Friday, February 15, 2008

The Genetic Purity Kennel Club Dog Show

The 132nd Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show aired this week, much to my excitement and sheer delight. Broadcast from Madison Square Garden, the competition is the height of absurdity, but plenty of hilarious fun. In case you’ve never watched, dozens of dogs, broken into categories such as sporting, terrier, herding, or toy are placed, one by one, on a table draped with fine linens and examined by a stern-looking woman wearing a full-length silk dupioni skirt and fitted cropped jacket, pearls and heels. She dramatically pulls back the lips of each show dog to inspect the teeth and gums, checks the body position, runs her hands up and down the pooch’s torso to assess bone structure, lifts the tail for reasons unknown, and then grunts her assent.

The handler then puts the dog to the ground and somberly run-walks it in front of the bedecked judging panel. This is the best part of the circus. The women handlers are middle-aged, wearing knee-length skirts and sensible shoes and are usually a bit frumpy. The male handlers, in great contrast, are young cute men wearing Armani suits. The spectacle never fails to make me laugh hysterically, even to the point of falling from my chair.

One of the more interesting things in the show is the commentary about the history of the various purebred dogs: where they originated and what their use was in bygone days. Dogs were domesticated generally not as pets, but as herders, hunters, workers, or for the amusement of the royal and wealthy.

There are 400 million domesticated dogs around the globe. Scientists looking into canine DNA have postulated that all dogs descended from gray wolves in East Asia about 15,000 years ago, and came to the New World across the Bering Straight with human nomads. Analysis of ancient canine skeletons from Alaska to Peru shows a genetic link to the Old World gray wolf. However, the DNA of modern New World dogs shows no evidence of Old World wolf genes, likely because European colonists brought their own hybrid dogs and systematically discouraged breeding of Native American dogs. Even the Mexican hairless dog, thought to have developed in the Americas nearly 2,000 years ago, possesses mostly European DNA.

Hybridization to develop new breeds began merely 500 years ago, and has resulted in the widely-divergent pure breeds we see today. This targeted breeding continues and each year another specimen or two is added to the American Kennel Club’s canine A-list. This year it is the French Beauceron and the Swedish Vallhund. As in human inbreeding, notably the royal families of Europe who have close blood ties which are strengthened by noble intermarriage, incestually-bred organisms are more likely to manifest genetic imperfections and problematic temperaments. Still, the lure of genetic purity remains.

A recent study reported in Science magazine found that dogs are perhaps the most perceptive species when it comes to recognizing and interpreting human behavior. A 15,000-year friendship between man and animal has engendered this symbiotic bond. Watching the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, with its products of purposeful breeding, had me wondering about man’s relationship with dogs in other parts of the world. Do they pamper, exercise, feed and water their dogs like we do? Are dogs beloved family members or communal property tended by all? What types of dogs have arisen when natural selection and breeding are allowed to reign?

On your travels, take note of the dogs. Are they skinny and neglected or, as in Peru, seemingly well-tended but running free? I was recently in Playa del Carmen walking along Fifth Avenue and noticed dogs of every shape and size, well-behaved and non-threatening, but seemingly never attached to an owner, let alone a leash. Try also to find out the dogs’ names. Rover, Spot, and Fido? Or are they named like the show pups: Roundtown Mercedes Of Maryscot, Cookieland Seasyde Hollyberry, or Jangio’s Ringo Starr Kurlkrek?

Below is a picture of a dog that was sitting at my feet in a cafe in Aguas Calientas, near Machu Picchu. If you are so inclined, take pictures of street dogs in your travels, or even dogs with owners, and send them to me. I will do the same on my upcoming trips to Argentina and Chile. I’d love to amass a collection of pictures and stories of dogs around the globe. There will be no trophies or prize money awarded. This will be purely for fun.






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2 comments:

suesun said...

I love this photo, with the red peeking in on the sides, just hinting at the fact that you are "not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy"! I'm jealous you're going to Argentina and Chile.....

Klayton Elliot Kendall said...

There's only one rule for owning a happy, healthy dog: become a dog yourself! Dogs are pack animals, and they crave companionship. Our dog knows she's part of the pack because we respect her as such. I don't think anything enrages me more than to see a dog tied-up and neglected in the backyard. It's a life of torture for a dog to be treated that way. Eat with your dog. Wrestle with your dog. Sleep with your dog. Be the master your dog craves. There's no better way to build an unbreakable bond between man and animal.