Photograph by Frank Franklin II, AP
Published February 16, 2013
Standing less than a foot tall and easily cradled in one of trainer Ernesto Lara's arms, Banana Joe made big news for a small dog when he became the first affenpinscher to win the Westminster Kennel Club dog show on Tuesday.
His short stature and flattened face might not make Banana Joe look like a typical winner: The name "affenpinscher" is German for "monkey terrier," and its mug is definitely simian in appearance. Now this lesser known breed is basking in the spotlight, monkey face and all. (Read "How to Build a Dog" in National Geographic magazine.)
Why the Flat Face?
People like dogs whose faces kind of look like people, with a squished-in nose and forward-facing eyes: Pekinese, bullmastiffs, and affenpinschers, to name a few. "It's mimicking the way humans appear," said Jeffrey Schoenebeck, a research fellow at the National Institutes of Health who has analyzed the development of shortened canine snouts. Several centuries ago, breeders probably sought out parents with a flat face. (Genetics note: Gene BMP3 likely contributes to a flat face in toy breeds.)
And so Banana Joe's mug reflects centuries of genetic manipulation. There's no advantage for the dog, Schoenebeck notes, except that humans would crave it more as a companion. (Related: Gallery of Dog Pictures.)
What About That Tongue?
Banana Joe sticks out his little pink tongue a lot. Maybe more than your run-of-the-mill canine. The reason may be the flat face. "There's probably less room in their mouth" for the tongue, said Schoenebeck. "It's hanging out."
Why so Small?
"The affenpinscher comes from a terrier background," explained NIH senior staff scientist Heidi Parker, and like all terriers, it was bred to chase. The early affenpinschers' specialty was hunting down rats and other vermin for its owners. Breeding for a small size came later, as ladies started bringing affenpinschers into the home as lap dogs—and to keep away vermin that might otherwise hide in corners or under long skirts. Today's affenpinschers are in the 6-to-13 pound (3-to-6 kilogram) range.
But the dog's size hasn't given it an inferiority complex. "Most of these little guys do not realize they're as small as they are," Parker says. Toy dogs have been known to chase birds and other animals that rival them in size.
What Comes After Westminster?
Dog lovers may crave an affenpinscher. And that could cause problems if breeders try to produce more pups.
"You'll see some breeds go through sudden explosions, where they'll go from small numbers to really large numbers," says Parker. "Usually that means an increase in genetic diseases." There aren't a lot of potential parents for a purebred litter, so the odds of inbreeding, and its related diseases, go up.
And What About Banana Joe?
Now that he's made us aware of his breed, Banana Joe will retire from competition and live with his Dutch owner, free to fulfill his heritage as a lap dog.
Poor inbred creature! It's flat face means it can't breathe that well, as well as not having room for its tongue.
It's the animals who suffer from dog breeding and dog shows. It's not just the millions of 'substandard' animals who are killed, but also the ones who are considered champions who suffer from genetic defects and weaknesses which come from inbreeding.
Wouldn't it be better if all those dog fanciers, breeders and trainers spent their time on something which causes *less* suffering in the world -- training animals in shelters, working to reduce animal disease, helping pet owners with vet bills... anything, really.
As a start, the various Kennel Clubs should stop registering puppies born of parent-child and sibling-sibling matings.
Special Ad Section
Our new Phenomena space blogger, Nadia Drake, will be bringing you tales from beyond our home planet.
Video of the Day
When the trembling stops, the disaster is only the beginning. Learn the basics about earthquakes.