Judging a dog by its … cover?
“We don’t allow people with pit bulls to rent here.” “Golden retrievers are always so friendly.”
“You can’t trust Dobermans.”
People often lump dog breeds into categories based on what they look like, without even thinking that just like humans, dogs are individuals, with individual traits, personalities, quirks, and temperaments.
Stereotyping allows us to reach conclusions without having to think, which can be helpful if you’re being charged by an enraged three thousand-pound rhinoceros. Angry rhino = danger = run for your life.
But most of us aren’t dealing with rhinoceroses in our daily lives: we’re dealing with companion animals like dogs. When we try to pigeonhole their personalities and behaviors according to breed or appearance, it can be problematic at best.
Those new to the dog world tend to carry around assumptions that you can judge a dog’s breed—and thus its character—by simply looking at it. But in truth, only fifty of a dog’s nearly twenty thousand genes are associated with physical appearance. Even dog professionals are wrong almost seventy-five percent of the time when guessing a mixed-breed’s ancestry by its appearance.
It’s easier to pinpoint the pedigree of a purebred dog: Daschunds are like frankfurters with legs … Dalmatians sport black spots … beagles have huge liquid eyes and long floppy ears. But even within a given breed, we can’t accurately predict a specific dog’s personality. The way a young dog is treated, socialized, and trained shapes its behavior and temperament as an adult far more than does its dominant breed; we simply can’t predict that a dog will act a specific way based on its appearance.
DNA testing bears this out. Often a dog that looks like one breed is revealed to be a mixture of many, none of which may be the breed we initially thought it was. That Labrador retriever next door? Well, it’s actually a mix of collie, great Dane, Rottweiler, and pointer. But it sure looks and acts like a Lab! My dog Joey is another example: he has the sweet disposition and looks of a golden retriever—but DNA testing showed that he’s barely one-eighth golden. The rest is a mish-mash of many other breeds, some of which have the reputation of being aggressive. That’s about as far from Joey’s temperament as I am from a crocodile.
Stereotyping breeds can have some ugly and unjust consequences as well. Probably the most wellknown example of this is the pit bull class of dogs. In response to scattered (and very rare) attacks on humans and other animals, many states and over 700 communities have enacted breed-specific legislation that regulates or even bans ownership of these dogs—or even dogs that resemble the breed.
The banning of these dogs has led to a huge influx of pit bulls and pit mixes in local shelters. Unless it’s a no-kill facility, most of these dogs end up euthanized unless they’re adopted, regardless of how loving or nonviolent they may be.
Stereotyping something we fear or that we don’t understand seems to be a part of human nature. It’s so much easier to generalize, whether it’s someone’s ethnicity or a dog’s breed. But that doesn’t make it just, or even accurate.
While it’s true that specific dog breeds share certain genetic predispositions—for instance, Aussies tend to have an irresistible impulse to herd, and Great Pyrenees tend to be exceptionally vigilant guardians—dogs are still individuals, no matter their breed.
So the next time you meet a new dog, don’t make an automatic assumption about its character based on its looks. We all deserve a chance to prove who we are based on how we act—and that includes our beloved canine companions.
Joan Merriam lives in Nevada County with her Golden Retriever Joey, her Maine Coon cat Indy, and the abiding spirit of her beloved Golden Retriever Casey in whose memory this column is named. You can reach Joan at joan@ joanmerriam.com. And if you’re looking for a Golden, be sure to check out Homeward Bound Golden Retriever Rescue.