The Lens of Colonialism in Dogs

Updated: 4 hours ago

As I write this, Black Lives Matter protests continue across the country, sparked by the senseless death of George Floyd. The protestors call on white people with privilege to rethink their attitudes not just about the obvious such as pay inequality and a disproportionate number of black men shot by the police, but also how systemic racism and a prevailing, though insidious, sense of colonialism impact our daily lives. I haven’t taken the stand I should have publicly, like so many impacted by COVID, I’m just trying to stay afloat financially, but the protests have encouraged me to investigate the way I view everything in my life, and perhaps, most specifically, examine common attitudes in the dog world.

Quite often with clients, I will ask them to describe a generic dog. They’ll use words like bouncy, happy, eager to please, loves foods, friendly with every dog or person. They are, in essence, describing a Labrador Retriever or a Golden Retriever. Those two breeds are two of the most popular breeds in America and have been for years. The Labrador was developed in the region of Canada from which it derives its name. The Golden Retriever was developed in Scotland. Interestingly enough, both breeds were developed while Colonialism was near its height. These breeds are both quintessentially of the western world and have become synonymous with “dog” for many people.

For clients who are struggling to understand their dog standing in front of them, who is often not a Lab or a Golden, I then ask them to describe their dog. In the cases of purebred dogs, very often they describe the exact breed traits that gives the breed their identity. I was once working with a Shikoku Ken. In short, this is a mid-sized Japanese breed (one of the Nihon Ken) that is utilized for hunting. This lovely, soft-spoken man’s dog had come directly from proven boar hound parents and was causing him no end of grief. As the dog had become a teenager, his friendliness to people and other dogs disappeared. The owner was despairing and had been trying to force the dog to meet other dogs and people in the hopes that he would just “get over it”. Contrary to the owner’s intention, this had caused a huge breach of trust in their Shikoku who just wanted to coexist without hands waving in his face. This was a dog that was perfectly stable and steady in public, but because his owner wanted him to be pet by every visitor to the house and be able to go to the dog park, as his neighbors’ labs did, he started losing the traits he so valued in his Shikoku. They are a breed that will walk through fire for you, if they trust you. Break their trust and they’ll completely ignore you (at best).

Now let’s look at my breed, Azawakh. The breed was “discovered” by white colonists stationed in the Sahel region in the late 60’s and early 70’s. This is a breed, a landrace, that has existed in the same format, more or less, for thousands of years (based on how distinct their DNA is from other breeds, as well as the history of the region). Those colonists imported those individuals from the Sahel to Europe and began their breeding programs. The original standard, under the name Tuareg Sloughi, was written by the colonists who had imported the first Azawakh into Europe.

Fracois Roussell was the only person at that time to provide a comprehensive study of the variance of the dogs within the region. He concluded that there were regional variances within the different geographical areas of the region, but all were of the same breed:

When travelling through the different regions of Mali (Gourma, Gao region, Ménaka, Azaouak valley) we were struck by the homogeneity of the canine population. This is made up almost exclusively of sighthounds.

The few rare mongrelized dogs that we saw were in the towns where recent European presence had brought in various dogs, often of herding type.

Roussell also described, in multiple places, the wide variety of coat colors present in the region. Elisa Pelo describes his methodology, which was as correct as he could be given the understanding of dog coat genetics in the 70s:

Roussel used a lot Dechambre method to describe dogs: classification according to profile (straight, concave, convex), it is in accordance with that time and he uses colour loci based on Clarence C. Little (The Inheritance of Coat Color in Dogs, Howell Book House, 1957), so we only have to update his observation with modern knowledge.

In his paper, Roussell describes the common coat colors such as fawn and red, but also black, agouti, blue, and more. Nawab Nazeer Yar Jung’s Walking Through the Jungles details a wide variety of Azawakh colors, many of which varied by region. Yet, when the Azawakh standard was developed only shades of red and sand (fawn) were allowed under the standard. Brindle was only added as acceptable in 1994.

The reason the standard was limited can only stem from the foundation dogs brought to Europe all of whom were either red or sand. As David Moore writesThe FCI standard contains so many errors and omissions—partially a result of the sampling error caused by basing their criteria on only 7 dogs, combined with the contemporary political environment, as well as honest mistakes”.

Even in the naming of the breed itself, you find a Western influence. Within the countries of origin, what we know as Azawakh are simply referred to as Idi (alternate spellings include Eidi), which means dog. Within the Menaka region, their more refined variant are called Oska. Yet, the breed as instead been christened Azawakh outside of the Sahel, after the Azawakh Valley region which the dogs are from.

As the FCI standard has been changed over the years to reflect the changes in the favored European line Azawakh, the attitude in some European breeders has shifted or solidified from this being a breed to develop as opposed to a breed to preserve. The FCI standard writer, Gervais Coppe (translated from French to English) himself writes:

Africans (black) have not selected, shaped, no animal race, in current African cultures we can’t find empathy for animals. The culture is part of another civilizational world, which has not practiced domestication. The Nilotic world (pharaonic) was different from the world of black Africa. Of course, the FCI can, according to the criteria and methods of zootechnical science, define and approve breeds. It would be racism to claim African breeders alone able to do it. The standards are the responsibility of zootechnics, not an empiricism of beliefs.

This is colonialism in it’s truest form- to assume that the people of the Sahel (I will not say “Africans” for Africa is a continent and that does not detail the specific people of the region) cannot develop a breed as Europe does, and thus they needed Europeans to fix their breed. The amount of hubris that goes into the assumption that a breed that has existed for thousands of years and is perfectly tuned to their harsh environment needs improvement is staggering to me.

This is perhaps a more extreme example that what you will see in many no European or North American based breeds, but the attitude I described in the beginning of this post assuming that Labs and Goldens are ‘normal’ dogs and all else are The Other. When BIPOC speak of systemic racism, this attitude, though subtle, is part of the problem. This inability to accept differing traits from the popular retriever breeds (or even understand why other traits might be desirable) contributes to our lack of understanding and lack of celebration of other people and cultures.

The need for preservation breeders has never been more important, as we stand at a crossroads of history, hoping that this time progress will be won in creating an equitable society. Those preservation breeders are the guardians of the history not only of their breeds, but of the cultures from which they are from. Calls to improve on ancient breeds that have developed without human intervention for specific reasons fall prey to subtle urge to move breeds with unusual traits towards what is ‘normal’ to us, what is ‘comfortable’. You see this in the tendency toward desiring Tremendous Reach and Drive (TRAD) from every breed, even ones where this makes no sense for their original purpose. You see this in the softening of guarding temperaments or the desire to make aloof breeds friendlier. In truth, there is a lack of understanding, both in humans and in dogs, of the different modalities in learning. That is why so often I get clients who profess their dogs are stubborn or stupid, when in reality, they just aren’t speaking to their dog in a language they understand or are motivated by. We, as humans collectively and white people specifically, don’t make the effort to understand that which is different than ourselves. This is true in dog training, in dog breeding, in hiring for a business, in police’s interactions with people on the streets.

Often, you see many of the Asian, Middle Eastern, and African breeds described as primitive. I’ve often had conversations about what does primitive truly mean in regarding dog breeds. This word means so much to different people. I personally like the Primitive and Aborigonal Dog Society’s (PADS) definition for a primitive breed versus an aboriginal breed. They define a primitive breed as: dogs living in their natural state, free from humans. Instead of using the word primitive, they instead use the term aboriginal to describe dogs such as the Azawakh, or Shikoku, or Portuguese Podengo, and many more. They define aboriginal as possessing more than one of the following: 1) they were present in their area before modern (3000BC) non-native human intrusion, 2) they are documented, direct pure descendants of long-term pariahs, 3) they show few (if any) derived characteristics that more modern breeds show (this excludes drop ears, curled tails, and hairlessness which appear to be ancient mutations). Their breed list is quite comprehensive: https://padsociety.org/breeds-list-2/

I appreciate these distinctions because they move us further from utilizing the word ‘primitive’ on a regular basis. For me, ‘primitive’ carries incredibly loaded connotations evoking the damaging colonial concepts such as “The White Man’s Burden” and the “Noble Savage”. Referring to people as primitive harkens back to a time when we dubbed other people primitive, which colonists to view the native people as less than themselves, less than human. Not only does this usage seem to have echos through the dog world, I've talked to many who don't consider ancient breeds "real dogs", but it also evokes a time, one that is honestly not that long ago, when human being were relegated to chattel. Personally, the more I can steer away from utilizing similar language, the less prone I am at sinking into the comfortable position of accepting systemic racism.

This is how I process, putting the world into terms and topics I know and love, in this case dogs. And by doing this, I have discovered how deeply our imbedded attitudes penetrate. This need to improve an ancient breed, rather than preserving it with all their history and environmental adaptations are deeply linked to are tendencies to denigrate and white-wash people and histories.

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