Dogs Revisited: Information for Dog Owners

Helen Edwards, Editor Refer

dogs1 

Bedrooms in my boyhood were chill places….in winter there was no such thing as falling asleep the moment one’s head touched the pillow, for the first five minutes between the sheets were spent shivering and shuddering with cold as they sapped the heat from one’s body – unless one had a dog.”

(Brian Sewell Sleeping with Dogs, Quartet Books, 2013).

Some years ago one of my grander BBC colleagues found himself next to Prince Edward at a social occasion. Searching frantically for something to fill a conversational vacuum, he alighted on the fact that both he and the prince had recently become fathers for the first time. “A bit of a shock, this children business,” he remarked. “Not to us,” came the royal riposte. “We had dogs.”

(Edward Stourton Diary of a Dog-Walker, Doubleday, 2011)

The first reference book I ever bought with my own money was The Observer’s Book of Dogs: Describing Three Hundred Breeds and Varieties with 148 Illustrations, by Clifford L. B. Hubbard (Frederick Warne, 1945 reprinted 1961). It cost five shillings. The purpose of the book was to “enable the reader to identify one breed from another with as little effort as possible, and at the same time give him what I thought were the most interesting and prominent facts relating to the history and origin of each race.” Another goal was to describe many of the less popular, and in some cases extinct, but nevertheless interesting breeds whose “origin, history, habits and descriptions are practically unknown to any but the specialist.” Although terse, the descriptions manage to fit considerable information into a couple of paragraphs and at the same time convey the author’s enthusiasm for dogs of all kinds.

Fast forward nearly fifty years and I was able to resume my childhood interest in dogs. With space no longer at a premium on the Internet, it is now possible to greatly expand on the information available about each breed. A typical Wikipedia entry for each dog breed may – or may not – include sections on: etymology, history, description, appearance, temperament, uses, training, grooming, health, popular culture, plus references and links.   There is also a boxed insert with a photograph, alternative names, origin and traits such as height, weight, colours, typical litter size etc. However, there is no standard format for a Wikipedia entry, so the information can be quite variable. Some may include health information for the breed, others not. Some entries, such as that for the border collie, are very extensive and include details of the breed registries for different countries in the world. Others like that for the Kuvasz, one of the best known Hungarian breeds, contain the headline note: “this article reads like a personal reflection or opinion essay rather than the opinions of experts.” Some focus primarily on anecdotes and quotes, as does the entry for the extinct turnspit dog.

Another Web source about modern dog breeds is the Kennel Club (www.thekennelclub.org.uk). This provides the official breed standards for the 216 recognised breeds that “describes the ideal characteristics, temperament and appearance including the correct colour of a breed” plus lists of registered breeders and breed clubs. There is also an introduction to each breed aimed at potential dog owners. This includes a table describing the amount of exercise required, suitable environment (town or country), type of home and minimum garden size, how much grooming the dog needs, the kind of fur and whether it sheds, and the average lifespan.

Not considered as a breed by the major breed clubs (and certainly not identified as a specific type of dog in my youth) are the new crossbreeds such as the labradoodle (a cross between a Labrador and a poodle), and the cockerpoo (cocker spaniel and poodle). Encyclopaedia Britannica dates the term “designer dog” from the late twentieth century when breeders started to cross purebred poodles with other pedigree dogs, in order to obtain a puppy with the poodle’s hypoallergenic coat together with desirable features of other breeds. Designer dogs, along with small city dogs, are now experiencing the fastest increase in popularity, according to market research from Mintel Petcare 2015.

Despite the long relationship between man and dog, new research has shown that many of the popular beliefs about dogs from my childhood, and still prevalent today, are incorrect.Biologist John Bradshaw from the Anthrozoology Institute at the University of Bristol explains In Defence of Dogs: Why Dogs Need our Understanding (Allen Lane, 2011) the role of canine science and what it means for dogs and their owners. While comparative zoology often helps in the understanding of why species behave as they do, in the case of dogs this approach has done considerable harm. Many previous experts have interpreted dog behaviour as if it were “under the surface, little altered from that of their ancestor, the wolf….This supposition leads inevitably to the misconception that every dog is constantly trying to control its owner – unless its owner is relentless in keeping it in check.” Bradshaw shows that the comparisons between domestic dogs and wolves are unfounded. He describes the science that reveals how dogs’ minds really work and how humans can best interact with them. With this knowledge, owners can re-evaluate training manuals, dog forums and websites, and apply caution to the many which are now known not to be backed by science.

Another scientist who has transformed thinking about dogs is Brian Hare at Duke University. In his book The Genius of Dogs: Discovering the Unique Intelligence of Man’s Best Friend (co-written with Vanessa Woods, Oneworld, 2013), Hare describes how, for a long time dogs, were ignored by the scientific establishment as an artificial domesticated animal and of little interest as a subject of study compared to primates. However, Hare was fascinated by the kind of intelligence dogs have which enable them to be so successful at bonding with humans over thousands of years. He found that dogs have a unique ability amongst animals to read human body language and sense their emotions and thus to relate to their owners. The book describes the experiments into dog cognition Hare carried out, the new theories about “the survival of the friendliest” he has evolved, and their implications for dog training. A free MOOC Dog Emotion and Cognition with Brian Hare is available on the Coursera platform:

https://www.coursera.org/learn/dog-emotion-and-cognition

Both Bradshaw and Hare are powerful advocates for dog welfare and point out the difficulties dogs can experience adapting to modern life and the inhumane treatment many still receive even in the UK: puppy farms, cruel breed standards, illegal dogfighting. At the same time market research by Mintel Britain’s Pet Owners(August 2015) describes the increasing humanization of dogs. 57% of dog owners now cite companionship as the main reason for having a dog, going up to 69% for those who live alone. One third of owners – or pet parents as many owners now consider themselves -get Christmas or birthday presents for their dogs. This humanization is also shown in the marked increase in the use of human names for dogs. According to data from VIP pet insurance (http://dogtime.com/top-100-dog-names) Max and Bella remain the most popular dog names in 2014, with many others from the top 100 interchangeable with baby names lists. Academic research published in 2009 by Stanley Brandes from the University of California based on pet cemeteries confirms this trend. Brandes also notes the increase in gender specificity in dog names since the 1960s and the growing tendency to include the dog as a family member.

(http://stanleybrandes.com/wp-content/uploads/Brandes-AMERICAN-PET-CEMETERY-GRAVESTONES.pdf)

Refer 32 (1) Spring 2016

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