Crufts, the world's largest dog show, took place in the UK last week, and the Irish Kennel Club's flagship show happens over the St Patrick's Day weekend. This is the season to discuss pedigree dogs. There are pros and cons to highlight.
The positive aspects of pedigree dogs go back to the original rationale that brought about the concept of dog breeds. By careful selection of a particular pair of dogs for breeding, it's possible to produce puppies that have the best attributes of both parents. If people wanted dogs for hunting, they bred from two dogs that were skilled at flushing up game, retrieving birds that have been shot, or doing other necessary tasks. If someone wanted a dog to herd sheep, they bred from dogs that had top herding skills. If they wanted a terrier to dig up rabbit burrows, they bred from two little dogs that excelled at this job. And indeed, if they wanted a cuddly lap dog, they bred from parents that were the cutest, cuddliest lap dogs. Most of the contemporary breeds of dog were originally designed for a particular purpose like this.
This rationale for breeding meant that early dog breeds were fit for the purpose that they'd been bred for. Most were healthy and long-lived.
During the twentieth century, dog breeding changed: people began to enter dogs into shows. They started to breed dogs for appearance more than for function. And the appearance of each breed was based more on superficial human preferences more than anything else.
Written descriptions of the ideal version of each breed were drawn up by Kennel Clubs, with the winning dogs in show rings being those that most closely resembled these breed standards. This led to highly attractive dogs winning shows, and their offspring were highly desirable too, commanding high prices in the market for puppies.
To keep breeds "pure", the concept of pedigrees was established. A pedigree is a family tree for a dog: it records a puppy's parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents. Pedigrees are controlled by Kennel Clubs: for a dog to be a pedigree version of a breed, they have to be descended solely from members of that breed of dog. So if you want a Golden Retriever puppy, you can be sure that the pup has descended from many, generations of Golden Retrievers.
All dogs -regardless of breed - are members of the same species - Canis familiaris - and so, by definition, this means that any dog breed can breed with any other dog breed. However, under the rules of pedigree dog breeding, if breeders wish to produce pedigree puppies, they must only breed a dog with the opposite sex of the same breed. If a pedigree dog is bred with a different breed, or a non-pedigree dog, this is known as an "out cross". Even if the resulting puppy is better looking and healthier, it's no longer a pedigree dog, and is disparagingly referred to as a "mongrel".
For many years, this system of pedigree dogs worked well: people could choose a puppy with the advantage of knowing how he or she would grow up. If you want a good natured, small, family dog, choose a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. If you want a large, active, athletic dog, choose a Siberian Husky or a Dalmatian. Of course, people still sometimes bought dogs that did not suit their own situation, but assuming they did their research, the pedigree dog system allowed people to choose dogs that were appropriate for their needs.
If a similar system of breeding was used in humans, it would be called eugenics, where only fit, strong, healthy people with pleasing appearances would be encouraged to breed. This was a respectable concept originally in the late nineteenth century, but after it was taken up as part of the Nazi philosophy, eugenics understandably developed strong negative associations. More recently, the ability of reproductive scientists to carry out genome editing has introduced "new eugenics": at its best, this means the ability to eliminate inherited diseases. At its worst, gene editing can be used to promote racist, bigoted and discriminatory agendas. Most people still see human reproduction as a fundamentally natural, even God-given, process that should not be meddled with.
There are no such ethical dilemmas with dog breeding, and pedigree dogs are as popular as ever. However, after the positive start, with dog breeds that were genuinely fit for purpose, problems have been becoming apparent. By definition, if you can only breed a dog with one from the same breed, there's a finite pool of potential mates. This results in some adverse genes becoming concentrated in a breed: for every pedigree breed, there's a list of conditions that are more common compared to the general population, including life limiting problems like cancer and heart disease. Also, some dog breeders have chosen an appearance that may be "cute" but it's also non-functional e.g. dogs with such flat faces and narrow breeding passages that they struggle to breathe when taken for an energetic walk.
If you want a healthy pup, you can buy pedigree, as long as you ensure that pre-breeding health tests have been done to minimise the risk of inherited heatlh problems. Or, of course, you can just choose a healthy, preferably rescued, cross-bred dog.