Dogs have become an important component of western societies and a large proportion of homes include a pet dog. According to recent estimates, 21% of European households and 36.5% of US households own a dog. Benefits of dog ownership include the dog's unconditional display of affection and acceptance, non-judgmental love and demand for interaction.
The selective breeding of dogs has created highly specialized breeds for hunting, herding and guarding but also breeds with extreme physical features like a very short nose, a flat skull, very small body size, protruding eyes, a highly sloping back and the like. Many of these breed-specific traits were cultivated and refined using inbreeding which, together with a lack of selection pressure against health issues in some breeds, has resulted in high levels of inherited diseases.
However, the demand for purebred dogs with extreme physical features and with high load of inherited diseases does not in general seem to be decreasing. On the contrary, some of these dog breeds appear to be increasing in popularity among dog owners. Examples include the English Bulldog, French Bulldog, Pug, Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, and Chihuahua. Different breeds may be acquired for different reasons and, hence, the level and type of attachment may be expected to differ even within groups of purebred dogs of similar size and function.
Various explanations have been proposed regarding the apparent paradox, that people buy breeds of dog that are predisposed to diseases and other problems, while at the same time caring deeply about their dogs. It could be that, when choosing a breed, other characteristics of the dog may be considered more important than its health. Dogs with extreme physical features may possess qualities that matter to their owners so much that they outshine any health and other problems faced by the dogs. Owners of Chihuahuas are often motivated in their breed choice by the fact it was an easy dog to find and obtain.
Owners of French Bulldogs and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels seem to be attracted to infantile facial features such as large forehead, large and low-lying eyes, and bulging cheeks, which may contribute to the attachment process by acting as releasers of parental nurturing and caregiving behavior. Other owners acquire dogs as a means of obtaining status and attention from other people, due to the distinctiveness or cuteness of the dog (in the case of French Bulldogs or Cavalier King Charles Spaniels), or as part of fashion (in the case of Chihuahuas), and may often perceive their dog as helpless and in need of care and control. Some owners may perceive their dogs as friends rather than children in need of fully controlled limits.
While caregiving has been proposed as an explanation for why people are emotionally attached to their dogs it could also help explain why high levels of health and behavior problems in the dog can generate strong attachment ties between owners and their dogs. The Chihuahua likely evokes high levels of caregiving behavior, which is also indicated in this study by the high proportion of owners of Chihuahuas (70%) who "would do almost anything to take care of my dog." The relationship between owners and their Chihuahuas could be defined as such in which the dog is viewed and treated as a child.
- Why do people buy dogs with potential welfare problems related to extreme conformation and inherited disease? A representative study of Danish owners of four small dog breeds. P. Sandøe,1,2, S. V. Kondrup, P. C. Bennett, B. Forkman, I Meyer, H. F. Proschowsky, J. A. Serpell, and T. B. Lund, Cheryl S. Rosenfeld, Editor