Ourselves, Our Dogs
Who are we? What are we made of? And why should we care?
With the advent of DNA kit testing, the question takes on new complexity, but as with many new inventions, we may end up putting far too much stock in the science of self-identification.
I’m annoyed by the ancestry.com commercials showing people discovering their heritage and then drawing immediate conclusions about behavior, temperament, or what traditions they should celebrate, ignoring other possibilities DNA cannot explain.
For example, the guy who trades in his lederhosen for a kilt because he discovers he’s more Scottish than German. Ridiculous. If you have celebrated an existing ethnic tradition for years, you don’t need to change it because of blood line discoveries. And the woman who discovers her Nigerian heritage, though it’s one of the smallest fractions of her genetic make-up (the rest being white European), and automatically concludes that her inherent courage must have come from the Nigerian element.
Yes, white Europeans have a history of being selfish, imperialistic bastards and, yes, your Nigerian heritage may have been underrepresented and, thus, underappreciated, but I think behavioral characteristics and personality traits are less genetically driven than those profiting from genetic testing would like us to believe. Moreover, statistically, I don’t believe your courage is more likely to have come from the 17% component than from the 55%, to paraphrase the commercial’s numerical details.
As the age of social media has proven yet again, people are notorious for getting stupid about “smart” technology.
However, the fact that many DNA kits also test for health concerns helps to offset some of the folly in a process that involves and sometimes encourages faulty reasoning and false conclusions.
But what about DNA in dogs? Little boys may be made of snails and puppy dog tails, but what are puppy dog tails made of? And why should we pay to have the double helix of our dog’s genetic identity unwrapped?
Health and healthcare are a factor, but curiosity is probably the main driver. So, after receiving a coupon in the mail for one dog DNA service, we found ourselves investigating our dog’s ancestry. We know he’s a mutt, but many of his traits suggest, to me at least, that there’s a greater chance of high percentages of only a few breeds rather than lower percentages of a longer list. However, I base this belief on assumptions that are, in all likelihood, wrong.
Breed Standards, Rescue Ethics, and My Dogs
Four years ago, I wrote a post as the mom of our first family dog. In a critique of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, then in its 139th year, I confessed to the event’s power to draw dog lovers to the screen, but I was less than enthusiastic about the program’s style, approach, and canine eugenics-oriented purpose.
“A sucker for the mixed breed, I can’t help cringing inside at the sight of enthroned purity, even as I’m drawn to watching the Westminster Kennel Club 139th Annual Dog Show (2/16 on CNBC, 2/17 on USA). The more dog shows I watch, the more I want to watch, and yet, as each event wears on, so grows the sense that I’m watching a travelling circus freak show.”From “The Perfect-Pooch Parade”
Neither my tone nor my comments improved much from there.
“I detest the way animal health and well-being seem to have been compromised long ago for the sake of handicapping aesthetics. Such tailoring has made Dachshunds and corgis prone to back problems, Shar Peis more likely to develop skin irritations, toys and some terriers so tiny and fragile as to break bones easily, and very large dogs subject to shortened lifespans.
Not to mention all the breed-specific genetic diseases of the organs and other inner workings. . . .”From “The Perfect-Pooch Parade”
Looking back, though, I realize some of my views were unfounded and some comments unfair, that I didn’t understand the seriousness with which recognized professionals in the dog breeding industry preserve pedigrees and safeguard canine health. Genetic diseases derived from all the original cross-breeding, while still a problem in dogs, are largely perpetuated outside the spotlight of the show dog community, who hates those practices as much as I do: profiting from pure breed popularity using impure pedigrees, puppy mill facilities, designer breeds blended from the same, and so on.
It’s not all about perfection in the American Kennel Club (AKC), Westminster Kennel Club (WKC), and similar organizations. It’s also about perfect sustainability, which necessarily means ensuring really good health to perpetuate generations of good quality dogs, inside and out.
So, it is true that one of the purposes of dog shows in America and around the world is preservation of breed standard characteristics. But while this is similar to the goal of conservation of species in the wild, it is not quite the same. The domestic dog breeding ecosystem is almost entirely human generated, the benefits of registration are focused more on breeds than on the dog species as a whole, and the system is highly controlled by humans.
“. . . As with any collector society turned obsessive, there is much to satirize.
“The meticulous, yet highly subjective nature of the judging of these animals as the best of the best in their breeds, groups, and shows not only flies in the face of common dog-owner instincts and preferences (for instance, the golden retriever has never won a best in show) but also, due to breed stereotypes, [overly] restricts people’s sense of the quality and value of any given dog as a pet.
“These factors combine both to weaken the genetic hardiness of dogs through excessive, subsidized, and poorly managed and imitated pure-breeding, and to warp pet industry, dog owner, and service provider perspectives of what constitutes a dog worth having.”From “The Perfect-Pooch Parade”
In a word, it’s the snobbery that galls me most. This is not to say, as I suggested in the original post, that dog shows and breed preservation are a waste of time, and at least there is no cash prize for the handler, owner, or breeder winners of best in show. That would mar their purity of purpose. However, many rescue organizations hold exactly that view and worse in their distaste for the breeder community. The rationale of this kind of rescuer? “Why breed when there are already so many dogs that need good homes?” “Rescuing saves a life; breeding does not.”
As I’ve said, this view is a bit short sighted in terms of breed longevity and preservation, but it is the very specializing nature of the breed type that lies at the heart of what I see as an elitist mentality. Despite their deep love of dogs, breeders who might otherwise have rescued mutts, which are referred to, granted with some dignity, as “all-American” dogs at the dog show (agility only), won’t touch rescued animals with a ten-foot pole.
The peer and internal pressure of perfecting show performance, reproducing superior pedigrees, and gaining the reputation of owning the perfect dog for its breed leaves little room in house, heart, budget, or calendar for adopted dogs.
Pride and vanity in handlers, breeders, and owners whose dogs excel in competition also shift the focus away from breed preservation and onto the use of individual dogs to give humans status among their peers and fame in the televised show ring. As I said in the previous post, the competition becomes “more about the show-ers than the shown.”
One could argue that using dogs as athletes, workers, and even companions is just as selfish of humans as using them in conformation competition is. It’s true that we crossed long ago the line of exploitation with dogs, but some people push farther beyond it than others. And now, who knows all the system-focused uses dog breeders, both reputable and suspect, are making out of dog DNA testing?
Rescue organizations aren’t perfect either. In their desperation to save every animal in their chosen breed, variety, or circumstance, in hard economic times in particular, some rescuers can prove less than honest and straight dealing with prospective adopters. You think you’re getting one thing, and you end up with the likes of Elyse, our first family dog whose health and pain problems accompanied what we only later learned was a more advanced age than the rescue organization had portrayed.
In our case, the family of the rescue coordinator wanted to keep a puppy we had our eyes on for themselves as well, leaving us with fewer, more complicated options among adoptees. For breeders and pure breed seekers, the main issue with rescuing is that you do not know the history or family heritage of the dog you’re getting, which carries with it higher risk of behavioral and medical problems.
We believed we owned a rescued, presumably pure-bred Brittany a few years back, but given all her health problems, her miniature size, and other factors in our adoption, I would be much more curious to learn the truth of that assumption than I am to learn my new dog’s data. Elyse is buried in the backyard, and I’m not digging her up just to satisfy a curiosity that will likely result in greater anger at the situations that created her.
Now, with more joy and a lighter heart, I go in search of the pedigree of our current dog, Ethan. We did get our wish for a better situation with this second dog than we received with our first. After a rough first year of adjustment for all of us, Ethan has come through happy and confident. He is smart, healthy, mellow, young, athletic, just as beautiful as Elyse was, and also a rescue.
We have wondered about his make-up since we got him, sometimes going up to him and playfully asking, “What are you, Mister?” but he never answered. So we’ll get to scratch the itch with science. With help from family, we ordered a DNA kit, which was actually more expensive than the human kit some relatives ordered. Any day now the results will arrive.
Meanwhile, the dog show offers a chance to make some educated guesses as to his breed make-up. My current hypothesis follows.
“What are you, Mister?”: The Guessing Game
Ethan was advertised as a Vizsla/Labrador retriever mix, and the Vizsla characteristics are demonstrable. However, I’m not as convinced of the Lab content. He does have the oilier, coarser short-haired coat of a Lab on his back and tail, he sheds like a Lab, his skull shape bears some resemblance to a Lab’s, and his tail is Lab like when he’s relaxed.
But he’s also wirier, more aerodynamic, uninterested in retrieving, and less water friendly than a Lab or any retriever. Instead, he likes to sprint, climb, tear the stuffing out of animal toys, destroy rope toys, and rip cardboard boxes to shreds. He naturally scent-tracks very well, and he likes to sunbathe, avoiding water at every turn.
So, some of those facts changed, for me at least, Ethan’s advertised type from “Vizsla/Lab” to “Vizsla/??”. But I assume nothing at this point, not even the Vizsla content, seeing as I have recently how wrong owners can be about the heritage of their mutts.
First, Ethan came from the U.S. Virgin Islands, not known for its Vizsla strays. The islands tend to be much more rife with pit bull mixes, as one would expect. Ethan’s an anomaly in that sense. Based on the smidgeon of what we know of his background and the tiny bit that we can guess, it seems unlikely that he would also contain hound, though some characteristics suggest it.
Therefore, if he does have Vizsla in him, setting aside the Lab question for now, the most likely additional higher percentage group present in Ethan’s blood would be terrier, based on the more common incidence of terriers compared to hounds. In order to narrow that down further, I’ve been studying the appearance and movement of the sporting, working, and terrier groups prior to the best in show round of the Westminster competition this week. Admittedly, despite my prejudice against Ethan’s having Lab in him (too boring?), it is still possible that Lab or some kind of retriever or other sporting breed is present.
Second, if he does NOT have Vizsla in him, the mixture could be quite substantial and surprising. Behaviorally, Ethan’s actions say “hound” to me more than they say “terrier.” Keen scenting, lower energy, slightly less mischief, and legginess are strikes against the terrier group. On the flip side, smaller stature, slender limbs, and a curly tail together work against the hound group. Independent thinking/disobedience or orneriness is a characteristic of many terrier breeds as well as hound breeds, and although he is not bad in this regard, there is some stubbornness in Ethan.
All from the lay perspective, having no knowledge of minute genetics, and now that I’ve looked at them more carefully, I’ve ruled out the following previously considered possibilities as of this week:
- among hounds: beagle (too thick boned), foxhounds (too stocky), redbone coonhound and other coonhounds (too stocky and tall)
- among non-sporting: shiba inu (entirely wrong shape and coat despite similar coloring and tail curl), spitz breeds (entirely wrong shape, coloring, and coat despite tail curl)
- among herding: most herding breeds, including the Canaan dog, despite its curly tail, except border collie and similar shaped medium-sized shepherd breeds
- among terriers: most terriers, including the more common bull, staffordshire bull, pit bull (too powerful, wrong face shape, build), and all the large-headed, small-bodied terriers of the British Isles (too confident)
- toy group: highly unlikely, hardly worth mentioning?
Still in the running to be part of Ethan’s DNA for me are the following.
- Vizsla – body shape, coloring, wiry build, narrow chest, deep-set chest, high pelvic tuck, ear shape, forehead/cheek wrinkles, crown shape, eye position and almond shape, pink/liver nose, sitting shape, tail thickness, musculature, cat-like paws, muzzle length/shape, athleticism, shyness/softness. Ethan’s traits NOT typically seen in the Vizsla: curly tail (usually docked), ample shedding, dark brown eye color (light, yellowish), oily medium-short coat (extremely short, sleek).
- Labrador retriever – coat length/quality, tail, head shape, brown eyes
- other sporting breeds such as Weimaraner (very similar to Vizsla), pointers (but half of the build is quite different), spaniels, though the coat is wrong (springers, Brittanys, but probably not cockers), and some retrievers, such as Nova Scotia Duck Toller, but due to its rarity that’s less likely; less so setters
- Basenji – facial wrinkles, curly tail, overall size, sometimes similar coloring
- Dachshund – more of an honorable mention since I have strong doubts; likely only a sliver (such as some part of his size and coat) if anything; shape is way off
- less likely: sight hounds – too delicate and with much pointier, more slender heads and tapered noses with bulging side-set eyes, though Ethan has similar build and high stepping trot to some
- even less likely due to rarity, despite physical similiarities: Ibizan hound, Pharaoh hound, Cirneco dell’Etna
- Rhodesian ridgeback – mainly for their wrinkled forehead and squared crown in relation to the muzzle, along with short hair
- Doberman and German Pinschers – eye position, sleekness, overall shape, face shape
- German shepherd – coat only
- some shepherds and border collie – actually rather unlikely the more I think about it . . . but I know genetics can be sneaky.
- Manchester – similar to a Doberman in appearance but small
- Parson Russell – face shape and he jumps rather high
- maybe a bit of border terrier for face shape
Best guess from analysis assisted by WKC dog show and AKC website:
If I were to pick the largest number of possible ingredients going into the oven that made my dog, it would include but perhaps not be limited to:
- Labrador retriever
- German shepherd
- springer spaniel or Brittany
- and some terrier blend
If I were to pick the smallest number of possible ingredients, it would include one of the following:
- Vizsla, German shepherd
- Vizsla, Labrador retriever or
- Vizsla, retriever (non-Lab)
I told my husband we should take bets before the results arrive, but he declined. He knows I’d win, or at least come closest. (Spoil sport.)
Stay tuned for Ethan’s DNA results and our reactions to his pedigree!
Below: Ethan is less excited to solve the puzzle.
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