835, when bull baiting was banned in England, bulldogs almost ran past their expiry date. The breed went through a genetic bottleneck and further modifications altered their size and temperament. With their days in the arena finished, this dog needed to become cute and cuddly: Their bellies have since become podgier, they have more skin folds and their faces are flatter.

  The bulldog, depicted in a 1790 painting by Philip Reinagle. Notice the long tail and the leaner body.   Philip Reinagle/Wikimedia Commons  (public domain)

The bulldog, depicted in a 1790 painting by Philip Reinagle. Notice the long tail and the leaner body. Philip Reinagle/Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

This drive towards smaller, rounder canines reflects our changing society. Traditionally, humans were selecting larger dogs that could hunt, guard or round up livestock. Nowadays, we mainly live in urbanised areas with smaller backyards, and we want our canine friends to be companions rather than workers. 

We’re also attracted to animals with baby-like faces. This concept, called “baby schema,” now has a whole field of science devoted to it. Features such as a large head, round face, chubby cheeks and big eyes make us feel protective and nurturing — it’s a little evolutionary trick. Dogs with cute, baby-like faces tap into our parental instincts and make us want to protect them.

And protect them we did. English bulldogs have become a big part of modern society: They are the national animal for Great Britain, and, according to a survey this year, were among the top 10 most popular dog breeds in the US.

There’s no doubt they are charming animals. The downside is that they’re probably the unhealthiest breed alive today. Given their genetic bottleneck and our obsession with breed improvement, the vast majority of English bulldogs are highly inbred.

We’ve intentionally been breeding bulldogs with malformed skulls. Along with pugs and French bulldogs, English bulldogs are one of the so-called ‘brachycephalic breeds,’ which have extremely short and broad skulls. This means they’re plagued with a whole range of problems, including dental crowding, airway constriction and panting issues. Their faces are so flat, and their nose pushed up so far, that these dogs often struggle to breathe. It also means they’re really bad snorers, and, as they can’t pant properly, are susceptible to heat stroke. 

 
  In the bulldog, we've created a breed that is heavily reliant on humans to survive.   Paul Hudson/Flickr  (CC BY 2.0)

In the bulldog, we've created a breed that is heavily reliant on humans to survive. Paul Hudson/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

 

Further, most English bulldogs can’t reproduce without medical intervention — that goes for both mating and giving birth. Around 80% of deliveries are via caesarean section because the puppies’ heads are now too big for the mothers’ birth canal. They are susceptible to hip, heart and eye problems, and suffer from an endless list of diseases. Continuing to breed and dote on these animals really is unintentional abuse.

The picture is even direr when considering the breed’s lack of genetic diversity. A paper published this year questioned whether there is enough genetic variability to return the breed to good health. Extinction seems more likely. It’s probably for the best. We’ve distorted and destroyed this animal to the point that it now can’t live a healthy life.

The domestication of dogs has reached a new level; they’ve moved quickly from the ranks of workplace companions to coddled children. But it doesn’t say much for our society that we’re adoring these animals to death. Our obsession with purebreds and breed ‘improvement’ means that other dog breeds suffer from similar issues to the English bulldog. Yet we continue to breed them, buy them and dote on them. How are we justifying it?

At the end of the day, we will have to decide whether to try to save the breed, or let it slip away into the history books. But it certainly is a long journey to go from a grey wolf scavenging the fringes of our campfires to an unhealthy bulldog on the verge of extinction. 

Edited by Andrew Katsis and Ellie Michaelides