Breeds

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.)

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6 thoughts on “Breeds

  1. Jodi Chick had a great post about BSL http://www.kolchakpuggle.com/

    The key to anything is education, the sooner we can educate children about the proper treatment and raising of animals, the sooner we will see real change.

    As bloggers (IMO) the greatest thing we can do is try and educate the public. Of course, you will always have the ignorants who do it their way, but then our laws should reflect that and give them steeper more severe punishments.

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    1. Oh, thanks for the link!

      As much as I love blogging as a platform, it does feel very insular. We mostly talk amongst ourselves, that is. There’s actually a fantastic charity here that goes into schools and runs a program against animal cruelty.

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  2. Great post and don’t worry about the wordless thing. I don’t think I’ve ever posted anything without yammering about something! 😛

    You know, I’ve thought a lot about this issue for a very long time. Honestly – and I know I’d get hate mail for this – I do think the world might be a better place for dogs if there was no such thing as purebred at all. This doesn’t mean I have it out for breeders I just think that if we removed the ability to judge based on appearance, dogs would be treated a lot better. So would humans, as far as that is concerned.

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    1. What can I say, I’m chatty.

      I get the spirit of your point about eliminating breeds. I’ve certainly benefitted from being able to toss off a breezy “who-knows-what” as my answer to Silas’s breed. It also circles back around to the fact that breed is a double-edged sword. Leaving aside the ethical morass that is careful puppy buying/rescuing at the shelter/breed specific rescue, breed can help you narrow down something like exercise requirements or coat length or size in a way that’s indisputably useful. BUT, I think it’s conversely way too easy to use breed as an indicator for temperament, which beyond certain very generic parameters just isn’t true. Not every Breed X is going to behave the same, and, most importantly, Breed X’s reputation for good (or bad) behavior can’t stand in for actual training. People who are really serious about a particular breed know this–they can tell you which Border Collie puppy will actually be able to herd sheep, or which Labrador will be the best gun dog–but John Q. Public just wants “one of that easy breed that doesn’t bite people.”

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  3. Fabulous post and one that I muse on all the time. I constantly curse the fact that people assume Honey is a good dog because she’s a Golden Retriever (you know they’re the perfect dog, right?) and not because she was carefully socialized from the start and receives training every day. It is a terrible message.

    And yet, I chose to get a pure breed dog so I could do the volunteer work with dogs that I wanted to do. None of my previous dogs would have been good companions in our current work with fosters.

    A few years later, I now know a trainer who helps evaluate shelter dogs for adoption. Today, I might get that help to pick out a shelter dog instead of making the choice I did. Of course, a life without Honey in it would be pretty drab so maybe it’s all for the best.

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    1. You hit on the other part of my anxiety too–Silas has a terrible temperament, in the abstract, behavioral evaluation sense. I mean, he’s great, as long as everything stays in his very narrow comfort zone. He doesn’t resource guard or have any definably “bad” behaviors. But he’s the worst combination ever of insecure, independent, and physically capable: “Let me bark and jump all over that person I’m afraid of! Let me at ’em!” I’ve had him since he was five weeks old. While I haven’t made perfect decisions with him, we did better than most people. We just can’t fully overcome whatever genetic fearfulness he was born with.

      Right now I’ve landed on something like this: if I ever want another puppy, I think I would go to a reputable breeder and get a more secure dog. For an adult dog, I don’t see much need to go to a breed-specific rescue; I would be perfectly willing to adopt a temperament-tested dog from the shelter. But, then, I don’t know. I love my wacky boy. I’m glad it’s a decision I don’t have to make in the foreseeable future.

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