Eugenics is the now-defunct (and creepy!) practice of breeding supposedly superior humans to achieve genetic improvements while sterilizing undesirables. Sound familiar? It's the exact same thing we now do to dogs and it's responsible for a range of health and behavioral issues in them. — Ed.
This chapter is excerpted from "A Matter of Breeding: A Biting History of Pedigree Dogs and How the Quest for Status Has Harmed Man's Best Friend" by Michael Brandow (Beacon Press, 2015 ). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.
Does a dog need to have a certain look to behave in a certain way? Seeking some explanation for our present-day obsession with predictability, many are surprised to find the trail leads back to eugenics, that dirty word recalled with fear and loathing but a set of assumptions that have as much to do with pets as they once did with people. Few know that many of our core beliefs about bloodlines, appearance, and skill retain more than a tinge of those ugly theories that have made some people and pets seem superior for their complexion or ancestral profiles, and others inferior for having substandard markings or a checkered past.
Most upright citizens have officially sworn off applying eugenics to humans these days, but for some strange reason, they continue to breed and buy their dogs along old eugenic lines. Anderson Cooper was shocked and appalled on his show in May 2012 to report that forced sterilizations of "undesirables" were conducted by the tens of thousands in the United States until as recently as the 1970s.  But at home, he had a Welsh springer spaniel, a breed born to what AKC writer Freeman Lloyd once called "a doggie family that has existed in its approximately pure state for many hundreds of generations."  Despite its illustrious past, Cooper's brand of choice is now prone to a number of serious health issues and has an average inbreeding coefficient higher than that of first cousins.  Blood "purity" has worked against the springer, which has been subjected, like many breeds, to the same outdated theories of "better breeding" that get pups culled for having the wrong coat color, make "good" families feel superior to not-so-good ones—and get millions of innocent people killed for their ethnic or racial background. Sterilization, euthanasia, segregation, holocausts, and judgments at Westminster all have a common heritage in eugenics, and despite the fact that English isn't among the many languages that still use "race" and "breed" interchangeably, we have no excuse for not knowing or caring about this history.
Terrible but true: who among us, at one time or another, hasn't been guilty of stereotyping? And who among us has never let looks determine likability? Old biases aren't easy to shed. Perhaps the most obvious crime against progressive thinking can be found in our own backyards, where it's still socially acceptable to say, "I have a chocolate Lab at home," but not, "I only hire Latino/black/Asian/fill–in-the-blank maids because they clean better." Why is "We grew up with two goldens" in fashion, but "We've adopted a pair of Orientals" is not? What's wrong with "I have a dog" or "Two dogs are better than one?" I myself have no degree in statistics but question the myth that all pedigree German shepherds are loyal, smart, and trainable because one in a million qualifies for service work. Not all golden retrievers are heroes because one was depicted with a fireman at Ground Zero in a painting that hangs in the AKC's art collection, no more than all Americans are champion athletes because Michael Phelps won some gold medals.
The "science" of eugenics was founded in the mid-nineteenth century as a tool for keeping people in their proper places. "It is, too, a strange fact," wrote Gordon Stables, a firm believer in head shape as an indicator of character, "that the more highly civilised a nation is, the greater its care and culture of the canine race."  Based on a similar observation that fair-skinned folk with certain anatomical features were supposedly more attractive and intelligent than "darkies" (too repugnant, many thought, even to serve food on First-Class dining cars), eugenics devised an elaborate and complex system of color coding and measurement, an apparatus that grew more elaborate and complex with time. Focusing on a somewhat selective selection of mostly random and coincidental characteristics that conquerors and ruling classes had haphazardly amassed along their uphill climbs, traits certain groups just happened to share, such as blond hair, blue eyes, a taste for classical music, or a fondness for fox hunting—by-products of generations of inbreeding and upbringing only with their own kind—eugenic investigators compiled an exhaustive catalog of hair-splitting nuances to prove that races were, indeed, separate and unique. Some races, they felt, were essentially better than others, and mixing races—or "mongrelization"—was unhealthy and probably dangerous to all races involved.
The eugenic inventory of racial indicators grew so encompassing and complex that experts managed to convince many that their observations simply had to be true, if only because, it was thought, no sane person would have observed them if they weren't. The subtleties of human skin tone, the way the eyes were set into the head, the precise angle at which the jaw protruded, neck length, hair texture, nose curvature—the convolution of spirals in brain matter, the spaces between the toes, the distance between the navel and the penis—every detail was carefully gauged and painstakingly documented, then compared and contrasted in ways that somehow always seemed the most flattering to white, Northern Europeans and their white, Northern European descendants across the Atlantic (or people who looked like them). Superficial distinctions were exaggerated to the point that different racial or ethnic groups were said to have descended from separate prehistoric ancestors, a theory only recently disproved by DNA, not unlike the freshly debunked myth that not all dogs evolved from wolves. Embellished bloodlines based on outward appearance, and a rudimentary understanding of genetics that made heredity seem as simple as pigmentation in guinea pigs, were used to explain deeper character traits like morality, criminality, intelligence, and "feeblemindedness." Before long, eugenics had just about every aspect of human diversity neatly mapped, categorized, and evaluated based on looks or social ties. Anatomical and behavioral traits, even personal quirks, were correlated to family, class, race, and ethnic background, or to whether a person ended up working as a banker, baker, soldier, stenographer, poet, or piano tuner. Eugenics explained it all: infertility, spelling, dancing, neatness, insanity, gambling, gout, disobedience, double-jointedness, punctuality, "pug" noses on ill-born Irish, even ball playing. 
Among the many errors of eugenics were to misinterpret outward appearance, behavior, and culturally biased test results as indicators of other qualities; to confuse heredity with environment; to overestimate the role of individual genes in the inheritance of complex behaviors; to focus on human pedigrees instead of individuals; and to cling to an archaic belief in inbreeding for blood "purity," already proven as detrimental to half-mad, hemophiliac royal families as it would prove to be for fancy, "scientifically" bred dogs in the century to come.
Like so many attempts at improvement in the nineteenth century, eugenics dressed old habits in new garb. Ancient, quasi-mystical arts of physiognomy and phrenology, and a more recent discipline called craniometry, went into these dazzling demonstrations of mental gymnastics. What eugenics brought to the table was a protective layer of statistics and documents, modern additions of the nineteenth century that lent authenticity to the usual slants on race, class, and any other basis for bias. The arcane assumption that head shape indicated personality or intelligence was now provable with an extensive set of precise measurements. Skulls could finally be placed side-by-side in glass display cases at natural history museums as updated reliquaries to be interpreted as eugenic high priests saw fit. Primitive, gut reactions against outsiders and oddballs because of the way they looked, acted, or dressed now had the blessing of observations showing darker-skinned people did, in fact, tend to be dishonest—because they didn't blush, which they couldn't, at least not visibly, being darker-skinned—incontrovertible proof that they were born with something to hide. In the same vein, the medieval notion of "blue blood," based on the fact that bloodlines tended to be more visible on fair-skinned aristocrats than on darker-skinned workers, Africans, Jews, or Arabs—whose own blue veins were, indeed, less visible because they had darker skin—now had the blessing of a host of new parameters for defining race and inevitably showing fair-skinned testers in the fairest light. National types, patriots declared confidently, could now be clearly defined and separated from outsiders—"race," until quite recently, meaning national origin—giving them carte blanche to discriminate at home and dominate abroad through conquest and colonialism. 
The Third International Eugenics Conference, one of many events such as "Fitter Family" and "Better Baby" contests held around the country, was organized by the American Museum of Natural History in 1932. The exhibit sought to prove that talents were inherited traits. Featured was a lineup of rectangular fur samples from various animals, not unlike color swatches in clothing catalogs, or allowable coat colors in breed books today. Visitors were invited to step up and feel each sample to test their "sense of elegance in fur feeling"—perhaps to recruit those with promising careers as Westminster judges?  The most unsettling part about an unflinching history of eugenics is how socially acceptable this brand of "science" was, and remains, in mainstream opinion. The History Channel—which a friend of mine calls "The Hitler Channel"—has spent decades pounding into our heads the same stories of the Third Reich's ruthless campaign for racial purity and shaming this barbaric tribe for its crimes against humanity. Viewers could have learned more by hearing that it wasn't a son of the Fatherland but Darwin's social-climbing cousin, Sir Francis Galton, who first gave this sort of behavior the respectable name of "eugenics" in 1883. Not only was Galton not chastised for finding a new defense for Britain's traditional ruling class and imperial rule—and inspiring racial purges in the century to come—he was knighted for his mental gymnastics.
Wherever it caught on, eugenics seemed to make respectable society more respected and the powerful more powerful. Across the Atlantic, it was the Rockefeller Foundation, not the Ku Klux Klan, that financed Germany's early racial "research." The caricature of the right-wing eugenicist is a tad racist because Americans of all political persuasions developed eugenics far beyond the wildest dreams of the cash-poor English. Involuntary sterilization laws were enacted by Indiana Hoosiers and hoity-toity Connecticuters three decades before Hitler thought to take our example and modeled his own final solution on ours. Systematic "purification" was widespread, institutionalized, and enforced by legislation from coast to coast by the time the world caught on, and America's eugenic mission would extend deep into the twentieth century. Basing a person's value on appearance, pedigree, and some narrow definition of intelligence was very much the norm, and disseminators of racial bias weren't marginal or war criminals but upstanding members of society, often the best and brightest leaders of our most venerable institutions. Promoters of profiling were doctors, lawyers, legislators, politicians, literati, Nobel Prize–winning scientists, and even a few Jews who figured among the major proponents. Courses in eugenics were standard fare at the top Ivy League schools attended by America's finest families, who funded the fight against "racial degeneration" and campaigned for "social improvement," lowering birthrates among "defective classes," and restricting immigration to white, Northern Europeans (or people who looked like them). Like the Rockefellers, the illustrious Harriman clan was a major benefactor of eugenic research, inspired by the father's Anglophile hobby of breeding race horses. Thoroughbreds born to the House of Harriman were also among the earliest importers of those Labrador retrievers we can't seem to imagine in more than three pre-approved shades today.
How did eugenics finally lose its mass appeal and cede its social standing? As the late historian of science Stephen Jay Gould remarked, it wasn't any of the blatant inconsistencies, obtusely unscientific methods, or strong notes of self-serving prophecy that finally did in eugenics among people of good breeding and taste. It was those unavoidable horrors of World War II, still dramatically reenacted on the Hitler Channel, that showed where these ideas led when taken to their logical conclusions. This sudden unveiling inspired Americans and English to open their eyes and publicly disavow all ties with the movement they'd only recently raced to embrace.  Still the question remains: How could morally upright bipeds have gone along with eugenics for as long as they did?
While concerned scientists and watchdog groups are on constant guard against returning to bad habits of the not-so-distant past and treat the growing field of behavioral genetics with suspicion, little effort has been made in the dog fancy, a creation of the eugenics movement and heir to its misguided principles, to purge dog breeding of pseudoscience, to make it more a science than an art, or to bring beliefs current with knowledge and the values we profess to hold dear. The 1828 edition of Webster's dictionary defined "cur" or mongrel as "a degenerate dog; and in reproach, a worthless man."  Rather than apply the lessons learned and redefine what "better breeding" might mean in this day and age, the dog fancy behaves as though nothing has changed since the nineteenth century, and that nonhuman animals aren't subject to the same laws of biology as humans. Parties entrusted with the welfare and improvement of our best friends—kennel clubs and the scientists on their payrolls, breed clubs and their memberships, puppy mills and "good" breeders alike, a colossal dog industry invested in business as usual, and the local vet who keeps politely silent about everything—many experts continue to support unethical and counterproductive breeding practices by misdirecting our attention, not to how sick, stupid, or aggressive golden retrievers are becoming, but to how pretty they've managed to keep the coats.
Despite major strides made in universal suffrage, desegregation, affirmative action, and human rights, little has changed in the realm of dogdom, where random features like skin, coat, or eye color, skull shape, nose length, and social background are routinely linked to deeper character traits. "Breediness" carries weight not only in the selection of show dogs and house pets but also in more important choices of candidates for useful, no-nonsense tasks such as therapy, assistance, and search-and-rescue work. Behind casual claims to breed superiority—loyalty, intelligence, trainability, beauty—is the kind of talk that's illegal in some places if the subjects are human but a sobering reminder that breedism, the barefaced promotion of eugenic stereotypes, is pure racism.
A passing glance at the sacred scrolls called breed standards, those elaborately detailed guidelines used to select which pups to breed and which to bucket, and the everyday expressions used in the ring, shows just how deeply entrenched eugenics still is. Preserved are retrograde terms like degenerate  (as in "degenerate coat color" for washed-out mutts, or "degenerate races" of half-breed humans), undesirable (esthetic features not "allowable" in the ring, or individuals whose lifestyles don't "conform" to classist notions of normality), expression (used by judges to describe that je ne sais quoi they see in champion material and lifted directly from physiognomy, and essential(any random trait believed to be a sign of blood "purity"). Traditional terms for mixing races—"mongrelization" and "debasement"—have been applied to humans and dogs alike. Such offensive language continues to obscure judgment and misguide selection of show ring champions, house pets, and seeing-eye dogs, and hardly anyone seems to notice or care. Parallels between eugenics and dog breeding abound, not just in the carefully controlled phraseology of official standards upheld by the AKC, but in the dog fancy's tools of measurement, and in the cockeyed results handed down as lessons to unsuspecting children. The "wicket," an adjustable device used for gauging a dog's height in the show ring, is frighteningly reminiscent of contraptions used to measure skulls and noses of "the Negro type" or "the Jewish type." The idea of a "tramp," or stray mutt, sounded cute enough in Disney's Lady and the Tramp but was, in fact, a legal term used by eugenicists to describe one category of "undesirable" forced to undergo involuntary sterilizations.
The division of dogs into easily identifiable types was far more calculated than human cataloging. The beasts we can't seem to imagine in any other shapes, sizes, or coat colors were deliberately invented for commercial and competitive purposes. Standardized breeds were designed to look unique and indispensible by giving contestants more ways to win prizes in the ring, and consumers more opportunities to show their own breeding, taste, distinction, and spending power on pavements. Once the pantheon of prizewinning material was put on display in show rings, pet shop windows, front parlors, and public parks, fanciers soon forgot it was as contrived as a Sears Roebuck catalog, that the diversity was as artificial as Heinz 57 varieties. "Show" golden retrievers were little more than Irish setters in a different coat color, but like eugenicists with their racial indicators, the dog fancy first stopped breeding for function in favor of form, then backtracked and assigned unique personalities and skills to their creations!
The confusing array of standardized, branded, recognized terriers currently available for purchase and the source of so much family pride provide an excellent example of how inventive the dog fancy has been. Contrary to popular lore and breeders' advertising claims, "improved" breeds of the terrier type were invented for the stage and sidewalk. Any that aren't purely fictional works are, often and sadly, working dogs made physically and mentally incapable of performing their traditional tasks. Ancient types were reshaped into cartoon replicas of their useful ancestors, and soon everyone but farmers and hunters without the luxury of gullibility forgot the whole operation was a theatrical hoax.  Whether any of these repackaged terriers ever had practical uses—none of them ever did in their "improved" forms—is immaterial to fashion hounds trying to display something special at both ends of their leashes. Those rare eccentrics who still use dogs for more than posing in a heel position, on the other hand, such as seasoned hunter and hound historian David Hancock, who was interviewed in the BBC documentary Pedigree Dogs Exposed, are struck by the absurdity of believing the tilt of an animal's ears or coat color are indicators of any one individual dog's essence, much less the owner's. "And then there are those who swear by this breed of terrier or that," Hancock writes with disbelief, "as if every single human from Devon or Durham had similar qualities." 
Not only has the sort of thinking that makes tolerance of yellow, brown, and black Labs seem like a sign of diversity not been helping dogs, this catalog selection has worked against the genetic diversity needed to keep populations healthy, smart, and functional. Selecting dogs, often from the same litter, for distinctive but irrelevant features like fur texture or ear style has led to many of the health problems we're seeing. "Some have suggested that there are too many breeds," writes Kevin Stafford of the Institute of Veterinary Animal and Biomedical Sciences at Massey University in New Zealand, "and that breeds, such as terriers . . . with similar functions and type should be crossbred to produce fewer breeds with much greater genetic variation."  At the same time, it should be added, dogs are routinely neutered, killed, or in some way disfavored for having heads or coat colors not "typical" of their races, but their very lack of uniformity is often a sign of the diverse heritage that purists try to cover up.
Broad categories of hunting, sporting, guarding, fighting, farm dogs, and so on—animals whose traditional uses over hundreds and thousands of years have left them with tendencies toward certain pronounced temperaments and talents—have been dissected and color-coded for the stage, then given catchy brand names like golden retriever, yellow Lab, and fox terrier. The modern fancy isn't entirely to blame for this unnatural drive to differentiate within strictly defined parameters. Before dogs were sorted and segregated for a mass market into easily identifiable molds, general types skilled in tracking, retrieving, or flushing out game were used in ritual hunting exploits of upper-class sportsmen. For centuries, finer families swore by the superiority of their own private labels of greyhound or foxhound, not breeds by today's standards but strains that often had distinct coloring that identified them as belonging to noteworthy kennels. Legends of their exploits were handed down at arm's length from one earl to the next and kept alive in small social circles. Opinions went unchallenged within the league of gentlemen because no one else was in a position to contradict, not the hired help or local tenantry, who were only too flattered to tag along. It went without saying, but was frequently said, that lower-class mongrels and their Cockney owners could never, even if given a chance, outperform highbred hounds and their highbred humans. As for "foreign" types, many English continue to resent the invasion of Continental pointing breeds that are, as Hancock notes, "accused of lacking style." 
Americans saw themselves as rightful inheritors of English-style eugenics. No less of their identity was invested at the other end of the leash where they could distinguish themselves from anyone without the means to be seen with pets that might as well have had price tags tied to their collars. Dog shows and breed registries were slower to thrive in the United States than in the UK, owing to the brief interruption of a civil war, but no time was lost in catching up, and by the twentieth century, the AKC and Westminster were purveying widespread snootiness almost as well as the Kennel Club or Crufts. Having no royalty for sponsors, the closest to the genuine item was Freeman Lloyd, that imported English image consultant who helped Americans forge their alliances with "pure" blood through pet ownership. Lloyd presented the fancy's eugenic mission unflinchingly in an essay on "correct conformation" for the American Kennel Club Gazette and Stud Book in 1943. "As a matter of fact," he instructed, "the head and face of a dog, like those of human beings, are usually an accurate gauge of character, and the art and science of phrenology may be applied to the former as well as to the latter."  A similar Gazette article penned by another established expert appeared in 1947, despite the grim lesson the world had just learned on which way this eugenic madness led. "What is important is the creation through competition of a better breed," the article commented, explaining the importance of breed standards in dog shows—and sounding like a manifesto for Social Darwinism.