Con­fes­sions of a breed fancier

For what­ever rea­son, ev­ery­thing about the Scot­tish Ter­rier ap­peals to me

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - LATHAM HUNTER Latham Hunter is a writer and pro­fes­sor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions and cul­tural stud­ies; her work has been pub­lished in jour­nals, an­tholo­gies, mag­a­zines and print news for over 20 years. She blogs at The Kids’ Book Cu­ra­tor.

I made a bold move in a re­cent col­umn when I not only dis­closed the fact that I have a dog, but that it is a Scot­tish Ter­rier. In fact, it’s much more se­ri­ous that this: my hus­band and I have had mul­ti­ple Scot­tish Ter­ri­ers for al­most 20 years, which makes us Scot­tish Ter­rier fanciers, thank you very much. And the fan­cy­ing’s not wear­ing off, ei­ther.

When you com­mit to a dog breed, you’re also com­mit­ting, for bet­ter or worse, to the as­so­ci­a­tions and as­sump­tions peo­ple con­nect to it. Ter­ri­ers, for ex­am­ple, while widely found to be de­light­ful com­pan­ions, are of­ten con­sid­ered scrappy, tena­cious, some­times aloof, and fre­quently en­ti­tled. I once knew a Jack Rus­sell Ter­rier who con­sid­ered him­self a kind of mis­sile to launch at peo­ple’s pelvises, and not in a nice way. Retriev­ers might try to launch them­selves at you, but it will be un­gainly and be­nign enough to feel like a sort of hard-but-lov­ing shove, and you just know it’s be­cause they’re so darn happy to see you and not too keen about judg­ing things like weight, ve­loc­ity, grav­ity, etc.

Now: what kinds of peo­ple are at­tracted to these very dif­fer­ent dogs? The breed you choose says things about you, some of which you’re con­scious of, some of which you’re not, and some of which de­pend en­tirely on what ideas and ex­pe­ri­ences other peo­ple at­tach to that breed.

Peo­ple ask me, “Why Scot­ties?” I hon­estly have no idea — for all I know it could have been the Scot­tie sweater Princess Diana wore a few times, with its ranks of white (ahem, in breed par­lance we call it “wheaten”) Scot­ties and one, sin­gle black Scot­tie march­ing over her right breast.

When I was a child, my fa­ther had gi­ant Ch­e­sa­peake Bay Retriev­ers he only wanted for hunt­ing a few days of the year. Tied up in the back­yard and starved for at­ten­tion, one used to stand out­side the kitchen win­dow, its front paws on the sill, its chain stretched taught as it looked wist­fully into the house, day af­ter day. Per­haps I’ve cho­sen Scot­ties be­cause they’re com­pact, easy house dogs, af­fec­tion­ate but with an in­de­pen­dent streak. Per­haps I wanted to de­fine my­self as very dif­fer­ent from my es­tranged fa­ther, and hav­ing a very dif­fer­ent dog was part of that process.

Or maybe it’s Scot­ties be­cause of my prac­ti­cal na­ture. They’re low-dan­der dogs who, be­cause they’re black, al­ways look and smell fairly clean. They don’t shed any more than peo­ple do, and they’re small enough to pack a few into a house­hold with­out los­ing too much square footage. Though they’re ter­ri­ers, they’re not yappy, and they don’t have any is­sues with their ears, eyes, skin, or hips, as so many other breeds do.

Or maybe it’s my la­tent Scot­tish an­ces­try reach­ing out, or there’s some­thing about Scot­tish cul­ture in par­tic­u­lar that ap­peals to me and I as­pire to re­flect — I want some of that grit, that salti­ness.

For thou­sands of years dogs evolved and were en­gi­neered to suit our needs as hunters and farm­ers in ex­change for warmth, food, and be­long­ing to a pow­er­ful tribe. Now, the ma­jor­ity are bred to serve an­other pur­pose: iden­tity. Tiny Yorkies that fit in leather bags com­pli­ment fash­ion-con­scious iden­ti­ties. Sport­ing dogs project out­doorsy iden­ti­ties. Dogs can shore up our emo­tional well-be­ing, and help us to de­fine health­ier, more em­pa­thetic ver­sions of our­selves. They can also, trag­i­cally, be used to en­hance dan­ger­ous, an­ti­so­cial iden­ti­ties: dogs like Rot­tweil­ers, Dober­mans and Stafford­shire Ter­ri­ers have been used and abused be­cause they’ve been so fre­quently por­trayed as guard dogs and fight­ing dogs, not be­cause it’s in all their na­tures to be ag­gres­sive. Stray dogs adopted from the pound re­flect a moral­ity and so­cial con­scious­ness that pure­bred dog own­ers can’t ac­cess.

Peo­ple have told me that I’m ab­nor­mally at­tached to do­ing “the right thing” — start­ing the kids’ RESPs right af­ter they’re born, be­ing veg­e­tar­ian, driv­ing an elec­tric car … When it comes to dogs, “the right thing” is surely go­ing to the Hu­mane So­ci­ety and pick­ing up the dog who’s run­ning out of chances. I don’t do this. I know I should, and yet ... For what­ever rea­son, ev­ery­thing about the Scot­tish Ter­rier ap­peals to me. I fancy it. Whereas once they were bred to catch ver­min and root out bad­gers in the lands north of Hadrian’s Wall, now they’re bred to make peo­ple like me ridicu­lously happy, just by ex­ist­ing as their fab­u­lous, sin­gu­lar selves. Is this self­ish? Maybe. And some­times I feel guilty. But in a coun­try that prides it­self on di­ver­sity, per­haps there’s also room to cel­e­brate and re­spect the glo­ri­ous ca­nine in all its per­mu­ta­tions — the most phys­i­cally di­verse species on earth, with the re­mark­able ca­pa­bil­ity of act­ing as a hairy re­flec­tion and en­abler of our di­verse selves.

LATHAM HUNTER PHOTO

Latham Hunter writes: ‘Ter­ri­ers, while widely found to be de­light­ful com­pan­ions, are of­ten con­sid­ered scrappy, tena­cious, some­times aloof, and fre­quently en­ti­tled.’

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