100 Years of Breed “Improvement”

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For the sake of honest disclosure, I will admit to owning “purebreds” (the ‘pureness’ of purebreeds is a discussion for another time) but I also have mutts. All the dogs I’ve had since childhood had a few things in common, they were friendly, prey driven, ball-crazy, intense, motivated, athletic (crazy dogs are easier to train) and none had intentionally bred defects. I would never buy/adopt a dog whose breed characteristics exacted a health burden.(Asher 2009). That just incentivizes people to breed more of these intentionally unhealthy animals.

The dogs on the left are from  the 1915 book, ‘Breeds of All Nations by W.E. Mason. The examples on the right are modern examples from multiple sources. To be able to make an honest comparison, I’ve chosen pictures with similar poses and in a couple of cases flipped the picture to get them both aligned in the same direction. I had to skip some breeds I wanted to include because of the lack of detail in the older photographs.

It seems incredible that at one time the Bull Terrier was a handsome, athletic dog. Somewhere along its journey to a mutated skull and thick abdomen the bull terrier also picked up a number of other maladies like supernumerary teeth and compulsive tail-chasing.


The Basset Hound has gotten lower, has suffered changes to its rear leg structure, has excessive skin, vertebra problems, droopy eyes prone to entropion and ectropion and excessively large ears.


A shorter face means a host of problems. The modern Boxer not only has a shorter face but the muzzle is slightly upturned. The boxer – like all bracecyphalic dogs – has difficulty controlling its temperature in hot weather, the inability to shed heat places limits on physical performance. It also has one of the highest cancer rates.


The English bulldog has come to symbolize all that is wrong with the dog fancy and not without good reason; they suffer from almost every possible disease. A 2004 survey by the Kennel Club found that they die at the median age of 6.25 years (n=180). There really is no such thing as a healthy bulldog. The bulldog’s monstrous proportions make them virtually incapable of mating or birthing without medical intervention.


The Dachshund used to have functional legs and necks that made sense for their size. Backs and necks have gotten longer, chest jutted forward and legs have shrunk to such proportions that there is barely any clearance between the chest and floor. The dachschund has the highest risk of any breed for intervertebral disc disease which can result in paralysis; they are also prone to achondroplastic related pathologies, PRA and problems with their legs.


The German Shepherd Dog is also a breed that is routinely mentioned when people talk about ruined breeds; maybe because they used to be awesome. In Dogs of All Nations, the GSD is described as a medium-sized dog (25 kg /55 lb), this is a far cry from the angulated, barrel-chested, sloping back, ataxic, 85-pounders  (38 kg) we are used to seeing in the conformation ring. There was a time when the GSD could clear a 2.5 meter (8.5 ft) wall; that time is long gone.


The Pug is another extreme brachycephalic breed and it has all the problems associated with that trait – high blood pressure, heart problems, low oxygenation, difficulty breathing, tendency to overheat, dentition problems, and skin fold dermatitis. The highly desirable double-curl tail is actually a genetic defect, in more serious forms it leads to paralysis.


Once a noble working dog, the modern St. Bernard has been oversized, had it’s faced squished in, and bred for abundant skin. You will not see this type of dog working, they can’t handle it as they quickly overheat. The diseases include entropion, ectropion, Stockard’s paralysis, hemophilia, osteosarcoma, aphakia, fibrinogen deficiency.


It is unrealistic to expect any population to be free of genetic diseases but show breeders have intentionally selected for traits which result in diseases. Conformation breeders claim they are improving the breed and yet they are often the cause of these problems. If “improvement” in looks imposes a health burden then it is not a breed improvement..

No dog breed has ever been improved by the capricious and arbitrary decision that a shorter/longer/flatter/bigger/smaller/curlier “whatever” is better.  Condemning a dog to a lifetime of suffering for the sake of looks is not an improvement; it is torture.

Further Reading

Dog Breed Historical Pictures.

Breed-Predispositions to Cancer in Pedigree Dogs - ISRN Veterinary Science

The Price of a Pedigree – Dog breed standards and breed-related illness  – Animal Welfare Group (PDF)

A healthier future for pedigree dogs (2009) – Associate Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare (PDF)

A healthier future for pedigree dogs – 2012 update – APGAW (PDF)

Pedigree dog breeding in the UK: a major welfare concern? – RSPCA (PDF)

REFERENCES

Asher L, Diesel G, Summers JF, McGreevy PD, Collins LM. (2009). Inherited defects in pedigree dogs. Part 1: disorders related to breed standards.  Vet J. 2009 Dec;182(3):402-11.

  1. Bull Terrier
  2. Basset Hound
  3. Boxer
  4. Bulldog
  5. German Shepherd Dog
  6. Pug
  7. Saint Bernard
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801 thoughts on “100 Years of Breed “Improvement”

  1. Pingback: Standardized Test | Darwin Dogs

  2. Reblogged this on Cotton the Maltese and commented:
    An extremely good read by Dog Behaviour Science on how much dogs have changed over the course of 100 years — due to human manipulation and selective breeding to uphold certain “breed standards” regulated by the Kennel Club.

    Of course, with all these information coming to light especially in the documentary “Pedigree Dogs Exposed” and the subsequent sequel “Pedigree Dogs Exposed – Three Years On”, many breed enthusiasts are trying their best to save the breed and prevent inbreeding/breeding the dog to extinction, and new laws by Kennel Club have been put in place such as the banning of grandfather/granddaughter mating, and genetic testing for genetic diseases such as syringomyelia especially in the Cavaliar King Charles Spaniel family.

  3. I inherited a Labrador whom I love very much. She is getting old. And I was wondering what I would get after her passing in a few years. I love Labs, but I’ve been lucky with her, no serious health conditions. She did have a little bit of trouble with her hips when she was a pup. But nothing since then. I think I will get a Shelter Pup. Hopefully having some lab in, but if not, it is ok. You have convinced me. Thank you very much. I was on the fence but leaning towards a shelter dog. Thanks, you set my mind at ease.

  4. thank you for that post1 I have been telling that same thing[ not is so many details] for a very long time. I only have rescues and my vet bills are normal. I emphasize on the cost of pure breed dog treatments, and the atrocities of puppy mills. Whatever which can help,….

  5. I think you are right on several levels. The love of a certain breed does not mean we should reproduce just for looks. As an English Bulldog lover, I am tired of hearing how the breed should not exist. I think if we look at any type of dog, cat, bird or even the human race, we will see things going down hill. Even people are not what they used to be, BUT they are still loved and cherished. Any one who is a responsible pet owner should be doing research on the breed they are getting, that is unless its a mixed breed. Then you really may not know what to expect. I know several people who have labs. They are beautiful creatures and may be part of these peoples family, yet I would never choose to own one. That said, I also would not go up to that family and tell them there dogs are obnoxious and are small animal aggressive so they should be stopped from breeding. I know not all labs are like this, but as an example, I would not tell them this. When I read some of these things and I look down at my dogs, i could not imagine my life with out them, weather they have vet bills or not. I have been extremely lucky with my English bulldogs and have had Really no health problems as of yet. I can hope and pray in the future we continue with our luck, but I also know that eventually all breeds will have a problem that comes up.

    • ” I think if we look at any type of dog, cat, bird or even the human race, we will see things going down hill. Even people are not what they used to be, BUT they are still loved and cherished. ” – What poppycock.
      Humans do not breed with their fathers and grandfathers! Thanks to globalisation, the human race is becoming ever more diverse. Humans are taller (better nourished) and live longer than ever before. Dogs, however…
      People who breed pure-breds are creating in-breds. Much as it is a bad idea for related humans to bear children, it is similarly irresponsible to selectively breed animals from a narrow gene pool. St. Charles spaniels have brains too big for their heads (causing immense pain); most labs do not make it past middle-age as they will succumb to cancer; pugs and bulldogs have respiratory issues; 1 in 5 dalmatians are deaf; German shepherds’ back legs are collapsing… the list goes on!
      It is barbaric to continue to breed these defective traits.
      No one is saying the existing animals should be destroyed. Just no more should be bred.
      What’s wrong with cross-breeding anyway… dog-lovers should value happy, healthy dogs over fashion and snobbery!

  6. Pingback: The Bizarre Truth About Purebred Dogs (and Why Mutts Are Better) – Adam Ruins Everything | New Video Blog

  7. Pingback: How Dog Breeds Have Changed in Just 100 Years | SelfVeda

  8. This to is a prime example of cherry picking photos in order to prove some kind of misguided point. I think I would agree with two examples, but the others……..someone has an ax to grind. And why pardon my bias, is the standard poodle not mentioned. Talk about differences,,,,,,,,,,,

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  11. What is worrying is that the majority of the pedigreed dog come from a very small foundation stock, it was the only way to fix certain specific features. Like the “ridge” in the Rhodesian ridge back. Most of the pedigreed dogs go back to no more then 3 a 4 ancestors. Even if they stop grandfather/granddaughter mating the genetic problems will no be solved easily, if at all. Their are still many ‘ landraces” out in the world that could be used to solve this problem . The K.C, F.C.I, A.K.C. are not allowing to go and use available traditional aboriginal dogs, example: Saluki, basenji, Afghan, artic breeds, etc…, because they think this Landraces are not “PURE” I can add many more pictures of how the dogs have changed in the last 40 years even….
    Johan and I have been seriously involved all aspects of the pure bred dog world. We are breed, working and temperament testing judges. Dog trainer and qualified many giant schnauzers in IPO . Have had/bred/showed all 3 Schnauzer varieties for 35 years. Did write the book: ‘The world of Schnauzers’. It is alarming to witness where they are going !!!!. We stopped breeding Giants because I would not now where to go in the “world ” to find dogs that are not related and don’t carry some or the other genetic or temperament issues . I have stopped judging because the way it is going is unreal . At a show judging St.Bernards , I refused to award 1 CC ( need 5 point to be Champion) to a dog my reason was that he could not see true his eyes because of the loose skin hanging over his eyes. The handler said that his dog had been Best in Show and did tell me I did not know what I was doing !!!!! . Judges are very much part of what has happens to the purebred dogs. They promote exaggerations, bigger, hairier , shorter nose/legs, loose skin etc…, etc…..
    This winning dogs are used by every breeder because they want to win in the Show !!! In doing so narrowing the genetic pool and promote this exaggerations.
    Our Book: ‘SOS DOG’ was published by Alpine publication but it was withdraw and shredded because the purebred dog people threaten the publisher that if they did not do so they would boycott their dog publications. This just because we wrote about what we had seen and experienced in the 35 years we had been involved in this pedigreed dog world. It is unfortunately the man on the street that is the looser because he believes he should by the pup of this Champions,” B.I.S.” winners

    • I give you credit for trying to fix or stop this problem. Please don’t give up. Keep trying to get the word out. We had a beautiful Siberian Husky, and he didn’t seem to have in bred problems, lived a long life, and was very healthy. Who knows, though, how long before there is too much in breeding in that group, or if there already is due to too many people trying to make an even better running dog.

    • We too used to be breeders – of Golden Retrievers. Oh my goodness; the variety of ‘Goldens’ is incredible; from 29″ at the shoulder to 17″ at the shoulder; from deepest red to white; from straight coat to curly coat; to eyes that have lost all resemblance to the shape they are supposed to be. The same with head, muzzle; tail set, shoulders, etc. We favoured The English style Golden. We did leave the ‘business’ for many reasons, but one of the reasons was that so many judges were putting up dogs that did not conform at all to the breed standard – some of those dogs handled by professional handlers probably had something to do with it! Then, of course, those winning dogs were used for breeding, thereby perpetuating a change in the breed.

      • That is what happens “Judges” exaggerated preference. All breeds reduce to a common standard. Strait topline, upright neck position ( pulled up by a lead), over angulated fronts and rears. The only think what differ is size, heads, and coats. Even most of the tails have to be carried up often holdup by the handler,.What is one of the most expressive part in a dog it is his” tail”. They breed dogs with tail that are not functional anymore . Like pugs, bulldogs. Overly long tails etc.. etc… There is still big resistance about not been allowed docking of tails anymore and Ears in the US and even in Europe.
        .

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  13. Wow, anyway we can stop this internationally? I’m sure if a petition was started up to put pressure on governments to prohibit ‘improvement breeding’ this could be stopped.

      • Yes, But where to start. Concern judges are not asked to judge end of story . The public see adverts on all the dog show results of the breeder and he just believe in all this publicity. The public is not inform at all of what is happening. It is Pedigree Dog exposed and maybe our book in a very small way, that has open a small window into this purebred dog world Maybe the vets should play a role in telling the breeders that dogs which have been diagnosed with health problems. Bitches that can not give birth without vets interference or care for their pups as they should ( Bull Terrier bitches have to be muzzled when feeding her pups and then kept separates). Stop artificial insemination , don’t use males that cannot mate normally anymore, stop to treat bitches with hormones if they are not fertile .etc… All this dog should be spayed/neutered,

    • Our governments have more on their plate then to worry about the purebred dogs. It is also a multi Million money business .The latest Fashion is” Designer dogs” You breed one purebred with another purebred bringing one hereditary problem from the breed that did not have it into the other breed and visa versa..( Mixing purebreds does not solve the problem). Look at the amount of different dog foods. Special dog food for small, big, fast growing, overweight , liver problem , kidney problem dogs, etc… By this I do not mean that a dog with liver/kidney problems you should not use this food but the breeders that have breeding dogs with this problems should not hide behind this. I remember that as a child my grandmothers dog just lived from scraps and had a healthy long live. Dog food did not exist !!!
      It is the man on the street that can do the most but the point is “How” to reach this people.

  14. Hi, thanks for an informative post, I want aware of how many health problems common dog breeds suffer from.

    I just wanted to mention a thought I had about your final point that selecting for traits which lead to disease is a kind of torture. My background is philosophical ethics and philosophers would say that the ethics of dog breeding would fall within the strange discipline of “population ethics”. One important insight from this area of ethics is that, if an individual’s suffering is a result of the same decision which lead them to be born in the first place, then that decision did not necessarily harm them. If you refused to breed dogs with disease-prone traits, you haven’t improved any particular dog’s quality of life; you have merely created a different population of dogs whose lives are of a higher quality. Now you might think that this is morally good and something to strive for. Perhaps it is. But choosing to breed dogs with a disease-prone trait has not harmed those particular dogs. If you hadn’t made that decision, the dogs would simply not exist. So perhaps it is difficult to say that such a decision would amount to torture.

    • I do think it’s immoral when informed people choose a dog for appearance (and even status in some cases) more than health. Can you imagine popularizing inbreeding with humans for the sake of appearance or vanity, etc?

      Can’t blame people who are uninformed, so this kind of article is a positive step!

  15. If only people knew someone to call if they have bought an unhealthy dog. Reporting breeders who sell people unhealthy dogs would be a good start. If enough reports are made against a certain breeder they should be able to check on the dogs and their owner and try to figure out a way to educate them correctly or do something else if needed.

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