Ask a street dog to herd a flock of sheep,or sniff out a bomb or lead the blind,and it might have a problem. Ask a sheepdog,or a beagle or a Labrador to do those things respectively and theyll come out tops. The whole idea behind developing different breeds of dogs was to specialise them for a particular function
Of late,its become something of a fetish among dog lovers to bash pedigree pooches. Their eyebrows shoot up,their upper lips curl,they sneer and sniff rather in the manner a Parisian poodle would at a ragamuffin mongrel Hideously inbred,genetically defective,grossly overpriced,always falling ill,fastidious about food,need air-conditioned environs. Look at the pariah street dog: local,sturdy,can eat and live on rubbish,needs very little care,a good guard,is as loving (or not),and best of all,free,free,free just pick up a pup from the roadside or one of the animal shelters,what the heck is your problem?”Valid,noble points,all of them. Street dogs are fighters and survivors. No pansy pedigree pooch can even cross a road on its own,for gods sake! Street dogs are the sturdiest of the lot the canine epitome of survival of the fittest,the top dogs.
Top dogs for their environment,yes,because um,thats what theyve bred themselves for,so to speak. Thats what their breed standard is. Thats their pedigree. Ask a street dog to herd a flock of sheep,or sniff out a bomb,or win the first prize at a dog show,or lead the blind,and it might have a problem. Ask a sheepdog,or a beagle or a poodle or Labrador to do those things respectively and theyll come out tops. The whole idea behind developing different breeds of dogs was to specialise them for a particular function. Some of those functions,alas,are deplorable: like breeding poodles so small they can fit into coffee cups or breeding pit-bulls,period. But many are not. Alsatians,Dobermans and Rottweilers have made a name for themselves as guards; the hounds will track your child down when its lost,the spaniels will make soulful eyes at you,the Labradors and retrievers will help you cross the road if youre blind,and the Boxers will make you laugh.
The problem with pedigree pooches lies not with the breed,but with the breeders. When one particular breed gets popular,these noble souls set up fast-breeder reactor kennels,permit rampant inbreeding and ignore the cobra-like rise of recessive genes. Responsible breeders will guarantee you that the pup theyre selling you is healthy and suffers from no inherent breeding defects and will give you a third degree interrogation to satisfy themselves that youre good enough for it. (We received postcards from the breeders of our first pup,scheduling the shots she required,the diet she ought to be on and hoping that the pup was happy.) If a problem is seen in a particular breed like say,the propensity to bite children it is gradually bred out.
All this breeding in and breeding out business sounds quite gross and macabre,like were playing god with the worlds most faithful (and foolish?) species. But just how different are we? I counted more than 50 categories of brides and bridegrooms wanted and available in the matrimonial column of a leading paper recently. I mean,even cosmopolitan has become a category,or should I say,pedigree.
Of course,if the person your son or daughter brought home came from a royal family,the reaction would be very different. I mean,were hopping around with excitement because the British royal baby may have nano-drops of Indian blood. Were as bothered about our own pedigree and lineage as dog breeders are of the dogs they breed. We want to trace our ancestors to the back of beyond in the faint hope that one of them might turn out to be the champion masterpiece of Joniwin Von Prinzstadt.
And Im not about to tell you who that was!
Ranjit Lal is an author,environmentalist and bird watcher. In this column,he reflects on the eccentricities and absurdities of nature