Joan Merriam: Judging a dog by its … cover? |

Joan Merriam: Judging a dog by its … cover?

Joan Merriam

“We don’t allow people with pit bulls to rent here.”

“Golden retrievers are always so friendly.”

“You can’t trust Dobermans.”

Time and time again, people make these judgments about dog breeds without even thinking: they lump them into categories based on what they look like, without even pausing to consider that just like humans, dogs are individuals, with individual traits, personalities, quirks, and temperaments.

Those new to the dog world, however, tend to carry around assumptions that a person can judge a dog’s breed — and thus its character — by simply looking at him.

(It’s the kind of stereotyping some people do with other humans … but that’s another subject for another day.)

Stereotyping is like a shorthand that allows us to reach conclusions without having to think, which can be helpful if you’re being charged by an enraged 3,000-pound rhinoceros. Angry rhino = danger = run for your life.

But most of us aren’t dealing with rhinoceroses in our daily lives — we’re dealing with companion animals like dogs. When we try to pigeonhole their personalities and behaviors according to breed or appearance, it can be problematic at best. And trying to pinpoint a dog’s breed by its looks is even trickier.

People who live with dogs instinctively know this. Those new to the dog world, however, tend to carry around assumptions that a person can judge a dog’s breed — and thus its character — by simply looking at him.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In truth, only 50 of a dog’s nearly 20,000 genes are associated with physical appearance. Studies show that even dog professionals are wrong almost 75 percent of the time when guessing a mixed-breed dog’s ancestry by its appearance.

Stereotyping can mean ugly, unjust consequences

It’s certainly easier to pinpoint the ancestry of a purebred dog: Daschunds are like frankfurters with legs … Dalmatians sport classic black spots … beagles have huge liquid eyes and long floppy ears. But even within a given breed, can we accurately predict a specific dog’s personality? In a word, no. While we can generalize based on the known history of the breed, there are simply too many variables to guarantee anything. The way a young dog is treated, socialized, and trained shapes his behavior and temperament as an adult far more than does his dominant breed; we simply can’t predict that a dog will act a specific way based on its appearance.

DNA testing bears this out. Often a dog that looks like or is labeled as one breed is revealed to be a mixture of many, none of which may be the breed we initially thought it was. That Labrador retriever in the house next door? Well, he’s actually a mix of collie, great Dane, Rottweiler, and pointer. But he sure looks and acts like a Lab! My dog Joey is another great example: he has the calm, sweet disposition and looks of a golden retriever — but DNA testing showed that he’s barely one-eighth Golden. The rest is a mish-mash of many other breeds, some of which have the reputation of being ferocious and aggressive. That’s about as far from Joey’s temperament as I am from a crocodile.

Stereotyping breeds can have some ugly and unjust consequences as well. Here’s where we get into “breed ‘x’ is dangerous” territory. Probably the most well-known example of this is the pit bull class of dogs, including American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers and English Bull Terriers. In response to scattered (and very rare) attacks on humans and other animals, many states and over 700 communities have enacted breed-specific legislation that regulates or even bans ownership of these dogs — or even dogs that resemble the breed.


Together with the ASPCA and Humane Society, even the Centers for Disease Control strongly oppose such legislation, citing the inaccuracy of dog bite data, the difficulty in identifying dog breeds (especially mixed breeds), and the lack of convincing data showing the effectiveness of breed-specific legislation.

The banning of these dogs has led to a huge influx of pit bulls and pit mixes in local shelters — and that’s certainly true in our own shelter. While Sammie’s Friends is a no-kill facility, that’s not the norm in the U.S.: unless they’re adopted, most of these dogs end up euthanized, regardless of how loving or nonviolent they may be.

Another factor is the “outlaw” status of certain breeds, which tends to attract gangs and criminals. It’s no coincidence that the increase in pit bull ownership among gang members in the late 1980s coincided with the first breed-specific legislation.

Stereotyping something we fear or that we don’t know or understand seems to be a part of human nature. It’s so much easier to generalize, whether it’s someone’s ethnicity or a dog’s breed. But that doesn’t make it just, or even accurate.

While it’s true that specific dog breeds share certain genetic predispositions — for instance, Aussies tend to have an irresistible impulse to herd, and Great Pyrenees tend to be exceptionally vigilant guardians — dogs are still individuals, no matter their breed.

So the next time you meet a new dog, don’t make an automatic assumption about her character based on her looks. We all deserve a chance to prove who we are based on how we act — and that includes our beloved canine companions.

Joan Merriam lives in Nevada County with her Golden Retriever Joey, her Maine Coon cat Indy, and the abiding spirit of her beloved Golden Retriever Casey in whose memory this column is named. You can reach Joan at And if you’re looking for a Golden, be sure to check out Homeward Bound Golden Retriever Rescue.

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