Forty-eight percent of all U.S. households live with and love dogs (American Pet Products Survey 2017-2018). And rescue adoptions have more than doubled in the last ten years (PetFinder 2017).
This is very fortunate because it means that when I’m forced to strike up a conversation with a stranger, there is about a 50% chance that he or she will have a pet. Though I am utterly inept at making small talk, chitchat about animals is safe ground. (The other 50% of the time, I’m sunk).
I was relying on this old stand-by topic recently at a doctor’s office. I was thrilled to find that my nurse had a rescue dog, and had even adopted it from a rescue I work with.
“We’re crazy about him. He is the best dog,” she said with a fondness that I found especially soothing. “Great with the kids, loves the cat… We’re going to have him swabbed to see what kind of mix he is. It’s only about $100.00.”
Whoa. Wait. What?
I’d heard of genetic swabbing before, but her comment brought on several unexpected lines of thought.
The price tag to fulfill a curiosity notwithstanding, why do we feel compelled to know what kind of dog we have? Why do my shelter peeps and I have long discussions about what kind of dog that one is, with the long, floppy ears and stubby nose?
I am as bad as anyone in my tendency to categorize. But when I really consider what I’m hoping to gain from these conversations, I immediately feel guilty and question my motives. The only reason I can think of is so I can place the dog neatly into an organized shoebox of alleged behavioral traits. Gee, if I can only figure out what I’m dealing with, then I’ll have better expectations of the dog’s true personality.
Obviously, different kinds of dogs were selectively bred for different traits, and this has an effect on personality. I am painfully aware of this when my black and tan howls so loud I fear my ears will bleed, or when my terrier mutt digs a hole in the lawn so large he can fit half his body into it. I don’t deny fully expecting my JRT/beagle mix to come home with a half-eaten rabbit in her mouth fully expecting to bring the rest inside.
But then I am reminded of the detrimental effects of breed profiling, and I feel ashamed. Breed profiling is what has prevented responsible dog owners from living in certain areas. In some places, it’s what keeps certain dogs out of the dog parks, and even out of some boarding kennels. It’s responsible for public hysteria, which results in ridiculous laws, or denial of insurance (or demanding that owners of the offending breeds carry extra insurance riders, or sign wavers).
Breed assumptions about behaviors, temperament, intelligence, and propensity for violence, can lead potential adopters down the wrong path. I mean, how hard is it to place our bully breeds because of unwarranted profiling?
Even “good” stereotypes can be harmful. Suppose an unsuspecting adopter takes home a lab for the kids because “all labs have gentle natures.” Or what if a hound is adopted with the assumption that it’s going to rid they farm of vermin, but is returned for sleeping on the sofa all day? Maybe someone takes home a border collie as dumb as a brick.
So… can any good at all come from breed stereotyping?
I have heard the argument that since certain breeds are prone to medical issues, an owner can make sure the vet is screening, or keeping a close eye on potential future issues.
Humm… Shouldn’t a vet be doing that anyway? And let’s not forget the advantages of hybrid vigor. A mixed breed is more likely to be healthier, and live a longer life than their pedigreed kin.
I’ve seen dogs so stubby, their bellies drag the ground. I’ve seen dogs so front heavy, I wondered at their ability to keep from toppling forward. And I’ve seen dogs whose fur resembled porcupine quills. Shelter mutts are truly a marvel of nature. The sheer variety of sizes, shapes and colors is one of the things that makes rescue work fun. We obviously must be careful about putting too much stock into the idea that breeding alone determines behavioral traits, especially when training can be very effective in intercepting undesirable actions.
I am sure, however, that my biggest beef with genetic testing is the cost involved. Seems like the $60.00 - $100.00 might be better spent by donating it to a rescue, or a county shelter.
Though I admit that I’m still curious about the mixed heritage of my dogs, I must say that I find great pleasure in responding to the inevitable question posed when I’m running with Liebchen at the park. Liebchen is all black, has a lion’s mane that runs from shoulder to shoulder, and a ruffle down the length of her spine. She’s got a scruffy beard and is cheetah svelte. I have never seen her equal in grace, beauty, athleticism, or temperament.
“What kind of dog is that?” they ask in wonderment.
With a wide smile (and a tiny bit of ungracious smugness) I answer, “She’s just a rescue mutt.”