February 16, 2017 5:42 AM EST

Even people who aren’t dog owners probably know that purebreds are considered the best–at least in terms of price, aesthetics and dog-show titles.

But purebreds have a less pure origin story. In fact, when competitive dog shows first emerged in 19th century Britain, they were less about dogs and more about establishing a social hierarchy. Women often weren’t allowed to show their dogs with men, and most competitions made working-class pet owners show their dogs after their richer counterparts, “when all the good dogs had gone home,” says Michael Worboys, a specialist on the social history of pedigree dog breeding in Victorian Britain.

There was also the issue of breeding itself, which took off after the 1859 publication of Charles Darwin’s treatise On the Origin of Species. By allowing only the most aesthetically pleasing animals to mate, breeders believed they could make more-perfect creatures. Those efforts strengthened the idea that all sorts of living things could be improved–evolution with intent–which in part laid the groundwork for eugenics, says Katherine C. Grier, author of Pets in America.

These days if Victorian-style dog breeding is controversial, it’s mostly because of the canine health problems that can result if it’s done sloppily. Still, it remains an essential component of competitive dog shows. The urge to make the perfect pet–even if only for show–is doggedly persistent.

–OLIVIA B. WAXMAN

Read more like this at time.com/history

This appears in the February 27, 2017 issue of TIME.

More Must-Read Stories From TIME

Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com.

You May Also Like
EDIT POST