Mau-Mauing the Dogcatcher
Is it racist to dislike a dachshund?
Americans hate racism and they love dogs, so maybe it's not surprising that prejudice among the pugs and poodles is a growing national concern. Actually, the purported prejudice is among dog owners, not dogs. But increasingly dogs are being talked about as if they had the same civil rights as humans and that the same rules of civil discourse apply to man and his best friend alike. The implied parallel can be seen as either an insult to the struggle against human racism or a commentary on its occasional excesses. Or, of course, it can be seen as perfectly reasonable.
The Complete Dog Book was first published by the American Kennel Club in 1929. Widely considered the bible of dog breeding, it is essentially the blue book for dog buyers. The 19th edition was released in 1997 but was recalled in April of last year because of an uproar from breeders who contended that the book's "breed profiles" perpetrated pernicious stereotypes. The hottest issue was that 40 dog breeds had been reclassified as "not good" for children.
Hardest hit by this development were dachshund and Chihuahua breeders, whose product is often sold to kids--and without warning labels of any kind. (At least they are ostensibly for the kids. How many adults have the guts to buy a dachshund without blaming it on the children?) On ABC News, Roger Caras, president emeritus of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, got right to the point: "To say that all these dogs are 'this' and all these dogs are 'that,' that's racism, canine racism." Carl Holder, the outraged secretary of the Dachshund Club of America, told the New York Times, "You just can't make such a blanket statement about dachshunds."
Wait. Why exactly can't we make blanket statements about these ankle-snapping pipe cleaners with feet? "Dogs are not vehicles stamped out of an assembly line," asserted Holder, "Each one is an individual." A week after the AKC's announcement, Dr. Vicki Hearne, author of Animal Happiness, joined the battle in a New York Times op-ed piece, where she raised the specter of genocide, or at least breed cleansing. To brand dogs such as Chihuahuas as "not good" with children "is not just an insult; it is a dangerous statement in an age when every state and many towns have adopted or are considering laws restricting, banning or even requiring the killing of particular suspect breeds."
Nicholas Dodman of the Tufts University Animal Behavior Clinic charged that labeling Chihuahuas as bad with children was essentially blaming the victim: "It's mainly the child's fault because they're doing really stupid things with the dogs." He told ABC, "They're pulling on their tails and pulling on their ears and poking in their eyes, and doing lots of things, and you know, you have to have a pretty long fuse to tolerate that." The problem, in other words, is that children are bad with Chihuahuas. Perhaps the solution is to ban children.
Eventually the kennel club caved like Denny's before a class action suit. The club recalled over 10,000 copies of its book--at a cost of nearly $800,000--and declared that the profiles had been published with "inadvertently incorrect and controversial information." Also, "The AKC sincerely regrets the distress caused to dog owners and breeders by the errors. AKC neither agrees with, nor endorses, the material." This is a good start. But where, one wonders, is the AKC's apology to the dogs?
Don't ask me whether each of the breeds on the AKC's blacklist can accurately be labeled good or bad for children. But the idea that stereotypes are not valid about breeds of dogs is ridiculous. While it is true that all dogs go to heaven, there is a bowl curve when it comes to dog abilities and personalities. Basset hounds are sweet and stubborn. Golden retrievers are beautiful, joyous, dumb blonds. Border collies work hard--even when they're asleep. Mastiffs are lazy but lovable. Labradors are the kind of dogs you want to have a beer with. Chihuahuas are snappish and temperamental.
Judging humans by the color of their skin is different than judging dogs by the texture of their coats. It is different even if you leave aside the question (which I find easy but some people find difficult) of whether dogs have the same moral claims as human beings to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Let's say they do. Even if so, the analogy of dog stereotypes to human racism is mistaken.
Racism among humans is overwhelmingly based upon cultural differences--what breeders might call "training." The actual genetic differences between human "races" are so infinitesimal that making sweeping statements is rarely useful and often dangerous. Genetic differences between human races are literally superficial. But the differences between purebred dogs are anything but. That's why they call it breeding. For example, border collies instinctively herd anything that moves--without any training. Put a border collie in the living room during a cocktail party, and soon you'll find everybody scrunched into the corner.
Strong genetic differences among dog breeds are not just the result of natural selection. Evolution among dogs has got a big push from humans. On ranches, border collie puppies are taken from the litter and tested for their instinctual desire to herd sheep. The most fearless and enthusiastic pups are the most likely to be bred to pass that herding gene on to the next generation.
Jonah Goldberg is editor at large of National Review Online and a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. You can reach him at JonahNRO@aol.com.