The Invention of the Modern Dog review – our long obsession with canine design

“Why are mongrels a dying breed?” Jilly Cooper wondered out loud in 2013. She might equally have asked “Whatever happened to pedigrees?” She was referring to the fact that the dogs you meet these days are seldom pure-bred or mutt, but tongue-twisting mash-ups: labdradoodle, puggle, cavapoo, zuchon, beaglier. The emergence of these artful hybrids in recent years is the result of the marketplace’s demand for an animal designed with human needs in mind: loyal but not clingy, confident yet chilled, fluffy as a puffball but mercifully inclined to hang on to its own hair. And exactly the right size to fit into your car.
Dogs, then, are largely humanmade manufactures, their changing shape and proliferating forms the consequence of fantasy, hope and greed (a good crossbreed with all its papers now goes for as much as its pedigreed parents). Selective breeding is how it’s done, the careful matching of mates in order to produce puppies with exactly the desired characteristics. It’s both incredibly simple – dogs are generally delighted with whatever blind date you’ve set up for them – and profoundly powerful. For within just a few generations, and bear in mind that a dog generation may be as little as six months, you can change the shape of a snout or tame a nasty temper. Within a few more generations you could, in theory, have invented a whole new breed.
In this fascinating book, three leading historians of science explore the origins of what they call the “modern” dog. For millennia, canine companions were roughly sorted into types suited for certain tasks. There were big dogs to pull people out of the snow and little dogs to turn the spit, medium-sized dogs to run after sheep and “toy” dogs to sit on ladies’ laps. But with the dawning of the 19th century came a new desire to count,

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