Are dogs natural or man-made? The Invention of the Modern Dog suggests that the answer is less obvious than it might at first appear. Through their meticulous history of dog breeding and dog fancying in Victorian Britain, Michael Worboys, Julie-Marie Strange, and Neil Pemberton demonstrate that the dog as understood through the framework of breed was primarily a nineteenth-century construction or “invention”: “Victorian dog shows and the culture they promoted fundamentally changed the dog, leading to what we have termed the invention of the modern dog as one whose form and identity are defined by its breed or lack thereof” (221).
In a stylish flourish, Worboys, Strange, and Pemberton even point to one particular day on which they suggest that the first “modern dog” was defined, drawing on the first of a series of articles by doctor and journalist John Henry Walsh defining the conformation standards—that is, the communally agreed-upon (but there is the catch) qualities defining a particular breed—for the pointer:
Walsh put forward his proposal for agreed conformation standards and numerical points in a series of articles in the Field. The first was on 9 September 1865 and featured “the model Pointer.” It described a particular dog, Mr. Smith's Major, that had won many prizes. … If there was a moment when the modern dog was invented, this was it. (83)
In a sense, Worboys, Strange, and Pemberton define modern dog breeds as quintessential “concepts,” as Friedrich Nietzsche defined them in his famous essay “On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense” (1873): a word becomes a “concept,” Nietzsche asserts, in order to “fit countless other more or less similar cases, i.e. cases which, strictly speaking, are never equivalent, and thus nothing other than non-equivalent cases. Every concept comes into being by making equivalent that which is non-equivalent” (trans. Ronald Speirs, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 3rd ed., 755, italics added). Nietzsche's essay, written not long after Walsh's model Pointer article, is a polemical cri de coeur decrying the ways that the nineteenth century had compressed the multifarious, heterogeneous materials of life and experience into rigid, unvarying, homogenous norms and standards. Worboys, Strange, and Pemberton tell the story of how what had previously seemed, throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, to be a flexible species category containing various different breeds, kinds, sorts, strains, types, or varieties of dog—these terms then used more or less interchangeably—was transformed, by the institutions of Victorian dog culture, into a much more rigidly defined (and policed) system of precisely delineated breeds, each one considered to define a stable and supposedly ancient norm against which any individual animal could be judged.
One might object that even if it is granted that the discourses and cognitive frameworks employed to discuss and think about dogs dramatically shifted in the Victorian period, dogs themselves—which have, after all, been around for thousands of years—could not have changed dramatically in such a short period of time. Mr. Smith's pointer Major, the “first modern dog,” was not himself transformed, after all, by the publication of Walsh's 1865 proposal for agreed conformation standards; Major happened to “fulfill” these standards almost perfectly, but he had possessed those ideal qualities—such as, “the neck should be set with a convex line upwards, springing from the neck with a full development of the occiputal [sic] bone” (quoted at 83)—before Walsh codified them. But Worboys, Strange, and Pemberton convincingly show that in the modern history of dogs and dog breeding, in which malleable animals have been so carefully bred and shaped to human designs, it is difficult or impossible cleanly to distinguish between the natural and the cultural.
Certain Victorian commentators recoiled from what they perceived as perverse excesses of the dog breeder's desire to produce more “perfect” instances of any given breed. In a memorably acerbic 1888 article in the Kennel Gazette, one sporting dog breeder lamented what he dubbed “monstrosity manufacture”: “Useful breeds” should be protected through proper breeding, he suggested, but in the case of the over-zealous “fancier,” “all his perverted ingenuity is summoned to the task of creating distortion, and he glories in a deformity which embodies his particular craze to excess” (quoted at 216). An amazing Punch cartoon, “Dog Fashions for 1889” (184), depicts the Dorgupine, Crocodaschund, Hippopotian Bulldog, and other imagined monstrous byproducts of misguided breeding. But the ideal of an ostensibly natural breed, uninfluenced by man (yet, a bit like an aristocratic property, always capable of “improvement”), seemed to shift in different contexts, and for different rhetorical or practical purposes.
Consider, for example, disputes over the lineage and definition of the pure Irish wolfhound—the quest for which calls to mind Francis Child's late nineteenth-century search for authentic Celtic ballads. Captain George Augustus Graham, a retired Indian Army officer living in Gloucestershire, acquired a dog alleged to have Irish wolfhound blood. He became “convinced that pure bloodlines remained in Ireland and that from these the breed could be recovered ‘in its pristine grandeur’” (146). His search was hopelessly entangled, however, in a host of unexamined assumptions about how pristine bloodlines might be proved: he sought dogs kept on large estates, for example, because their owners were gentlemen whose “word could be trusted” (146). The problem for projects such as Graham's was that the most supposedly pure breeds could in reality only be maintained through crossbreeding: and in the case of the wolfhound, “it seems that purity of blood could be generated in relatively few generations” (151). Victorian dog culture could never quite decide whether the ideal dog was found or made. Ideals of breed perfection were usually discussed as if purely natural but, in practice, were always defined, maintained, and policed—indeed, were created—through vigilant attention and creative labor.
Occasionally, a reader who lacks a preexisting strong interest in the doggy world may feel that there is an excess of granular detail here; I wondered, to cite one somewhat random example, whether some of the minutiae about the battles between competing late Victorian dog-food brands (“Chamberlin's … never rivaled Spratt's in size or profile” ) could have been cut back. But Worboys, Strange, and Pemberton tell their story on the basis of impressive research and with clarity and intelligence, extending previous work on the Victorian history of the dog and on animal breeding in striking new ways.