Beta Culture: The Healthy Dog Registry

COE 235Pug dogs are an abomination. There, I said it. Someone had to.

But seriously …

A few years back, I was taking pictures of people’s dogs for the fun (and sometimes money) of it, and a lady called me asking if I would take pics of her little black pug. We met to discuss the project, exactly what she wanted and expected, and I got to meet her little dog.

The entire time we talked, the dog in her arms made a growling noise. I baby-talked to him “Yes, you’re scaring me! You’re scaring me bad, you dangerous animal!” The lady said “Oh, he’s not growling. That’s just how he breathes.”

Whoa. Here’s this dog that’s been bred to have a face that’s so compressed, with nasal passages so deviated, that the poor little guy has to struggle for every breath! I’m instantly both disgusted and horrified at that, but I keep it to myself and, a few days later, take the pictures.

With vivid memories in my head of seeing my own big healthy dogs run, play, swim, dig, chase rabbits, fetch tennis balls, roll in the grass, trot happily along mountain trails, I compare this pudgy little cripple and I feel distinctly sorry for him, for the entire breed.

I’m also angry at the people who create them. Nowhere along the way can you find anyone (breeders? owners? dog clubs?) to really BLAME for bringing about this physical form that tragically limits the individual animal and sometimes even promotes suffering, but in my view it is nevertheless a moral crime.

I’ve expressed this opinion more than once in public, and the typical response is “Oh, but they’re really happy little dogs! There’s nothing wrong with them!” I can never seem to get across to those people that breeding a perfectly healthy creature down to where it is defenseless and even debilitated — for reasons of human amusement or style — is wrong.

The kicker of the story is that the lady called me only a month or so later, asking if I’d take pictures of her new dog. The first one had died mysteriously in its sleep. (Yeah, wonder why?)

I went to meet her. She’d gotten another black pug.


All of this is an intro to a single idea — the Healthy Dog Registry.

Because I’ve seen too much of that same sort of thing. Dogs with bad hips, eye conditions, cancer, so, so much more. All of it the result of DELIBERATE human action, actions — and results — which the breed registries and show dog supporters fiercely defend.

I wish there was such a thing as the HDR (and I wish it had started in 1820), an organization that followed dog lineages for many generations, with the aim of building health, longevity and intelligence into the dogs, FOR THE DOGS, but also to guarantee lasting companionship for the dog owners. Rather than breeding for, say, “cuteness” or good looks for dog shows. If it resulted in a single muttsky-looking breed called the Big Healthy Dog, I could certainly live with that.

A group of people who had the will to carry out such a project over generations — oh, call them Beta Culture — a project of reason and compassion to fix a problem that results from short-term focus on features profitable but unhealthy for the beautiful victims, I’d definitely want to be a part of that.

  • Soga

    I’m going to start off a bit pedantic, but one certainty in life is that you have cancer. It’s not a sign of poor health, merely an inevitable consequence of being alive. (Sorry, misconceptions about the nature of cancer, real or perceived, irk me) But yes I’m certain humanity has found a way to unwittingly cripple the abilities of numerous species’ immune system to handle the many cancer cells which must be dealt with on a daily basis.

    I’d like to see a registry like this, though I can already guess that what it’ll find is that very few dog breeds can be considered “healthy”. (Heck even humanity is a mess. Our feet are garbage, our lower backs are all but useless, so on and so forth) I’d love to see dogs bred for health and intelligence, but unfortunately I believe that runs counter to what the majority of people want dogs to be. A strong, healthy, intelligent dog is difficult to control. You have to earn their respect and train them well. Most people can’t be bothered, and prefer a tiny crippled creature that can barely breath on its own. It’s truly disturbing how little thought people give to the situation. If people did this to other humans, they’d be in front of the world court.

    • Annerdr

      It’s not the breed. It’s the genetic line. My dog has hip dysplasia. She must have inherited this from her parents (I wouldn’t know them – she was a stray). If dogs with hip dysplasia are neutered and do not breed, then hip dysplasia would disappear in a generation. My dog is a beagle mix. Beagles do tend to have hip dysplasia (as do Labradors and lots of other breeds), but it has to be inherited from both parents.

  • Velvet

    What a wonderful idea!
    On the pug note, I know there are breeders in Germany (where there are anti-torture restrictions for dog breeding) who are trying to breed healthier pugs, with longer snouts, longer legs, eyes that are set well into the head, and so on.

  • Tailored

    I agree. It’s disgusting that humans have manipulated living creatures for humans benefit and often at the detriment of the animals.

  • Annerdr

    As I watch my 10 year old beagle mix behave like she’s 15 because of bad hips, I’m totally on board with this. Arthritic hips is awful. Now, when she sees a deer or a rabbit, she sits and barks at it instead of trying to catch it.

  • c2t2

    I’m on board with this! Although breeding for intelligence as well as health, I imagine we’d end up with… wolves. Which seems pointless.
    I’m actually okay with less intelligent dogs, since I don’t see intelligence as a marker of health, and it’s easier to keep a big dumb dog happy and satisfied with Life As A Pet. Working dogs need some common sense, but for companion animals, more intelligent may mean more miserable. At least that’s how it works for humans.

    • Hank Fox

      What do you imagine dogs would choose if they had the choice? More intelligence, or more stupidity?

      As to dogs being dumb pets, locked into some stupid role through breeding deliberately applied by humans, isn’t that sort of horrible all on its own? Why not just give the unhappy dogs brain surgery to make them dopey and happy?

      And really, if we already sort-of-know smart dogs would be miserable with certain people, maybe those people shouldn’t have dogs at all.

      One of the reasons I don’t like small dogs is because they have no chance to be DOGS. They have to be living subsets of humans — protected, carried, cossetted — every second of their lives. They can’t just be dogs at any moment of their lives.

      • c2t2

        If they had the choice, I imagine they’d choose what a human would choose – happiness. Losing a part of one’s brain, like through trauma or surgery, causes at least anxiety, confusion, and the instinctive lizard-brain knowledge that something isn’t right. That’s not happiness. Being healthy, including brain health, makes happiness possible.
        And I like to think of dog intelligence in people terms. Physicists and philosophers can be happy and healthy, so can daycare workers and janitors. The problem, for me, is figuring out which individual dog would be happiest in which situation. That’s the thing I have no answer to.

        My problem with small dog breeds isn’t so much their lack of some archetype dog-ness, but rather the health problems and fragility caused by breeding them down so tiny. Healthy terriers that hunt rodents are just as legit dogs as a hunting hound or a sled dog.

  • Wandering But Not Lost

    Thank you!!! I’ve been saying this for years, and it goes for cats, too, though to a lesser extent (munchkins, anyone?)

    • Hank Fox

      Not to mention those hairless Sphinx cats, which have to be constantly cold. But fortunately, humans don’t have to feel it.

  • BeaverTales

    I have heard certain airlines don’t allow pugs to fly. They are at higher risk of suffocating with routine air pressure changes because of their anatomy. The problem worsens if given medications that reduce anxiety, are overweight or fatigued, which also relaxes their airway muscles and worsens any pre-existing sleep apnea.

    “Evolution” driven in part by our fickle/changing and irrational human beauty standards i.e. selective breeding solely to become more visually appealing to humans is horrible to me too. It’s bad enough that we do it to ourselves. Most people I know would rather have children with someone attractive than someone who is smart. In a few thousand years, we’ll all be more pretty and more stupid as a population…based on our cultural priorities.

    The only dogs I’ve ever owned and (ever will own as long as I remain alive) are mutts from the pound. I see nothing wrong with breeding a healthy functional animal (hunters or protectors or for an optimal size-within reason, for example) as a companion. But I don’t support the idea of fashionable purebreds and the money people spend for them. Usually they brag: “My breed [X] costs hundreds/thousands of dollars!” Dogs shouldn’t be less valuable to us as companions because they aren’t inbred. But America, despite having changed for the better, is still a (racist) purity culture, and the idea of breed purity for superficial physical reasons is the same kind of ignorance that appeals to many people who value racial purity for the exact same reasons.