GENE LYONS: What is in a dog breed? | Opinion
So these are my qualifications for critiquing a study on canine behavior. A few years ago my wife and I kept eight beagles in our garden. Too much, she decided. We had to do something.
“Tell me which ones to give,” I said.
“You ab sons,” she replied. And that was it.
Raising beagle field test dogs was my hobby. Some won ribbons and trophies. Most took up space on the porch. But they were all beloved pets — even Leon, who babbled so incessantly while dragging chilly bunnies that my friends at the Central Arkansas Beagle Club nicknamed him “The Reporter.” He was a particular favorite of Diane.
How many dogs we owned during our marriage, I never really counted. We started with a charismatic collie/german shepherd mix and a found beagle rabbit dog. Over the years, off the top of my head, we’ve had a black lab, a golden retriever, a Great Dane/German Shepherd mix, numerous beagles, two Great Pyrenees, and several bassets.
Also, Buffy, the spaniel who adored me. “He’s a teenage girl’s dog,” exclaimed a cheeky visitor. Absolutely. But since the day I rescued her from a roadside ditch, this little dog has never left me willingly.
Our current range includes a collie/Great Pyrenees mix, two basset hounds and a “cowboy corgi”, i.e. an Australian corgi/cattle dog. “Officer Marley”, we call him. “Sir, I’m going to need to see some ID.” A bossy sheepdog, Marley intervenes in play fights at the dog park when she thinks other dogs aren’t doing it right. She taught half a dozen strangers how to throw tennis balls at her.
And don’t think you can fake it. She doesn’t look at your hands; she looks at your eyes. She and Hank the basset hound came to us as a couple. He wouldn’t know where to go without Marley nipping at his hamstrings.
The big dog, Aspen, is the Brad Pitt of the dog park. Women fall on him. “He is so handsome,” they exclaim. He seems to know that too. The Great Pyrenees are a guard breed. Aspen won’t even save his dinner plate. When Hank and Marley first showed up, he guided them around and watched them as they ate. Human or canine, he is everyone’s friend. When he hears his pal Dexter barking excitedly as his owner’s car approaches the park, Aspen points his nose skyward and howls like a timber wolf.
So yes, I am definitely sensitive to this interesting study recently published in Science magazine on dog breeds and canine behavior, if he is not entirely convinced.
According to a helpful summary by Katherine J. Wu in The Atlantic, university researchers “distributed behavioral surveys to human companions of approximately 20,000 dogs, asking the same kinds of questions psychologists use to determine people’s personalities, with a dog. – Targeted Kick: Does your dog behave fearfully towards strangers? Cowering during thunderstorms? Ignore commands? Being pushy with other dogs? »
Of course, no one would assess the behavior of school children by interviewing their mums, so the whole enterprise seems less than scientific to me. Nevertheless, the study concluded that about 9% of a dog’s behavior is breed-based, which is considerably less than most people think. “Races don’t have personalities,” one researcher told Wu. “Individuals do.”
Fair enough, as far as it goes. Which isn’t very far. But to conclude, like the Washington Post reporter who informed readers that “the first dogs in existence evolved from wolves over 2,000 years ago” – uh, try 30,000 years ago – that dog breeds are essentially the same is just nonsense.
Post reporter Katie Shepherd uses this misunderstanding to defend poor, maligned Pit Bulls, who score just as high in “human sociability” as breeds with better reputations, such as Goldens and Labradors.
Alas, pits also score high in fatal human attacks, an aspect of canine behavior that academic researchers have not studied. Of course, most Stands are friendly and sociable, until they aren’t.
And when they don’t, pits and Rottweilers together account for 76% of dog bite deaths. The reason many municipal dog parks prohibit pits is because of their dog’s aggression. Saying that guarantees bushels of hate mail, but it’s a fact nonetheless. My friend Patrick saved his dog’s life just by inserting two fingers into a pit’s rectum and squeezing until he gave in. In fact, poor Hurley had to have surgery.
Look, contemporary dog breeds are the product of centuries of human genetic engineering. Many, if not most, predate the American Kennel Club and its cosmetic breed standards by hundreds of years.
Beagles are the most cheerful companions you can find. But you will never see a beagle guide dog. Bred for persistence in tracking play, they stubbornly resist instruction. Bassets even more.
Limiting a behavioral study to suburban backyard behavior tells you very little about what dogs really are.