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Dog Ownership in the Soviet Bloc: A Socio-Political Perspective
Copyright 2004 Jan Adamczyk; all rights reserved

I have read and heard the oft-repeated and historically inaccurate opinions about dog breeding and ownership, specifically pet dog ownership, in the former Soviet Bloc. I lived in Poland until 1981, and my town was very close to the Czechoslovakian border, so I was also very familiar with the situation there. Later, in 1985 I lived and studied in the Soviet Union for several months. Thus, I am speaking from extensive experience when I state that owning dogs as pets was very deeply ingrained in the East European cultures and did not somehow vanish just because the Iron Curtain descended. (I am speaking here about the Slavic countries, perhaps someone else could comment on the DDR situation). Owning dogs, particularly of the so-called "noble" breeds such as the German Shepherd Dog, was a source of great pride, which often bordered almost on the fanatical.

It is true that that most of the societies in the former Soviet-occupied Europe were not affluent in the Western sense, and luxury goods, depending of course on the decade we are talking about, were often in short supply. However, no one was really starving, so while there was no commercial dog food available, there were plenty of scraps to feed the family pooch. One could say that the entire Communist Bloc pet (and service) dog population was on a forced BARF diet. (I am sure that there are many who would argue that such a diet is not necessarily "far less nutritious" than what is created by commercial manufacturers from decaying carcasses and whatever "chicken by-products" may stand for).

Obviously, just as it it is the case in today's Western countries, dogs owned as pets were much more prevalent in the cities. In the countryside they tended to have 'jobs', if only that of alerting the farmer of approaching strangers. Granted, the distinction between the so-called "working" and "show" lines was much less sharp than it is now, but then so was the case in West Germany or America of thirty years ago.

There were government breeding facilities for service dogs, but also plenty of private breeders who were selling to the services, as well as to the general public. The breeder of my current German Shepherd Dog bred in Poland for decades and with considerable success both for the show and for the police services. The police services only wanted the German Shepherd Dog; Rottweilers were, at least in Poland, a rare breed and the craze for the Caucasian shepherds started only after the fall of communism. With less diversity in the lines, the less-driven pups, or those with outstanding conformation were sold to the private owners. However, there were also litters bred strictly for the pet market.

I assure you that there was a vibrant and lucrative pet dog market; dog shows were a big deal and were attended by throngs of afficionados. I've seen the dog show scene in Poland first hand, and the competitive environment was little different than one sees in the USA today. A close relative bred Dobermans for the pet/show market; Dobermans were viewed as serious personal protection dogs for civilians. Another relative owned a champion longhair Dachshund and won every show he ever entered her in. There were magazines devoted to private dog ownership, with numerous articles discussing, among other topics, issues of conformation and showing dogs in the ring.

Owning a purebred dog (especially the German Shepherd Dog, which had the status of almost of a mythical beast, extolled in countless novels and movies) was a huge status symbol, eagerly sought after even at a cost of skimping on other items. (By the same token one could see Czech or Polish youths clad in fashionable American blue jeans--another status symbol--although their price often equalled a monthly salary of an average worker.)

If we discuss the impact of East European (Czech, Slovak, DDR, Hungarian) German Shepherd Dog breeding on the lines in existence today, if we discuss the mentality and the aims of those who bred for the specific purposes of sealing the borders or menacing the populace, we must put it in historical context, and for that a genuine knowledge of the overall socio-political situation that existed behind the Curtain is needed. Stating that owning dogs as pets was a rarity in the Communist Bloc countries betrays lack of such knowledge and perspective.

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