Go ahead, if you must. Go ahead and let a computer choose your travel route, your spouse, a custom-bundled insurance package or the right wine to have with dinner.
But don’t let a computer choose your dog. Please.
It’s become the way of the world to let apps, databases and websites — whether they were created by geniuses or boobs — make our decisions for us, or at least play a major role. Dogs shouldn’t be ordered via a computer and, in my view, they shouldn’t be chosen based exclusively on what an algorithm decides is “the best breed for you.” Unlike a Dalmatian, the factors involved aren’t black and white, and generalizations can be dangerous. Dependable and all knowing as it is, your computer device of choice can mess things up, sometimes even without your help.
I admit that I’m biased: I favor mutts over purebreds. I think that, as often as possible, people should get a dog who needs a home (and there are millions) as opposed to one a breeder brings into the world to make some money. And, when it comes to computers, I think that, convenient as they are, they’re making us overly dependent. We tend to let them take over work that should be done by our brains and, sometimes, by our hearts.
Given all this — and my belief that a dog should be chosen primarily by the heart, with a limited assist from the brain — you can see why I might have a problem with “breed selectors.” These little quizzes, in which your answers to a series of questions lead to a selection of breeds that “best fit your lifestyle” have popped up all over the Internet — not just on dog blogs, but on the websites of major magazines (like Good Housekeeping) and television networks (like Animal Planet). Many companies that make dog food, dog toys and dog supplies also feature them on their websites.
They all, it seems, want you to have the breed that is “best” for you, which is very thoughtful of them. But there’s another dimmer, and more cynical, view of breed selectors: Mine.
Breed selectors are based on stereotypes. They reinforce purebred snobbism. They make tough decisions too easy, too distant and too instant. And they are time-eaters, which perhaps is their real purpose: to keep you on those websites a little longer. Answer five questions, click. Answer five more, click. Just a few more questions … click… and your answers get churned in with the existing data they’ve assembled, which may or may not be accurate. In a matter of seconds, or even nanoseconds, you discover what a database has decided is your breed of choice. What could be easier?
I took five such tests, offered by five different websites. Thanks to “breed selectors,” I now know that the dog for me is a Doberman Pinscher … or a Mastiff … or a Bichon Frise … or a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel … or a Whippet … or a Bernese Mountain Dog … or an Akita.
I’m not really looking for a dog. I’m fortunate to have one, adopted from a shelter in Baltimore, who’s four dogs in one: a mix (or so repeated DNA testing has shown) of Rottweiler, Akita, Chow Chow and Pit Bull. All four are breeds of ill repute, mostly undeserved. All are sometimes said, generally by people who don’t know much, to be unpredictable, or nippers, or aggressive, or stone-cold killers.
To be honest, had I been selecting a dog by breed, I likely wouldn’t have sought out one of those four. But I wasn’t looking for a dog at all. Instead, I accidentally fell in love while visiting an animal shelter for another purpose. I ended up with the world’s most perfect, loving, friendly, sensitive dog — gentle enough to serve as a therapy dog, as lazy as I am and proof that either those breed stereotypes are way off base or that mixing breeds, if not the answer to world peace, can have some highly positive outcomes.
Why I fell in love with him is another question, one I don’t think computers can answer, and maybe I can’t either. Likely it had to do with the place I was in at the time; the hope I saw in his eyes; and a personality that seemed something like mine, only better. He was quiet, stoic, patient, curious and a fast learner. He’s seven now, and as much as he would probably like some company — ideally, it seems, a cat — my current living conditions aren’t right for a second pet.
So, while I had no business using “breed selectors,” I decided, given their prevalence and my curiosity, to check them out. I started off at Dogtime.com, which turned out to be the best of the bunch. As with the other breed-selecting machines, I listed my genuine preferences — big dogs, smart dogs, friendly dogs — and made it clear that companionship was my priority and protection wasn’t an issue, and that I’d prefer a dog with a moderate energy level — something just slightly above couch potato.
The Dogtime selector has many disclaimers, and rightfully so. Also, unlike the rest I tried out, it makes a point of at least suggesting a mutt. “In searching for the right dog, we encourage you to look beyond a breed to consider the dog himself,” the website says. “Personality is the most important indicator of what it will be like to live with a dog, and a mutt has it in spades.” I proceeded to answer the five pages of questions they threw at me. My results came in this order: Anatolian Shepherd, Doberman Pinscher, German Pinscher, Mastiff and Neapolitan Mastiff.
Though I had expressly stated that “protection” was neither a concern nor a need, most of those breeds are noted for their guarding abilities and intimidating looks. This would turn out to be a common thread; all the breed selectors seemed to assume that if you are looking for a large dog, you need or want a bodyguard when, in reality, some of us just prefer big, goofy lugs who step on our feet and get in the way.
After the Dogtime test, I stumbled over to Good Housekeeping’s website and took its quiz — just two pages. I expressed all the same wants and priorities: a large dog, highly sociable, intelligent, moderately active, and content to be couch potato at night. Its advice? A Bichon Frise: “A cuddly lapdog like the Bichon Frise is your perfect match. Affectionate, charming, and gentle, the Bichon Frise loves everyone and is happiest when part of a family that takes him everywhere. They’re great with children and will get along with other pets. The happy temperament of a Bichon Frise makes him extremely easy and pleasant to live with.”
For a second, given the disparity in breeds offered by the first two sites — at least in terms of the size of dogs recommended — I pondered whether I might be schizophrenic. I pondered whether a Bichon Frise might make a good wife. I pondered whether size really matters, given that there seems to be a big dog inside every little dog, and a little dog inside every big dog. I pondered, briefly, whether or not a Mastiff-Bichon Frise mix, if functionally possible, might be best for me.
Confused, I headed over to the Purina Dog Breed Selector, where the first questions that popped up were how much I wanted to spend (as little as possible, I answered) and how much I was willing to commit to my dog food budget (same answer). I answered 16 questions that were intended, I guess, to reveal some things about me. By the time I was done, only two choices were offered: Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and Whippet.
Then a list of questions came up related to what I sought in a dog. Again I stuck with the same basic responses: a dog who was large, smart, friendly, etc. When I clicked for results, I got zero choices, so I refreshed the page and did it all again. This time I got 117 choices. Perhaps it was a computer error, perhaps it was my own. Sometimes my paws seem too big for the keyboard; sometimes, when trying to put a little check in a little box, I misclick.
In any event, I moved on.
Animal Planet’s breed selector only asked me 10 questions, one at a time. What’s interesting about this one is that, as soon as you answer a question, some of your choices disappear, so you can tell what it is about yourself that disqualifies you as an owner of that breed. After the first few questions, the dogs on my list were Akita, Bull Mastiff, Tibetan Mastiff and Bernese Mountain Dog.
When I specified a smart and “very trainable” dog, the Bull Mastiff disappeared. When I said I needed the dog to provide “little or no protection,” the Tibetan Mastiff disappeared. When I told Animal Planet that I lived in a climate that was warm in the summer and cold in the winter (aren’t most?), the Akita disappeared, leaving me with the Bernese Mountain Dog: “It is a sturdy, large, hardy dog capable of both draft and droving work. This requires a combination of strength, speed and agility.” I’m not planning to do any drafting or, for that matter, any droving — and (while I do love Bernese Mountain Dogs) the Animal Planet test wasn’t one of the more impressive.
At that point, not one of the four breed selectors I tried had suggested the Newfoundland, my favorite when it comes to purebreds.
I stopped by the American Kennel Club website to see what advice it offered. While it is perhaps the most breed-focused organization in the world, the AKC doesn’t offer a breed-selector test. Instead, its website supplies potential dog buyers with general information about factors to consider when choosing a breed: temperament, size, gender, age, coat/ grooming needs and health. Genetic problems are common in some breeds, it noted, just above a link to some pet health insurance it recommended.
My final stop was puppyfinder.com. Once again, I specified a large dog, in this case choosing the “over 90 pounds” option. I ranked temperament as most important, and answered that getting along with other dogs, children and strangers were the highest priorities and protection was the lowest. This time, the top result was Newfoundland, followed by Irish Wolfhound, Saint Bernard, Scottish Deerhound and Great Dane.
As with most of the tests, puppyfinder.com made no mention of mixed breeds, which, as a group, are America’s most popular dogs. Few, if any, of the quizzes delve into whether a test-taker was ready to make the commitment to caring for a dog. Most websites seem more concerned with helping you find a dog who “fits into your lifestyle” than if your lifestyle fits having a dog. Though all of the breed-selection tests seem to have great respect for your “lifestyle,” few of them point out that adding a dog to the family is going to give that “lifestyle” a good shaking up.
All that said, I don’t find breed selectors totally despicable. While they do oversimplify and while I do question the accuracy of some of their data and the results they offered, the quizzes provide humans with some knowledge, and humans can always use more knowledge. Used to supplement the decision-making process, as a starting point or to affirm a choice we’ve otherwise researched, they can be helpful.
However, relied upon exclusively, they turn what should be a matter mostly of the heart into a matter solely of the head, a decision we can reach from afar by coldly calculating a breed’s various features — checking little boxes to specify the amount of drooling and shedding we can tolerate, and maybe even finding a coat color that fits in with our décor.
Shouldn’t a personal connection be part of the decision? Shouldn’t love conquer all? You’re getting a dog, after all, not a cappuccino machine. We don’t choose our friends, at least our non-Facebook ones, that way. We don’t examine their specifications, or befriend them based on their energy levels, how much food they eat, or whether, when threatened, they will attack on our behalf or hide under the coffee table.
Proponents of using such computerized tests to match dog to human say it will lead to better relationships and result in fewer dogs ending up abandoned or in shelters. But I’d question how many of those situations are the result of breed-specific traits and behavior, as opposed to owners who either weren’t ready for a dog in the first place or who, placing their “lifestyle” above all else, were unwilling to invest the necessary time.
Others will point out, hey, computer matchmaking works, at least sometimes, for human relationships; why not for dogs? As with human-matchmaking websites, the breed selectors allow you to cast the widest net possible, specify what you’re looking for and what you’re willing to put up with, and click your way to true love. Website ads point out that every day, increasing numbers of people are coming together that way — something like one in five marriages, according to some studies, are couples who met online.
But there’s a difference. Those people, after confirming they both like long walks on the beach at sunset, generally meet before they permanently shack up together. They spend some time confirming, face to face, that what the database suggests might be love, really is. Not so with dogs. They become instant household members. And to think that your computer-determined love for the Golden Retriever breed means you are going to love each and every Golden Retriever is wrong, not to mention an insult to the remarkable individuality of dogs.
Until the day comes when breeders manage to make every dog of a certain breed exactly the same in every way (and I hope they don’t), matching human to dog breed remains a gimmick. Humans usually fall for gimmicks.
My prediction? Expect dog-to-human matchmaking to become even more popular, and go even more the way of human-to-human matchmaking — with more emphasis on pairing up similar personalities. Human-to-human matchmaking sites are mostly based on our desire to hook up with someone, preferably, a slightly younger version of ourselves.
Indications are that’s the direction doggie matchmaking is headed as well — matching humans not with an individual dog, but with the breed that supposedly best ref lects themselves. People are drawn to breeds that mirror their own personalities, according to research by psychologists, including a recent study by scientists at the UK’s Bath Spa University, with assistance from the Kennel Club. The findings, not yet peer-reviewed, were presented at the British Psychological Society’s annual conference in London in April 2012.
Here are some examples of what they found: Outgoing types lean toward Collies, Sheepdogs, Bulldogs, Heelers and Corgis. Highly agreeable sorts have a preference for Spaniels, Retrievers, Setters, Pointers and Weimaraners. Conscientious people go for Dalmatians, Poodles, Schnauzers, Chow Chows and Boston Terriers. Laid-back folks gravitate toward Rhodesian Ridgebacks, Foxhounds, Beagles, Dachshunds and Greyhounds.
The study — in which 1,000 dog owners took part — was based on questionnaires measuring five personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and anxiety. The conclusion? “We go for dogs [who] are a bit like us, just as we go for a romantic partner who is a bit like us,” says Bath Spa University study researcher Lance Workman. While “lifestyle” is a big factor in the breed people choose, he adds, “it seems likely that personality types are subconsciously drawn to certain breeds.”
Workman says fewer dogs might end up in shelters if prospective dog owners first took a test that measured both their personality type as well as practical, lifestyle-based concerns, such as the size of their homes. “You would type in these answers, and it would expand the 50 questions we’ve got to go into lifestyle, and it would say, ‘This is the dog for you,’” Workman concludes.
We must disagree (disagreeability being one of our personality traits). The traits and characteristics of breeds just aren’t that predictable. Your Great Dane won’t always be in the way (just most of the time); your Border Collie won’t always be a genius, your Weimaraner won’t always come around to your point of view.
What these selectors, quizzes and even scientists seem to fail to realize is that dogs are individuals, and even those bred to possess certain traits are not assembly-line creations with identical personalities. Each is unique, and guess what? There’s a soul in there; of that I’m pretty sure.
As for me, when the time comes to get another dog — no matter how advanced technology has become by then — I’m not going to let a computer, or website, or database decide what is the best dog for me. I’m not going to let a book, a magazine or a scientist decide what is the best dog for me. The best dog for me will be decided by me.