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Cute, cuddly, and often crippled: look where the love of dogs has taken the British – The Guardian

From dachshunds to pugs, our canine friends are bred to better serve as emotional crutches or status symbols
You may have missed a recent international incident. Last week, we Brits got wind of a very worrying development across the Channel. “Sausage Dogs to be banned in Germany,” ran alarmed headlines in the UK press. The Germans, for their part, were so baffled by this response that they reported on it themselves. “Brits Fear for the German Sausage Dog”, ran a puzzled article in Bild, the country’s best-selling newspaper.
There will always be sausage dogs,” a spokesman told the BBC, which was in turn reporting on the Bild story. “We will just never see any with legs one centimetre long.” They were not banning the breed, they explained, just proposing a law that could stop breeders making dachshunds more and more indistinguishable from actual sausages, thus worsening their knee, hip and back problems.
Britain’s brief panic over these new “torture breeding” laws illustrates, I think, a strange feature of our psychology. On the one hand, we love dogs. The fastest way to become a national hate figure in Britain is to be caught being cruel to a dog or a cat. A plan to evacuate pets out of Kabul in 2021, leaving humans on the runway, won much public support. And amid the MP Jeremy Thorpe’s scandalous affair and trial for incitement to murder in the 1970s, what really got the public going was the fact that the hitman he was alleged to have hired had in the process accidentally killed his former lover’s pet dog.
But then, it is also a strange kind of love, the sort that doesn’t feel quite right. The first clue, I think, that something is off, is in the breeds we feel so strongly about preserving. Our British concern for animal welfare does not stop us from joining the rest of the world in producing dogs with terrible health problems. Dachshunds are just the start of it. Labradors have hip issues. Dalmatians go deaf. And then there’s the pug, whose famous features, according to a study from the Royal Veterinary College of the UK, lead directly to “a lifetime of suffering”. They lack “even core body functions” and can’t sleep properly as they constantly have to wake up to breathe.
Why do we still buy these dogs, when we know they suffer? A University of Copenhagen study discovered a strange phenomenon: the decision to buy a breed which has lots of health issues may in fact be deliberate. These dogs require care, and this in turn produces feelings of love and satisfaction in their carers. We stunt and cripple them in order to nurse them, in order to feel good about ourselves. Can this really be true? Well, it makes a warped sort of sense. Cuteness is what we often look for in dogs, particularly since the advent of social media. But this also means we select for creatures who, with their big heads, short legs or awkward bodies, give every appearance of being unable to fend for themselves. There’s a hairless dog called the Chinese crested that gives off extra heat. People love snuggling them. It cannot survive alone.
But it’s not just their bodies we’ve bent out of shape. We’ve also messed up their minds. Studies of pet dogs find problems such as anxiety are rife. No wonder. The point of owning a dog is to make it emotionally dependent on you. That is why we take puppies from their parents in a key attachment window, and that is why over thousands of years we have selected the dogs that can best act as an emotional crutch. But this dependence also subjects our pets to huge stress when left alone, or when they feel that you are displeased with them, or unhappy yourself. A recent study found dogs absorb our toxic emotions. The imagined heartbreak of the toys in the movie Toy Story – left alone or unplayed with – might be the real feelings of our pets when we shut the door on them.
There are two ways, I think, of framing our rather odd love for dogs. We could think of it as a startling exception to the cruel and ruthless way we treat many other animals: killing them, destroying their habitats and subjecting them to short and tiny lives in the wasteland of industrial farming. Indeed, many dog owners respect their pets, and are genuinely invested in their welfare. But there it also another pattern here, which unites all this disparate behaviour, and which perhaps only a trained psychologist might recognise.
In a personal essay on the website Love Fraud, a woman writes about her sociopathic ex, and how his treatment of his dog mirrored his treatment of people he tried to manipulate. He loved teaching it tricks, she writes; he loved punishing it for bad behaviour, and most of all he loved its submissive, forgiving, dependent love for him. The pattern is that of the psychopath.
What we have done to dogs is in a way worse than what we do to other animals. We don’t need to put dogs in cages, because the cage is already bred in – we have made them frail, stupid and totally dependent on us and our whims. We have put an entire species captive.
We can’t see it, though. We recognise it is cruel to keep pigs and hens away from what is natural; better to keep them outside, socialising with their kind, doing piggish and chickenish things. But part of our love for dogs is to stop them being dogs at all. We stop them barking, roaming and mating, and spending lots of time with other dogs. Instead, we attempt to make them happy by celebrating their birthdays, telling them we love them and dressing them up.
In the long history of man and dog, we seem to have developed a blind spot. They’ve evolved to please us by looking like sausages, and we’ve evolved to ignore the ways in which this hurts them.
If Germany is finally on to this, it is only for the best.
Martha Gill is an Observer columnist
Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a letter of up to 250 words to be considered for publication, email it to us at observer.letters@observer.co.uk


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