I’ve had dogs on the mind lately (what else is new?), but the world of purebreds has been there even moreso than usual. The AKC/Eukanuba show I attended in December will air on ABC on the 4th, as you probably gleaned by now since I haven’t stopped yammering about it since then. In addition, I’m also going to Westminster on February 13th and 14th, for no reason other than I just wanted to see it, to marvel at the spectacle.
It’s such a strange confluence of worlds, society-minded dog fanciers and competitive point-watchers and intense breed overseers who make it their life’s work to delving into the pedigree and genetics of a dog in order to improve the health of the breed. And then there’s fascinated outsiders like me, doggie voyeurs who just take in the show. It’s so much fun to watch.
Domesticated creatures are a wonder unto themselves, aren’t they? We busybody primates tinker around with natural selection and breeding in order to create a creature more to our liking: a canine with a commanding bark, or a dog with a natural retrieving instinct. And in the process, we muddled up the gene pool quite a bit. Interestingly enough, as our understanding of genetics evolves at an exponential pace, the very oddities we’ve introduced into the canine genome are providing some unexpected insights into our own genetic makeup. Ah, science. I STILL don’t get how dogs accumulate points in order to be show champions, but start whispering in my ear about the genetic markers for albinism and I’ll perk right up. Now you’re sweet talking.
This month’s well-timed National Geographic (my favorite magazine ever since I was a kid dragging my Jane Goodall issues around) is headlined by this very topic:
For reasons both practical and whimsical, man’s best friend has been artificially evolved into the most diverse animal on the planet—a staggering achievement, given that most of the 350 to 400 dog breeds in existence have been around for only a couple hundred years. The breeders fast-forwarded the normal pace of evolution by combining traits from disparate dogs and accentuating them by breeding those offspring with the largest hints of the desired attributes.
To create a dog well suited for cornering badgers, for instance, it is thought that German hunters in the 18th and 19th centuries brought together some combination of hounds—the basset, a native of France, being the likely suspect—and terriers, producing a new variation on the theme of dog with stubby legs and a rounded body that enabled it to chase its prey into the mouth of a burrow: hence the dachshund, or “badger dog” in German. (A rival, flimsier history of the breed has it dating back, in some form, to ancient Egypt.) Pliable skin served as a defense mechanism, allowing the dog to endure sharp-toothed bites without significant damage. A long and sturdy tail helped hunters to retrieve it from an animal’s lair, badger in its mouth.
The remainder of the article may be found here at the National Geographic website; or, check out the current issue of National Geographic Magazine on newsstands now.
In the meantime, please enjoy some of the gorgeous images from the February 2012 issue of National Geographic magazine, used with permission. For the full set, check out the National Geographic Gallery of dogs from the 2011 Westminster Dog Show:
I’d tell you that seeing these pictures is inspring me to go pick up the latest issue of NatGeo, but who am I kidding. I’ve been subscribed for eons.