We’ve done our best friends a grave disservice by forcing them to conform to artificial standards.
A Matter of Breeding: A Biting History of Pedigree Dogs and How the Quest for Status Has Harmed Man's Best FriendPublisher: Beacon
Author: Michael Brandow
Pages: 288 pages
Publication date: 2015-02
Author Michael Brandow knows his dogs. He owns several himself and is also a professional dog walker. In fact many of the anecdotes in A Matter of Breeding: A Biting History of Pedigree Dogs and How the Quest for Status has Harmed Man’s Best Friend come from his experiences as a dog walker. For example, in the first chapter, titled “The English Vice”, Brandow opens with Bob, an English bulldog puppy. Bob has trouble keeping food (and sometimes even water) down, is asthmatic and has such weak muscle structure that he can barely stand. After spending a few pages letting us getting to know Bob, Brandow goes back in time to give a history of the breed.
Bulldogs, as Brandow relates, were refashioned, rebranded, improved, and/or innovated (as are most of the other dogs he mentions in the book). The end result is Bob, whose daily outings don’t quite live up to the title of walk:
He waddled a few feet, did his other business, threw up some more, then snorted while looking up at me with eyes full of puss. I reminded myself not to be alarmed by this compact medicine ball oozing from every orifice. Bob coughed and rested before trying to walk again, only to stumble and swerve as though he was about to faint.
Many of the other chapters follow a similar pattern (although not all the dogs are quite as sad as Bob)—these chapters often begin with anecdotes and then continue on to note the decline of the breed in question—a decline that is almost always related to human interference.
It’s easy to feel sorry for these dogs—the purebreds, the ones that aren’t healthy, the ones that are raised to fight other dogs—all thanks to human meddling. It’s also easy to fall in love with the mutts Brandow talks about, particularly Samantha, introduced to readers in the chapter, “Eugenics, You, and Fido Too”.
Samantha is one of Brandow’s dogs. She is beautiful, intelligent and athletic. She shows her intelligence and athleticism by competing in (and often winning) agility competitions—the competitions where dogs weave through stakes, race up and down teeter-totters, jump off docks, and/or catch balls or Frisbees. Samantha’s only "downfall"—she’s not a trained seal that will perform on command. When she and Brandow are invited onto a morning talk show, Samantha does great in practice; she catches ball after ball. In fact she catches every ball—except the one filmed for the show. It’s hard not to try and reach into the book and hug Samantha when she doesn’t live up to the television producers’ expectations. It’s also hard not to see the difference between Samantha and the pedigree dogs in the book.
Other parts of the book aren’t quite so endearing. Brandow has a sharp sense of humor and often uses it to ridicule breeders that have made pedigree dogs into what they are today and people who insist on buying pedigree dogs. Some of this ridicule is perhaps justified. Brandow maintains that “mutilating dogs was once defended for the benefit of humankind, though today this archaic custom is purely for show. A rugged-hunter-turned-lapdog doesn’t require surgery to sprawl across a living room sofa. Nor does he need a historically accurate behind to be seen in public… at the end of the day their true concerns are esthetic and not practical.”
Brandow’s points are well taken—the human race has done some crazy things to dogs—we’ve often cared more about coat colors and nose lengths than the actual dogs themselves. Further, Brandow’s stance on adopting is absolutely correct: owning a shelter dog should be something to brag about.
That said, should people be ashamed for their love of a breed? Does the family who owns a golden retriever or a poodle need to apologize for it? Should readers dream of a world without border collies? There’s no doubt that the US has pet over-population problem, and it certainly can be argued that breeding and breeders (along with the people who buy from breeders) add to this problem. But then again, so do owners of purebreds and mutts alike who do not spay or neuter their pets.
One of the book blurbs describes A Matter of Breeding as a book every dog lover should read. And for the most part, that quote is spot on. Even the most knowledgeable dog lover should learn something from this book. That said, the tone—often snarky and sarcastic— while fun, may be off putting to some dog lovers, and the writing style, with phrases like “proven facts” can be a little distracting at times. In the end, though, this is an eye-opening book, and Brandow brings us a well-researched book that brings an important issue front and center.