A Dog is a Dog

August 5, 2008 at 2:02 am Leave a comment

“What is the name of that geranium on the window sill, please?”
“That’s the apple scented geranium.”
“Oh, I don’t mean that sort of a name. I mean just a name you gave it yourself. Didn’t you give it one then? May I call it–let me see–Bonny would do–may I call it Bonny while I’m here? Oh, do let me!”
“Goodness, I don’t care. But where on earth is the sense of naming a geranium?”
“Oh, I like things to have handles on them even if they are only geraniums. It makes them more like people.”

–L. M. Montgomery
Anne of Green Gables

“It makes them more like people.”  Is this the root of our obsession with labeling dogs?

Yesterday when Audie and I were at the disc dog tournament a man saw us sitting there with our discs.  He walked up and complained to me – in quite an irate manner – how upset he was that the announcer was not telling the audience what breed each dog competing belonged to.  I was a bit taken aback – especially as one of the things I like best about disc dog sports is the lack of focus on things like breed, eugenic purity pedigrees and the presence or absence of the canine competitors’ reproductive parts.

Being a very cheerful, take-it-as-it-comes type, the announcer politely listened to the man’s complaint and did her best to accommodate him.  It ended up adding a bit of comedy to the event as nearly every dog competing was a former shelter dog of unknown origin and their owners made jokes or gave cryptic answers when asked what their dogs were (there wasn’t a spot for ‘breed’ on the registration form).  *sigh*  It was so much simpler when all she did was tell us the dog’s name.

Why do we need so badly to know what our dogs are?  From Saturday’s Boston Globe:

New DNA tests, which range in cost from $55 to $200, promise to identify the breeds present in a dog’s genetic soup.

Billed as a way to satisfy curiosity and to help veterinarians watch out for breed-specific ailments, the tests are also providing a dose of humility for animal specialists who now realize how bad they have been at guessing a dog’s breed mix.

“I’m a veterinarian who’s been classifying dogs for 10 years,” said Dr. Martha Smith, director of veterinary medical services at Animal Rescue League of Boston. “And when these DNA test results started coming back, I realized that I didn’t know squat.”

The results of the testing have been so startling that the Animal Rescue League is planning to stop making educated guesses about mixes and will instead label all mutts as American shelter dogs. The shelter the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals runs at Angell Memorial Hospital is considering a similar change, although the MSPCA prefers the term New England mutt.

In most cases, attaching a label to a dog of unknown ancestry is of little importance, said Smith, who had her two dogs tested because they were getting on in years and she wanted to get to know them a little better. “In the end,” she said, “a dog is a dog.”

American Shelter Dogs.  New England Mutts.  Generic Brown Dogs.  Canardlys (you know, when you can ‘ardly tell what’s in the mix).  As Dr. Smith said – “In the end, a dog is a dog,” why isn’t that enough for us?

Can you name the breed? (And should you....?)

Can you name the breed? (And should you....?)

 Perhaps it started with the Victorians.  They were, after all, obsessed with the idea categorizing things based on their appearance.  It may be an outdated notion, but we still seem have an innate need to sort things into neat little categorical boxes, perhaps because it makes them easier to remember.

The problem is that every dog fits into a whole lot of boxes.  Some of them overlap (and fit the breed profile) and others don’t.  But once we’ve sorted a thing (like a dog) into a box (like breed) – we humans have a very strong tendency to remember only the few key things that we focused on as we put it into that box.  This is the basis of stereotyping – and it’s not a good thing.

So our boxes tell us that all Golden Retrievers are great with kids.  All Rottweilers are killers.  All Chihuahuas are yappy, obnoxious little purse fillers – and so on.  The Golden that fatally mauls a person, the Rottie that raises an orphaned lamb and the OTCH Chihuahua fall so astronomically far outside the neat little boxes that make up our expectations – we see them as existing in an entirely different universe – and the boxes don’t change.

Because our boxes are so rigid – we are deceived into believing that they’re strong and well-constructed.  So we rely on them.

  • Shelter workers rely on them when they are forced to ‘determine’ what breed a dog is before it’s adopted.  Most people demand to ‘know’ what they’re getting when they adopt a dog – and there is a lot of pressure to label dogs that are up for adoption.
  • Law enforcement personnel rely on them when they are forced to ‘determine’ the breeds of dogs involved in aggression cases.
  • Legislators – more and more – rely on them when they are pressured to “do something!” about high-profile dog maulings.

The precise categorical boxes that each breed of dog is supposed to fit neatly into are ‘tools’ that many of us use on an almost daily basis.  And, to an ever increasing extent, we are using those innocent-looking boxes in broadly defamatory ways.

Breed tendencies are a general guide that are useful in assessing behavior, not a precise formula that determines behavior.

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Entry filed under: bsl, dogs. Tags: , .

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