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Evolutionary Psychology

7 Reasons Humans Keep Meddling in Canine Reproduction

The irresistible lure of dog breeding.

Key points

  • People breed dogs for a range of reasons.
  • Subconscious evolutionary forces might attract us to a certain breed.
  • Purebred dogs can suffer when breeding goals are in conflict.
Priscilla Du Preez 🇨🇦/Unsplash
Source: Priscilla Du Preez 🇨🇦/Unsplash

People have a complicated relationship with other species. Sometimes we treat them as livestock and prey, sometimes we treat them as laboratory experiments, and sometimes we treat them as family members.

In many cases, we try to influence their reproduction. We devise methods to prevent animals from multiplying or we take an active, even clinical, role in promoting their mating and procreation. For domesticated species such as cattle and dogs, humans devote a lot of time and energy to achieving specific outcomes across successive generations.

What motivates us to breed animals?

The authors of a recent paper in the journal Genetics Selection Evolution spotlight the many goals that can drive animal breeding programs. They find many variables at play in breeding programs, but regardless of the specifics, each animal fulfills a niche in the human environment.

One key message of the study is that animal breeding programs have multilayered goals, and those goals are sometimes fundamentally at odds. Dog breeders, for example, might pursue:

  1. Profit. When breeders prioritize financial gain, they most value animals that are easy-going, relatively simple to handle, grow and develop quickly, and are economical to feed and house.
  2. Tasks. Breeders may want dogs with an aptitude for performing specific tasks or excelling in certain settings; for example, dogs that excel at high-intensity sports, medical assistance, or scent tracking.
  3. Companionship. Some breeders value animals with an easy-going temperament that can cope with frequent handling and the other demands of life in human homes. In this case, traits are chosen to satisfy human emotional needs, such as the willingness to make eye contact or show affectionate behavior.
  4. Tradition. Some breeding programs reflect an altruistic or sentimental motivation to protect and conserve a certain breed or strengthen its gene pool.
  5. Appearance. These breeding programs focus on producing animals with a very precise physical appearance, according to specified standards, such as those detailed by a kennel club. The preferred standards may shift over time, as public tastes change.
  6. Cuteness. These breeding programs focus on producing dogs that elicit nurturing and may be desirable to some owners as surrogate children. This often involves retaining juvenile qualities and appearance into adulthood.
  7. Health. One common breeding goal is to produce resilient and hardy dogs. These programs avoid breeding dogs that are sickly or mentally unbalanced or carrying markers for genetic risk.

It’s possible for breeding goals work to in tandem. For example, when dogs are healthy and effectively perform a particular task, then their training costs are also reduced, allowing a greater return on investment.

But breeding goals like health and “cuteness” are often at odds. Examples are highly wrinkled skin that invites eyelid and skin problems; densely tangled coats that cannot be sufficiently groomed by the animal themselves and require human shearing; and the skull malformations required to produce flat faces and short muzzles which in turn produce perilous breathing conditions, dental problems, eye problems, and high rates of caesarean deliveries.

Can breeding goals be balanced?

Scholars suggest that kennel clubs could simply adjust breed standards, such as to a longer muzzle length, to enable greater physical health and welfare. While that would be a positive step, it can also be difficult to achieve, as breed standards reflect both historical momentum and popular trends.

To complicate matters, research shows that deep evolutionary forces influence what we find cute and appealing on a subconscious level. For example, flat-faced, round-headed, button-nosed dogs can resemble smiling babies, and these features can trigger our parental impulses without our even realizing it. Acknowledging this evolutionary undertow could be the first step toward breeding programs that put greater emphasis on animal health and welfare.


Wellmann, Robin, Nicolas Gengler, Jörn Bennewitz, and Jens Tetens. 2023. “Defining Valid Breeding Goals for Animal Breeds.” Genetics Selection Evolution 55 (1): 80.

Ackerman, Lowell, Emma Goodman Milne, Jerold S. Bell, Anita M. Oberbauer, Jason C. Nicholas, Nan Boss, Ryane E. Englar, et al. 2021. “Hereditary Considerations.” In Pet-Specific Care for the Veterinary Team, 129–225. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Paul, Elizabeth S., Rowena MA Packer, Paul D. McGreevy, Emily Coombe, Elsa Mendl, and Vikki Neville. 2023. “That Brachycephalic Look: Infant-like Facial Appearance in Short-Muzzled Dog Breeds.” Animal Welfare 32 (January): e5.

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