Companion and Commodity: The Victorian Dog

By Colin DickeyFebruary 4, 2019

Companion and Commodity: The Victorian Dog

The Invention of the Modern Dog by Michael Worboys, Julie-Marie Strange, and Neil Pemberton
Minor Creatures by Ivan Kreilkamp

ONE OF THE PERENNIAL questions of anyone who meets our dog Alistair is, what is he? He is certainly part- or mostly Labrador Retriever: he has a lab’s face and demeanor, down to the innate love of tennis balls. But he’s half the size of a normal lab, and has other behaviors and features that suggest some other breed, maybe a collie or another herding dog. Mostly, we just conclude, he’s a lab mixed with something small.

The American Kennel Club’s description of the lab stretches four pages and includes a litany of subjective descriptions and other criteria. Five attributes “disqualify” a dog from being a Labrador according to the AKC; Alistair fails at least two of those tests (he’s not tall enough and his tuxedo-white coloring prevents him from being a black-black Labrador). In what sense, though, is he “disqualified”? What does this make him? Less of a Labrador? Less of a dog?

Michael Worboys, Julie-Marie Strange, and Neil Pemberton’s The Invention of the Modern Dog: Breed and Blood in Victorian England offers a history of the birth of breed: that moment when dogs ceased to be dogs and became commodities — things that could be quantified, sorted, shaped, and judged. That this happened during the 19th century, and came largely out of Victorian England, is perhaps not coincidental; Victorians were in many ways obsessed with reimagining domestic spaces and who belonged in them — an obsession that was particularly acute in some of the most beloved literature of the time, from the Brontës to Dickens. Dogs in particular troubled such spaces, since they were seen simultaneously as domestic companions and as wild animals. Ivan Kreilkamp’s Minor Creatures: Persons, Animals, and the Victorian Novel focuses on this gray area inhabited by animals, tracing how Victorian writers tried to make sense of animals both inside and outside the house. Taken together, these two books offer a wide-ranging reassessment of Victorian animals as humans began to radically change how they viewed them.

Breed remains the most fundamental way we have of approaching dogs: it is the beginning and often the end of what a dog is, what defines them. It is almost always a shorthand for their personalities: golden retrievers are good with kids, Labradors energetic and obedient, pit bulls loyal and devoted. But while dogs have been with us for millennia, breeds themselves are fairly new, the very concept the invention of 19th-century England, according to The Invention of the Modern Dog. “The change to dogs being seen principally in terms of breed and as a number of distinct breeds began in the mid-Victorian period and was profound,” the authors argue; while we weren’t traditionally accustomed to think of dogs in terms of breeds, once the concept was introduced, it became the sole determining criteria of a dog’s personality — and its economic value. The concept of breed, they write,

makes dogs modern because it was a new way of thinking about, defining, and increasing the variety of forms within the species Canis lupus familiaris. Dog breeds were thoroughly Victorian inventions, influenced by industrialization, commercialization, class and gender attitudes, the rise of leisure, and evolutionary thinking.

Prior to the mid-19th century, dogs were classified by function, abilities, and health.

John Caius, for example, in his 1576 book Of Englishe Dogges, the diuersities, the names, the natures and the properties, listed five types of dogs: 1) hunting beasts, 2) those good at finding game, 3) gentle comforting companions, 4) farmers’ assistants with livestock, and 5) the “mongrels and rascal sort,” largely used as guard dogs. This focus purely on function would continue intact until the Victorian era; Comte de Buffon’s Histoire Naturelle, générale et particulière (1755) increased the number of kinds of dogs to 30, placing them on more of a sliding scale than in firm categories, and still focused entirely on their abilities. Even when writers did use the term “breed,” as Sydenham Edwards did in his 1800 Cynographia Britannica: Consisting of Coloured Engravings of the Various Breeds of Dogs Existing in Great Britain; Drawn from the Life, the word was interchangeable with “race,” “kind,” and “variety,” and thus the idea of breeds as distinct and identifiable varieties of dog had not yet taken hold. Individual animals were recognized for specific qualities and loaned out among estates for breeding purposes, but there was no specific attempt to correlate those traits with physical appearance.

At the time, the most well-organized dog culture came not from the upper classes, but from the world of dog fights and other lower-class entertainments, known as the Fancy. Bullbaiting, badger baiting, dogfighting, and rat killing: these blood sports, involving as they did sport and betting, had far more emphasis on rating specific dogs in terms of a taxonomy and hierarchy. Competitors were displayed to the crowds before fighting, so bettors could size them up, and while crowds usually favored the most aggressive-looking animal, these early “beauty shows” would set the stage for what would become the first dog shows.

In the early 1860s, the first shows brought the working-class culture of the Fancy together with livestock exhibitions and added to them a bit of the allure of the dime museum freak show. The first modern dog show, T. Dawkins Appleby’s “Monster Dog Show,” was staged in London in June 1862, a month after P. T. Barnum had staged his Great Dog Show in his American Museum in New York City. Borrowing from livestock exhibitions, dog breeders began to see physical appearance as indicative of personality and ability. But this connection wasn’t entirely tenable. With livestock, Worboys, Strange, and Pemberton explain,

physical form was likely to be an accurate guide to the amount of meat or milk they would produce, and fancy poultry and pigeons were bred for exhibition. With sporting breeds, form was taken as a proxy for function in working or sporting abilities. Thus, skull size was linked to intelligence; muzzle length to scenting; coat to warmth, protection, or visibility; and so on.

The crucial innovation of dog shows was to wed aesthetics with function: for the first time, a dog’s abilities were starting to be judged by its appearance, and its conformation to the appearance of dogs with similar abilities. It wasn’t long before appearance and aesthetic considerations began to trump working abilities. “The essence of breed,” the authors write, “was and is the division of a domesticated species by form rather than function.”

The first modern dog was a pointer named Major who belonged to a certain Mr. Smith. In the September 9, 1865, issue of the sporting magazine Field, dog aficionado John Henry Walsh identified Major as an exemplary specimen, proceeding to divide Major’s body into five parts, with a point value for each part: head and neck (30 points), frame and general symmetry (25), feet and legs (20), quality and stern (15), and color and coat (10). What was different about Walsh’s breakdown of Major was its attempt to quantify desirable dog traits and to translate working capabilities into physical appearance.

With this new set of criteria, breeders began to see dog breed as a technology that could be developed through attention to aesthetics. And as breed culture developed, it soon borrowed from phrenology and eugenics, attempting to recreate class values in the world of the dog. In a nod to phrenology, writers and fanciers ranked dogs by their skull shapes, determining intelligence accordingly: “[T]he streamlined shape of the skull [of the greyhound] with its low, sloping brow, meant that the dog was assumed to have limited intellectual faculties, enabling it to be single-minded in sighting and tracking hares.” More overtly, the emphasis on cultivating aesthetic features through breeding and developing “pure” blood lines for the improvement of the breed had all the hallmarks of the burgeoning science of eugenics. And while the authors note that “the application of science to dog breeding in this period was uneven,” it’s clear that the English fascination with breed was a complement to eugenics, and a way of testing theories on an unwilling population. With humans, eugenicists had mainly advanced positive policies: encouraging “desirables” to breed fruitfully, hoping to overwhelm the less desirable. But with dogs, breeders were “hardnosed positive and negative eugenicists: keeping the puppies they wanted, discarding those they did not, and choosing which dogs and bitches to breed.” From a eugenicist’s perspective, after all, nothing was more useful than the ability to take those you did not want and drowning them in a river.

Founded in 1873, the Kennel Club’s first rule was “in every way to promote the general improvement of dogs, dog shows, and dog trials.” But these three imperatives, one could argue (and indeed, many did argue, then and now) are entirely at odds with one another: to what extent does the general improvement of dog shows improve dogs themselves? One doesn’t have to be a card-carrying member of PETA to sense a contradiction. The most obvious example, of course, is the continuing American practice of cropping (mutilating a dog’s ears for show) and docking (cutting off all or part of a dog’s tail).

And while we’re not euthanizing dogs for minor aesthetic blemishes (well, not as often), it’s remarkable that the eugenicist impulse has remained undisturbed in the breeding world — even as it has been thoroughly denounced in other contexts. Why do we continue to believe it acceptable to select for aesthetics among dogs? Is it because they don’t have a voice of their own to protest? Or is it because pet dogs and cats straddle a bizarre divide, half-companion, half-consumer product? We acknowledge their near-human levels of empathy and friendship, while accepting a purebred market that functions almost exactly like the market for cars or phones. The concept of breed may be a shorthand for traits and personality, but its true purpose is to elevate animals into the realm of consumer goods. Lap dogs, like laptops, are infinitely customizable for the right price.


At the same time that Victorian culture was changing dogs, dogs themselves were changing culture, through the Victorian novel. As Ivan Kreilkamp argues in Minor Creatures: Persons, Animals, and the Victorian Novel, the realist novel that came to dominate 19th-century literature cannot be fully appreciated without paying attention to the animals that lurk in the margins. “As England became known as a nation of shopkeepers, it was also preeminently associated with long novels and beloved domesticated animals,” Kreilkamp writes, “two cultural forms that […] developed not just in parallel but in tandem.”

One of the central preoccupations of the Victorian novel was exploring and defining domestic space — who belonged there, who was excluded, and what the roles were. At a time of rapid change, the home became a fraught space, and writers like Dickens and Eliot used the novel form to reexamine what “home” meant. “Victorian literature, especially the genre of the realist novel,” Kreilkamp explains,

was preoccupied with a project of measuring and testing the boundaries and limits of the family, asking: who belongs as an enfranchised occupant of domestic space, who may be represented as domesticated, a friend to man, native to the home and within the genre of the home?

He argues that animals — particularly dogs — were vital to this process, as figures that moved in and out of (literally and symbolically) the domestic space, who could be welcomed in as a family member while still kept at arm’s length. In the Victorian period, Kreilkamp writes, “the three major normative categories of the human, the home, and the novel are all conceptualized in relation to an animal existence that is at once marginal or excluded but symbolically central and always a shaping influence.”

Animals were particularly important as figures of sentimentality in the Victorian novel, which “came to depend importantly, for its repertoire of significations, on pets and pet keeping as demonstrations and proofs of the constitution of the home as a sentimentally charged space.” In the Brontë Sisters’ novels, for example, the role of the governess was often played against that of the pet — both were interlopers in the home, essential and yet marginalized, and in Agnes Grey and Jane Eyre, the novel hinged on under what conditions such a marginalized figure in the home might find a permanent status. The pet, like the governess, occupies the domestic space but is not of the family, and thus must petition for rights and acceptance. Focusing on the animal as sentimental, often-abused creature, to whom ethical stature could be granted, Kreilkamp argues, gave the Brontës and the Victorian novel their signature tropes.

For Dickens, the dog was an even more marginalized figure. In Bleak House, Great Expectations, and others of Dickens’s classics, the question was once again how and under what condition an orphan might find a way into the safe space of the home. While Esther and Pip find ways in through luck, perseverance, and their innate goodness, the dogs remain on the outside, reminders of social oblivion. In Great Expectations, for example, “the possibility or threat of being seen or treated as a dog bears a strong correlation to an anxiety of being forgotten.” Dogs, like orphans, are creatures of the street, without protection beyond what sympathy they can muster through their pathetic state.

From the Brontës and Dickens, Kreilkamp moves to Eliot, Hardy, Arthur Conan Doyle, and finally to South African novelist Olive Schreiner. In the process, he also moves away from dogs. In what is perhaps the most famous passage from Eliot’s Middlemarch, the central figure is a not a dog but a squirrel: “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.” Eliot’s point, of course, is that ordinary life is made up of so many unremarked and unnoticed details that to focus on them all would kill us, but in searching for a metaphor to capture the depths of human life, she opts for the tiny heart of a tiny squirrel: something ubiquitous but perpetually marginal, flitting about the edges of human culture. Through such analogies, Kreilkamp suggests, Eliot

establishes a pattern of imagery according to which the human relationship to the animal becomes a test case for the care of others and the possibility of autonomy or a companionship that might exist without dependency, as opposed to a parasitic form of relationship in which one being utterly submits to the other.

Horses and sheep, as well, become important in Minor Creatures’s trajectory, as Victorian novelists further pushed the possibility of what does and doesn’t deserve rights. Kreilkamp’s argument falters as it becomes more diffuse, for the simple reason that domesticated pets exist (at least with regards to the human imagination) in a different world from livestock or wild creatures. The squirrel doesn’t evoke the same questions of domesticity, companionship, or sentimentality; the lamb only enters into the space of the home as dinner. Minor Creatures would’ve done well to focus solely on dogs (or dogs and cats, though the latter don’t get much play here) — not only is there ample material to work with already, but it would have been cleaner, and more focused. Even with the multiple valences in which dogs appear in these works, they still constitute a sole category.

Even with a narrower focus, the problem here is that all animals, domestic or wild, resist any kind of totalizing philosophy. Like a good academic, Kreilkamp opts for sweeping and definitive statements:

This chapter argues that this identification of Jane Eyre as an ‘animal’ (she is later compared to, among other images, a bird in a cage and a slaughtered lamb) offers a clue to a much broader discourse and logic and informs all of the novels published by the Brontë sisters in 1847.

The contention that animals would be the key to all the novels presupposes a central, symbolic place for the animal, which is impossible to sustain. What John Berger wrote of zoo animals is true of animals generally: they are perpetually out of focus, and all the concentration we can muster will never quite be enough to centralize them.

But at the same time novelists were reckoning with the fact that dogs were perpetually just out of frame and just outside the threshold of the house, breeders were looking to regularize them, codify them, taxonomize and hierarchize them in new ways. Kreilkamp’s novels stretch the period between the founding of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1824 and the passage of the Cruelty to Animals Act in 1876, overlapping the same period that Worboys, Strange, and Pemberton cover. It was a time in which the role of animals (and the dog in particular) was being radically rethought. Minor Creatures and The Invention of the Modern Dog make for a strong complement, for just as dogs were being retooled as eugenics-inspired home commodities, they were being employed as symbolic tropes to help refine what the home could be.


Colin Dickey is the author, most recently, of Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places.

LARB Contributor

Colin Dickey is the author, most recently, of Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places (Viking), as well as Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius and Afterlives of the Saints: Stories from the Ends of Faith. He is also the co-editor of The Morbid Anatomy Anthology. He currently teaches creative writing at National University.


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