A Matter of Breeding
by Michael Brandow
foreword by Dr. Marc Bekoff
c.2015, Beacon Press; $18.00; 288 pages
The cur at the corner of your couch is one of the best dogs you’ve ever had.
He’s smart, he’s friendly, and he loves the kids. Ever since he was a puppy, he’s been scrupulously clean, inside and out. He watches over you, he makes you laugh, and you can’t imagine life without him.
So what kind of dog is he? The answer is complicated, as you’ll see in A Matter of Breeding by Michael Brandow.
Like most Manhattan-based dog walkers, Michael Brandow met plenty of pooches. He was paid to walk them, play with them, and help them burn energy—and in the meantime, he saw canine fads come and go.
A number of years ago, Brandow walked a lot of Jack Russell Terriers. Then he saw scads of Shiba Inus, Beagles, Frenchies, each “dog du jour” replaced by another in short order, each with a different “standard” for their breed. But those physical traits weren’t always in the dogs’ “own best interests,” though they’re mandatory in the show ring. Measurements, coat color, head size, paw shape, they’re all required for purebred dogs—even when genetics and health demand otherwise.
It didn’t begin that way, says Brandow; in fact, “breeds as we know them are…new inventions…” Dogs used to be just dogs and if a mutt could do a job, that was fine because they were all mutts anyhow.
But then dogs became status symbols, complete with individual breed clubs and fusses over curly tails versus high tails, and black coats instead of brindles. The British initially set those pesky standards, a sort of class war raged in England and North America, the aristocracy spoke up, the pedigree industry “showed an uncanny ability” to make certain dogs fashionable, and dogdom was never the same.
But the dirty little secret? Purebred dogs are hardly that; most were mongrel-bred at some point in their ancestry. Says Brandow, of your dog and his, “… they’re all mutts at the end of the day.”
When you bring a dog home with you, you naturally expect to have many happy years with him. Here, LGBT author Michael Brandow sounds the alarm: happy years might not be possible.
For a dog lover, that’s horrifying, as is this: purebred Bulldogs have major, human-made health issues. The low-slung look of modern German Shepherds isn’t natural. Docking tails and cutting ears is almost never necessary. That made me cringe, though Brandow explains how those cosmetic issues are increasingly being rejected.
But A Matter of Breeding isn’t just informative; it’s also an outraged rant against dog shows, the pedigree industry, breeders, and owners of purebred dogs. Eventually, it feels incessant, and that tends to overwhelm and even numb a reader. It also can detract from the books’ main point.
And yet, though it’s not easy reading, I do think this book is worthwhile. Just beware—it could start a few arguments, too. Depending on where you sit, with mutt or unmix, your side in A Matter of Breeding could land someone in the doghouse.