Breeding Tells





Stroking his soft black curls, I gaze into my standard poodle’s brown eyes and see nothing left of the wolf. Willie would rather surf the counter for snacks than rip apart a lame cow. His ancestors were the wolves who found it easier to hang out with humans and scavenge for leftover stew or stale biscuits than to hunt in the woods.

A few hours ago, I was listening to Stan Braude, a biology professor at Washington University, talk about that progression, which his research maps. “The wolves less successful at foraging or more tolerant of humans could make a damned good living scavenging in villages,” he said. They adapted, their bodies producing the enzymes to digest starch. Dogs diverged from wolves about twenty thousand years ago. Dogs and wolves still interbred, though, and could have remained a muddled, divergent single species. Braude believes that when scavenger wolves followed the human migration along the Indonesian peninsula, that created the necessary separation from the hunting wolves, who couldn’t survive the hotter equatorial climate. Dogs grew closer and closer to humans, the partnership deepening and specializing in hundreds of ways.

But something has gone wrong.

With an apology to the new pup curled at his feet, Braude described our current problem with domestic dogs: increasing aggression. “There are a ridiculous number of vicious attacks by dogs on humans,” he said. (According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Humane Society of the United States, there are about 4.5 million dog bites every year in the United States) “If we have domesticated a species, why are we seeing so much aggression?”

A few years back, he had a theory. In the 1950s, The Farm Fox experiments bred foxes for ten generations, selecting for tameness. What they also got were curled tails, mottled coats, stars and socks and blazes, shorter noses, shorter legs, and floppy ears. These new foxes were doglike; rather than run from humans, they wagged their tails and licked your face.

Maybe with domestic dogs, Braude thought, breeders were so obsessed with physical appearance and breed standards that they were not selecting for those traits that correspond with tameness. Maybe they were undoing evolution and awakening aggression in certain breeds by selecting for the opposite characteristics.

“Brilliant idea,” he told us lightly, “but it was wrong.” He flashed a slide of a scientific paper that showed, conclusively, that “breed is almost uninformative” for aggressive behavior. Breed predicts only 9 percent of variation in any sort of behavior. Even the notion that certain breeds were being shaped for aggression fell apart, because those breeds do not account for the majority of bites.

Braude’s doomed theory was not an overreach, though. Animal breeders have made some whopping mistakes. Braude’s colleague Jonathan Losos—also a professor of biology, and the director of the Living Earth Collaborative—is about to publish his latest book, The Cat’s Meow: How Cats Evolved from the Savanna to Your Sofa. Lions and leopards were prowling through my imagination—what a magnificent ancestry—when he flashed up a photo of the latest iterations of Siamese and Persian house cats. The Siamese, bred for a long neck and sleek angles, is as attenuated as a Giacometti sculpture. The Persian has the same squished face as a pug, with the big eyes, big foreheads, and soft cheeks that remind us of babies.

Pugs and Persians pay a price for our eagerness to coo over them: sinus problems, sleep apnea, vision problems and dental problems. A Persian’s brain has been reorganized, Losos said, in a way that, in a human, would be a severe developmental abnormality. “And Persian cats are not the sharpest knives in the drawer,” he added dryly.

Breeding for outward appearance has done this. All you need do is look at the shapes of the skulls, in dogs especially, and you will find huge variation among domestic dogs and hardly any among wild canids. Take the two domestic breeds that are farthest apart, the collie and the Pekinese. Both are domestic dogs, Losos said, yet their skulls are more different from each other than the skulls of a walrus and a civet.

Cats were clearly domesticated 3,500 years ago, and the domestication process probably started even earlier. Yet cats looked pretty much like wild cats until just 150 years ago. Dogs were domesticated far earlier, but for centuries, they were bred for behavioral traits, not for looks. All that fancying up—“fancy” being the term for pedigreed animal breeding—only began its radical alterations in the Victorian era.

Entire breeds may not be linked to aggression, Braude said, but when breeders are only concerned with appearance, they may be allowing beautiful animals to pass on traits that predispose them for aggression: reactivity and fearfulness. A dog can inherit those traits without becoming aggressive, but if early experience sets them off, you have the potential for one of those vicious bites. So we do come back to the greed, ignorance, or preoccupation of the breeders.

The dog world could go a long way toward ending the problem of aggression—and all the consequent injuries, trauma, and euthanizations—if they stopped focusing on elegant pedigree, perfect conformation, and the money that brings. What needs to be done is harder: avoid passing down fearfulness and reactivity, deemphasize appearance, and place more weight on gentle, easy temperaments, so you are breeding biddable dogs who are predisposed to trust us and enjoy our company.

In short, Braude wants to replace pedigrees with Sawtelle dogs. He buys every copy of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle that he can find—he has twenty-five stacked in his office at the moment—and gives them out. “The book is fiction,” he said, “but the Sawtelle kennel breeds dogs for character, and the author never tells you what they look like. I hope someone will realize Wroblewski’s Sawtelle dogs—dogs that could look like anything but are bred to be calm, non-aggressive, and attentive to people.”

Who would not prefer that to a dog with just the right markings, ears pricked just so, and a muzzle exactly the right number of centimeters?


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.