Mau-Mauing the Dogcatcher

Is it racist to dislike a dachshund?

Americans hate racism and they love dogs, so maybe it’s not surprising that prejudice among the pugs and poodles is a growing national concern. Actually, the purported prejudice is among dog owners, not dogs. But increasingly dogs are being talked about as if they had the same civil rights as humans and that the same rules of civil discourse apply to man and his best friend alike. The implied parallel can be seen as either an insult to the struggle against human racism or a commentary on its occasional excesses. Or, of course, it can be seen as perfectly reasonable.

The Complete Dog Book was first published by the American Kennel Club in 1929. Widely considered the bible of dog breeding, it is essentially the blue book for dog buyers. The 19th edition was released in 1997 but was recalled in April of last year because of an uproar from breeders who contended that the book’s “breed profiles” perpetrated pernicious stereotypes. The hottest issue was that 40 dog breeds had been reclassified as “not good” for children.

Hardest hit by this development were dachshund and Chihuahua breeders, whose product is often sold to kids–and without warning labels of any kind. (At least they are ostensibly for the kids. How many adults have the guts to buy a dachshund without blaming it on the children?) On ABC News, Roger Caras, president emeritus of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, got right to the point: “To say that all these dogs are ‘this’ and all these dogs are ‘that,’ that’s racism, canine racism.” Carl Holder, the outraged secretary of the Dachshund Club of America, told the New York Times, “You just can’t make such a blanket statement about dachshunds.”

Wait. Why exactly can’t we make blanket statements about these ankle-snapping pipe cleaners with feet? “Dogs are not vehicles stamped out of an assembly line,” asserted Holder, “Each one is an individual.” A week after the AKC’s announcement, Dr. Vicki Hearne, author of Animal Happiness, joined the battle in a New York Times op-ed piece, where she raised the specter of genocide, or at least breed cleansing. To brand dogs such as Chihuahuas as “not good” with children “is not just an insult; it is a dangerous statement in an age when every state and many towns have adopted or are considering laws restricting, banning or even requiring the killing of particular suspect breeds.”

Nicholas Dodman of the Tufts University Animal Behavior Clinic charged that labeling Chihuahuas as bad with children was essentially blaming the victim: “It’s mainly the child’s fault because they’re doing really stupid things with the dogs.” He told ABC, “They’re pulling on their tails and pulling on their ears and poking in their eyes, and doing lots of things, and you know, you have to have a pretty long fuse to tolerate that.” The problem, in other words, is that children are bad with Chihuahuas. Perhaps the solution is to ban children.

Eventually the kennel club caved like Denny’s before a class action suit. The club recalled over 10,000 copies of its book–at a cost of nearly $800,000–and declared that the profiles had been published with “inadvertently incorrect and controversial information.” Also, “The AKC sincerely regrets the distress caused to dog owners and breeders by the errors. AKC neither agrees with, nor endorses, the material.” This is a good start. But where, one wonders, is the AKC’s apology to the dogs?

Don’t ask me whether each of the breeds on the AKC’s blacklist can accurately be labeled good or bad for children. But the idea that stereotypes are not valid about breeds of dogs is ridiculous. While it is true that all dogs go to heaven, there is a bowl curve when it comes to dog abilities and personalities. Basset hounds are sweet and stubborn. Golden retrievers are beautiful, joyous, dumb blonds. Border collies work hard–even when they’re asleep. Mastiffs are lazy but lovable. Labradors are the kind of dogs you want to have a beer with. Chihuahuas are snappish and temperamental.

Judging humans by the color of their skin is different than judging dogs by the texture of their coats. It is different even if you leave aside the question (which I find easy but some people find difficult) of whether dogs have the same moral claims as human beings to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Let’s say they do. Even if so, the analogy of dog stereotypes to human racism is mistaken.

Racism among humans is overwhelmingly based upon cultural differences–what breeders might call “training.” The actual genetic differences between human “races” are so infinitesimal that making sweeping statements is rarely useful and often dangerous. Genetic differences between human races are literally superficial. But the differences between purebred dogs are anything but. That’s why they call it breeding. For example, border collies instinctively herd anything that moves–without any training. Put a border collie in the living room during a cocktail party, and soon you’ll find everybody scrunched into the corner.

Strong genetic differences among dog breeds are not just the result of natural selection. Evolution among dogs has got a big push from humans. On ranches, border collie puppies are taken from the litter and tested for their instinctual desire to herd sheep. The most fearless and enthusiastic pups are the most likely to be bred to pass that herding gene on to the next generation.

Doggy eugenicists sometimes disagree about what traits they ought to be pushing. Many border collie breeders, for example, take great exception to the dog industry’s emphasis on ideal appearance rather than behavior. They fear that if border collies are bred for the color of their coats rather than the content of their character, eventually their herding instinct will fade away.

Another example is pointers. One need not be an expert in evolution or zoology to understand that pointing at dinner rather than catching it is not a successful evolutionary strategy. But the reason pointers point is not that they are responding to a capital gains tax cut or any of the other incentives known to affect the behavior of human beings. It is that pointing has been bred into them. Right now, something called the Dog Genome Project is trying to isolate the various genes for breed-specific behaviors, including the basenji’s genetic reluctance to bark and the basset’s genetic refusal to catch Frisbees.

Lovers of certain breeds readily acknowledge the positive genetic tendencies of their favorite dogs. Newfoundland and Portuguese water dog owners want pooches that can swim. Rottweiler owners want beasts that protect. German shepherders like a good running buddy. And, basset people, like me, want dogs that have the good sense not to do any of those things. But suggest that negative behavior might be genetic too, and dog nuts–and, increasingly, their lawyers–declare that this is like saying Jews are naturally greedy or that laziness is a genetic trait of blacks.

Take the pit bull, the most “discriminated against” dog in the country. In most breeds, a litter of puppies will have one “alpha dog.” The alpha dog is the most aggressive male in the group, the one that instinctively wants to be leader of the pack and will not bow out of a fight. Pit bull litters are nearly all alphas. If a child lets a pit bull gain alpha dominance, watch out: A tea party with Fido could turn into a bloodbath. The pit bull’s brain chemistry is the product of selective breeding too. Unlike, say, a German shepherd, pit bulls were not bred to protect humans but to kill other dogs. They are more prone to become addicted to endorphins, which often translates into a lust for pain. Thus, they don’t quit when their opponent is licked or when they are told to go to a neutral corner. Also, most dogs have an instinctual body language. If two dogs meet on the street and they don’t want to fight, they bow their heads, exposing their necks and demonstrating their vulnerability. It’s a nice gesture, and pit bulls bow too. But unlike any other breed, they have an instinct for attacking the other dog while he’s still bowed.

In 1989, New York Mayor Ed Koch tried to impose strict rules on pit bull ownership. He called them, “the Great White Sharks of Doggiedom.” New York courts ruled that such laws were prejudicial because of their disparate impact on owners of different breeds of dogs. Other cities trying to curb pit bulls met with similar rulings. Since then, groups like the Animal Legal Defense Fund–does the name sound familiar?–have been arguing hard that the issue isn’t owners’ rights but dogs’ rights. In vet malpractice cases and other instances of dog deaths, reports Evan Gahr in the Wall Street Journal, lawyers frequently argue that compensation should be determined by the “intrinsic value” of the dog. In dog attack cases, animal behaviorists, psychiatrists, and activists try to claim that the dogs were simply “misunderstood.” But whether they’re defending a dog that kills or eulogizing a dog that was killed, the mythology that dogs are simply products of their environments holds sway.

Many people don’t realize that dogs were not made by God. Rather, God gave man the raw materials–the ancient offshoot of the wolf–and said “show me what you can do.” Purebred dogs have been selectively bred for thousands of years in some cases. Even a millennium of unnatural selection still leaves room for some environmental influence: A cocker spaniel that wears a “Kick Dog for Service” sign from 9 till 5 will be a lot more likely to bite than a Rottweiler that grew up in a loving home. Some dogs will be closer than others to the Aryan ideal of their particular breed. But the worst herding border collie in the world will still herd better than the most masterful Mexican hairless.

A poodle will bite you for forgetting to put the accent mark over the “e” in André. But you could use a bloodhound’s tail as a jump rope and the worst you’d get is a fierce yawn. Yes, it is possible to teach a bloodhound to hate kids, just as it is possible to teach poodles to be sled dogs. But this would be conditioning against the grain of the breeds’ personalities. “Canine racism” may be a convenient way to shake down courts and corporations. But it drains the moral currency from a very real and still unfortunately useful concept in the world of humans.

There is simply no such thing as canine racism. In fact, some of my best friends are German shepherds.