Dogs excel in their role as our best friends. Spooning with us on a cold night, they seem almost hyper-domesticated. If there were a gold medal for “Achieving Domestication,” dogs would win it.
Some days, however, the story is quite different: chasing squirrels, digging up newly planted flowers, eating — then throwing up — grass, romping in a mud puddle post-bath, rolling in an overripe carcass. At these moments, we’re apt to look at our four-legged companions and say, “Really? You’re domesticated?” And, of course, they are. This mixture is what makes dogs, dogs — one minute, dressed in a Superman costume and the next, shredding and eating said costume.
People often cite life experience and breed when trying to account for the ways dogs behave. Who hasn’t heard, “He’s a rescue and was probably abused — that’s why he’s shy,” or “She’s a Labrador Retriever, so she always has a ball in her mouth”? Dogs of unknown origin are described in a similar fashion, relative to their possible breed identities: “Petunia kind of looks like a Chihuahua, but she definitely has that Border Collie eye.”
According to Christine Hibbard, CTC, CPDT-KA and owner of Companion Animal Solutions in Seattle, Wash., when associating a dog with the “look” or “behavior” of a particular breed, it’s important to remember that “the way dogs look and their actual genetics can be very different.” That, at least, is what studies are showing. As Victoria Voith, DVM, PhD and boardcertified veterinary behaviorist at Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, Calif., explains, “Mixedbreed dogs are a collage of features of their ancestors. So much so that they often don’t look like any of their immediate parents or grandparents. In fact, they may look more like other breeds.” DNA tests often reveal that dogs are not simply a cross between two purebred parents. Instead, tests come back as 25 percent of this, 12.5 percent of that and a pinch of a few others. Since a dog’s looks and his genetic code can be on very different pages — sometimes in different books altogether — attributing a dog’s behavior to its “look” can some- times be a faulty assumption.
What about purebred dogs? Do these dogs from concentrated breeding pools give clues about why dogs act as they do? The AKC and other breedcertifying organizations certainly ascribe global attributes to breeds: The Schipperke is confident and independent; Boston Terriers are friendly and lively; Chows are independent and aloof; Clumber Spaniels are gentle, loyal and affectionate.
Breed standards, however, are simply guidelines. As Denise Herman, CTC, lead trainer and founder of Empire of the Dog in NYC, says, “When you get a puppy of a particular breed, people think it’s a blank slate, but it’s really an unknown slate. Breed gives an indication of where that unknown slate may go, but not all Border Collies herd, not all Huskies pull sleds and some Chows like everyone equally. A puppy of a particular breed is an unknown slate with the possibility of those characteristics.”
No Two Alike
While genetics get a dog started, onto genetic (developmental) factors such as environment, learning and individual life experiences make each dog who he or she is. No two dogs on the planet will have the exact same life experiences, which means no two dogs, even of the same breed, will have the exact same personality or responses to similar situations. Dogs are as unique as snowflakes!
The controversial practice of dog cloning provides a great example of the limits of behavior assessment based on genetics. In Dog, Inc., Pulitzer prize– winning investigative reporter and Bark contributor John Woestendiek explains how, after spending $20 million to clone their beloved dog Missy, Joan Hawthorne and John Sperling found Missy’s successor different from the original. “Missy was robust and completely calm. Missy wouldn’t come through my home and knock over every wine glass … They’re not at all alike,” says Hawthorne. Their genetics were the same, but personalities? Not so much. Even clones aren’t clones.