I always get asked what kind of dog Silas is. He has a very nice, cohesive look about him. He’s cute, he has big ears, he has an adorable little prance when we’re out. He’s striking, and we live in a neighborhood where almost all the dogs are purebreds of one kind or another. So, every trip, usually more than once, I have to explain that he’s no particular breed at all.
But all those days I spent when he was a puppy, trying to figure out if he was a breed, or some obvious combination of breeds (mostly because I wanted to know if I should expect 20 pounds or 80, which time has fortunately decided and ended my frustration), made me think a lot about the status of the purebred dog. None of my thoughts are terribly original, so I’ll keep them mostly to myself.
Except for this one: we (and in this context, consider “we” to mean “the American public as a tendency,” which is basically the opposite of the dog-blogging community) love purebred dogs because we deeply believe that they will behave in some sort of predictable way. Even when we’re busy labeling a breed as “bad” or “dangerous,” we’re comforted to know that Breed Z, with that shape and those ears, is going to do thing Q. We don’t have to worry about those big yellow dogs, but the blocky-headed ones we have to watch out for. Except we’re wrong, all the time. Some Pit Bulls love babies, some Chihuahuas walk down the street like rational creatures, some hound dogs are afraid of gunshots, some Shiba Inus compete in agility.
The thing that bugs me about that “wrongness” is that only when people have their assumptions disproven do they consider the individual dog. That is, the leash-trained Chihuahua is obviously an exception, or belongs to an exceptional person. People who are fighting breed-specific legislation or various stigmas are fond of saying “blame the deed, not the breed.” That is, always focus on the individual dog, rather than trying to generalize some kind of breed-sterotype. The logic of this is impeccable: by removing our focus on breed as an inevitable predictors of behavior, we can instead focus on training, socialization, and individual temperament.
Even those benevolently minded people, though, almost always fall back on the breed at the end. “Don’t ban our breed; they’re good dogs.”
Lately this has been enough to send me into a fit of gibbering rage. “Our breed are good dogs too” is exactly what causes the problem to start with. Moving your dog from the “bad” list to the “good” list, doesn’t do anything to erase the existence of the list in the first place; it just shifts the paranoia elsewhere. Many owners of “aggressive” breeds, driven to desperation, are very fond of pointing out that many more people are bitten by Labradors, America’s Dog Sweetheart, than by their “Dangerous” dog. How does that help anyone? (And, on the other side, I wonder how many of those Labradors bit because someone assumed that their breed never bites, and treated them accordingly?)
I don’t see any of this going anywhere, because there is just enough truth in most breed standards at some level to make them pervasive. Some breeds are, when taken as a whole, more likely to guard your house, or to fetch, or to be the most awesome dog in agility class. And unlike dogs, people love to generalize. I’ve caught myself saying, “oh, terriers just do that” when Silas does something I don’t like, even though I have no idea how much terrier he really is.
Where do we draw the line between “breed standard” and “individual”? Between “natural trait” and “excuse”? And, more importantly, how do we communicate that to people who aren’t interested in the subtleties of dog behavior?
(I hereby submit my nomination for Blogger Least Likely to Participate in Wordless Wednesday. I just had to get it off my chest.)