The relationship between man and dog is to be investigated at the University of Manchester next year following the receipt of a £500,000 research grant.
The study titled: ‘Pedigree Chums: Science, Medicine and the Remaking of the Dog in the Twentieth Century’ will explore many of the intricacies of the relationship between man and his ‘best friend.’
The project, due to start in January, will investigate: the changes in appearance and behaviour inflicted on the animals through generations of selective breeding and training; the impacts this has on the dog’s health; and the ways in which veterinary treatments have changed throughout the last hundred years.
“Despite their importance in many people’s lives, dogs have been neglected by social scientists,” said project lead Professor Michael Worboys, from the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine in the Faculty of Life Sciences.
“No animal species has been more altered in size, shape, colour or temperament by human selection; no species has a closer relationship with humans; no species is fed a more processed, industrialised diet, and no species has their health treated in a manner so close to what humans enjoy.”
Head of Companion Animals at the RSPCA, James Yeates, believes that the relationship between humans and dogs is a special one which can be mutually beneficial to both parties.
“Humans have provided, and continue to provide, great benefits to their dogs through loving, responsible ownership. Humans also get significant benefits from pets, especially when those pets are happy and healthy,” he said.
Mr Yeates hopes that this research project will highlight the benefits of this relationship, as well as showing how owners and breeders can make dogs good pets while still retaining their canine nature.
Selective breeding of pedigree dogs has become a contentious issue in recent years. In 2008, the RSPCA and BBC pulled out of Crufts dog show over fears that pedigree breeding programmes damaged the health and well-being of the dogs.
Helen Coen, spokesperson for the RSPCA said: “Hundreds of thousands of dogs are vulnerable to unnecessary illness, pain and disability or behavioural problems because they’re bred primarily for how they look rather than with health, welfare and temperament in mind.”
Ms Coen said that such breeding practices, which often involve intensive inbred mating between closely related individuals, leave the offspring susceptible to inherited disorders which can result in severe pain and may last for the entirety of the dog’s life.
There are also more subtle concerns, such as the dog being prevented from behaving as it naturally would do.
The project is being funded by the Wellcome Trust – the UK’s largest independent biomedical charity, whose aim is to achieve extraordinary improvements in human and animal health.
“This project addresses an important but neglected area of social research,” said Dr Nils Fietje, Medical Humanities Adviser at the Wellcome Trust.
“The humble dog has been man’s best friend for thousands of years and, more recently, has played an important role in shaping modern human and veterinary medicine. Yet we know surprisingly little about the social implications of this important relationship.”
Dr Fietje said: “The Manchester team has a stellar track record of delivering extremely high quality research in the History of Medicine and we are pleased to support this highly original research project.”