I’m interviewing a new client whose dog tends to bark and charge and nip the heels and dan- gling hands of retreating strangers. Her dog is smallish and stocky, with a coarse, medium-length coat of mottled blue-gray, black, white and brown. His nose and ears are pointy. While I reassure her that his behavior actually makes sense from his doggy point of view, a little voice in my head whispers, “What did she expect? She got a Cattle Dog.” I have little difficulty discounting the client’s own plaintive claim that she’s had Cattle Dogs all her life and this is the first one who’s acted this way. “You were lucky until now,” my little voice says, assuming those dogs were somehow the exceptions. But when another client complains that his large, square-headed, short-coated, yellow dog is growly around his food bowl, I take his statement that “none of my other Labs have done this,” at face value. The current dog is clearly the exception. After all, my little voice says, “everyone knows Labs love people.”
My little voice is probably wrong.
Often, we assume that each breed car- ries its own set of hard-wired impulses, which are particularly difficult to alter, even with sound behavior-modification techniques. We even expect these presumed genetic predispositions to carry over to mixed-breed dogs who physically resemble a particular breed. Dog professionals are as prone to these biases as everyone else. We’ve learned them as part of the conventional professional wisdom, and our experiences seem to confirm them — not surprising, since current behavioral and neuroscience studies show that human brains consistently prefer data that sup- port what we already believe and disparage anything that contradicts it. To top it off, a nodding acquaintance with the burgeoning field of canine genetic research indisputably demonstrates connections between genetics and behavior. One new study even appears to have found the locations on the map of the canine genome that account for pointers pointing and herders herding.
So why not use breed as the way to choose the particular puppy or dog who’s likely to help us fulfill the dream of taking a perfectly behaved, friendly dog to cheer the lives of people in nursing homes, be endlessly tolerant with our kids or have the kind of indefatigable enthusiasm for retrieving that makes a good contraband-sniffing dog? How about using breed stereotypes to guide public policy decisions on whether some dogs are more likely than others to present a danger to people, or simply to assess whether that dog coming toward us means us good or ill?
Turns out it’s not that simple.
First, there is the “what kind of dog is that?” question. Probably at least half of the estimated 77.5 million dogs in the U.S. are mixed breeds. It’s common practice among people working in res- cues and shelters to identify the dogs in their care as “predominantly breed X” or as an “X/Y mix.” Recently, when scientists used DNA analysis to test the accuracy of such labeling, they found that among dogs labeled by adoption workers, only one dog in four actually had the named breed confirmed as significantly — much less, predominantly — represented. This would not be a surprise to any geneticist or indeed, anyone who has ever glanced at Scott and Fuller’s venerable 1960s study of canine development and breed characteristics, which found that breeding, for example, a Basenji to a Cocker Spaniel often resulted in puppies with little or no resemblance to either parent.