Since my last essay, Why Primitive?, I have been thinking a lot about why it matters to distinguish this huge overlapping type despite the fact that breeds within are so geographically, historically, and functionally different. In my opinion, while categorizing always has its harms (namely overgeneralization I will discuss later in this essay), being able to talk about it also has its benefits, such as creating a community and sharing knowledge/experiences. While I am still definitely working through my thoughts on how to approach the topic of primitives more accurately (for another day), I thought it was time to write a much longer personal essay on breeds and why they matter…or don’t.
Let’s start with a tiny bit of boring human talk.
The human mind depends heavily on categorization and stereotyping – it’s actually a survival tactic (avoid all spiders because I can’t identify them individually in time? yes please). However, it can lead to quite some trouble, too, especially when it relates to human identities such as race, gender, etc. because as a species, we struggle with accepting those that are different.
While I agree ideally with accepting others regardless of their identities, I would be remiss if I refused to see and discuss them, too. Not “seeing skin colour,” for example, while seemingly positive and open-minded, actually diminishes the experiences another person has had, while IN that skin colour, even if it doesn’t define them entirely.
Well, identity can be a fickle thing because it is so multi-dimensional and relative, even for dogs.
The modern Basenji is easily distinguishable by their barklessness and tightly curled tails, but they even deviate quite differently from their living ancestors in the Congo.
As a kid, I spent enormous amounts of time drawing each breed (particularly my favourites at the time, the German Shepherd Dog and the Rough Collie), obsessed with knowing every thing I could to differentiate their complicated histories, acceptable measurements, typical temperaments, and unusual colour variations, etc. Their genetic diversity fascinated me as it does for many people.
We live in a modern dog world that is obsessed with breeds, even when they’re a mix…especially if they’re a mix. I enjoy guessing when I come across a dog whose looks I have never seen before, even though as an ambiguous Asian person, I am often annoyed when people try guessing my background. These curiosities are natural – our brains often have a hard time “moving on” unless we can process what we have seen, and it settles us to assume, even if it is completely wrong, and it pleases us even more so when we are right.
In a passing moment, identifying or misidentifying breeds has virtually no repercussion.
However, if you have a dog that even slightly looks like a bully or another BSL (breed-specific legislation) breed, you know that how your dog appears really matters, especially when people cross streets. Maybe you even wanted that effect and that’s why you have a BSL-looking dog or breed.
On the other hand, you might have had your wolfy looking dog DNA tested (which is still quite a ways from being wholly accurate), and results came back with no wolf, but if your husky/malamute/gsd/whatever-it-is dog gets in trouble, they can still be put down or at least authorities will put up a fight. That’s a simple life-or-death reason to why breed is so important.
Alaskan Huskies at work – which isn’t an “accepted” breed, but a glorified mutt of northern breeds, superior in mushing than most of the purebreds.
But, for all other intents and purposes, especially when it comes to dogs long term, such as choosing or training or working with a dog, the breed can play an exceedingly important role because it dictates a dog’s genetic history and shouldn’t be taken lightly.
That being said, why breeds matter is interwoven with why they don’t, so I’ll start with the extreme end of why labeling is an issue to begin with.
The biggest problem with categorization is overgeneralization – living with a false sense of truth based off a few experiences. Even if every single dog fight you have ever seen that broke out was started by X breed, it doesn’t mean X breed will only start fights. Your experiences are within a specific amount of time and space, and limited to just you, after all. This is why I have to go back and re-write and re-write and re-write my Why Primitives? essay – like any category, primitives should be talked about as an idea, not a definition, since ideas can evolve.
And just like ideas, breeds evolve. All purebreds started as mutts at one point or another. The idea of being purebred comes from people refining certain qualities. In any breed community, you will find disputes between breeders over how the breed should be – what colours and forms should be accepted, whether an unregistered dog is purebred or not, how that breed should be socialized or trained, etc.
Two mutts (labeled as GSP and Podenco mixes) with unknown histories remarkably getting along and playing quite similarly.
Besides, nature has proven to us again and again that nothing is absolute. There are always more variables, more conditions than we can imagine, especially those we can’t see, such as personal history or recessive genes and mutations. Dogs within one breed, even with championed pedigrees, all have slight differences, and sometimes there are outliers and anomalies. Sometimes these differences eventually become a new breed.
Just about anybody that has had a dog knows what makes their dog different, special, or unique. They can probably tell you a few things that they share in common with their breed (or mixes), but you will find that people derive much more pleasure telling you about their dog’s quirks and what makes them, them. It’s why we all think our dogs are the best!
Ironically, when people are looking to adopt or buy a dog, a common question they ask is what breed they should get (an upcoming essay topic!). We all have certain aesthetic preferences and have certain perceptions of certain breeds, but choosing a breed often does not dictate what you’ll get, for certain. All it does is lower or increase the chances of getting specific traits (physical or behavioral) , and this also largely has to do with where the dog comes from – a responsible breeder, puppy mill/store, or a backyard breeder.
Perhaps you have never actually met a Border Collie or maybe you have met many or seen them in agility competitions, herding sheep, or performing as trick dogs on television. You may have heard that they are the most intelligent breed and are eager workaholics, prone to neuroticism and nipping and chasing. You may even know that they are not recommended for most people due to their excessively demanding energy.
I, myself, would not recommend this breed to 99% of people. But what if I told you up for sale or adoption was a super mellow, lazy Border Collie? Or a senior retired working Border Collie? Or a Border Collie amputee? Of course those are specific cases, but it should prove the point that identifying a breed, type, or other category only has so much merit.
A modern designer breed – the Australian Labradoodle while controversial has a huge reputation for working as some of the most finest service dogs.
Well, this is also where it starts getting really messy.
Many pittie fans will argue that “it’s in how you raise them” and that bully breeds are not aggressive just as lot’s of rescue advocates will push the idea that “breed doesn’t matter” or that “rescue/mutt is my favourite breed.”
They’re not completely wrong – a mutt is just as good as a purebred. They are still a dog, a living being, and just as deserving of a home. In fact, many people who need working dogs prefer mutts, mixed to cater to their needs. And yes, how you raise your dog -.namely socialize and train them – is incredibly important and can overcome most predispositions.
But that’s exactly the piece that is missing with those advocates – predisposition. Both those agendas devalue the personal history, as well as the genetic history of a dog.
Purebreds are purebreds because they do share physical and behavioral qualities in common, mainly due to their shared genetic likeness. If you want a dog to chase vermin away, most terriers are a good option because a “good” terrier comes from hundreds of years of selective breeding of dogs with strong prey drive and determination, as well as the right size and coat to get the job done. You may be able to find a Maltese or Golden Retriever to do the same for you, but in most likelihood, a terrier would better suit your needs.
And that’s what it comes back to – the chances. Choosing a breed, especially finding one from a reputable breeder, is what increases the chances a dog will be what you expect it to be – what work they can do, what kind of personality they will have, how healthy they will be, or what they will look like.
Examples of two American Indian Dogs, a debated revival breed.
So maybe you still don’t really care about getting a purebred, and you did do yourself due diligence and adopted a mutt that you fell in love with for their personality only. That doesn’t mean you’re off the breed bandwagon entirely.
Most rescues and shelters still rely on naming breeds and mixes – sometimes it is simply for making administrative tasks easier, but often it helps dogs get adopted, whether for its rarity or relatability. Plus, remember when I said that having a wolfy or bully looking breed may end up being a life or death situation? That’s because whether a dog is within purebred standards or not, what they look like still reflects society’s and people’s responses to them. Being aloof, black, old, pittie-looking, or having special needs are all reasons many dogs don’t get adopted, just as reasons like being a cute, fluffy, white or brown friendly puppy are reasons people even have to get on waiting lists to adopt. Dogs on Instagram reflect social obsessions quite accurately – certain breeds doing certain things photographed certain ways in certain places are more easily popular.
Let’s say you adopted a super friendly, playful medium-sized deep-chested reddish brown mutt. The shelter labeled this pup a Vizsla mix and you believe it because it’s pretty similar to the photos you saw when you Googled the Hungarian Vizsla. Most people who see your dog on the streets reinforce that label by asking you if your dog is a Vizsla and you nod your head, often making sure they do know he’s a rescue mutt, not a purebred because that would imply you are a evil puppy buyer.
You don’t think about it, but you start to train and treat your mutt like he is a Vizsla. You even write it on his Instagram profile because after all, he is definitely the stereotypical velcro type, eager to please, and loves hiking on the trail, friendly to everybody you run into. Suddenly one day, your beloved dog stalks and chases and nips a child at the park. This isn’t how you trained him and it has never happened before…so why!?
Aside from missing earlier signals, you probably don’t know much about his socialization history. Maybe you also didn’t realize your Vizsla lookalike mutt has a strong herding gene passed on from a well-bred Australian Shepherd or Corgi ancestor, which also explains a whole bunch of other things like a fluffy butt. And all this time, maybe you took his Vizsla-inherited velcro-ness for granted, and didn’t work on recall.
But maybe, it has nothing to do with having another breed in his background. Maybe your mutt is actually a weird-looking purebred Vizsla and maybe his hunting instinct kicked in after the child crawled on the ground and started squealing like an injured animal. Or maybe his breed or mix have nothing to do with his behaviours and he simply reacted.
Dobermans with uncropped floppy ears and undocked tails are easily disputed by “real” Doberman fans.
It’s true, you can learn a lot and relate to others when you have a purebred or label your dog, but it can also quickly become exactly that if taken too seriously – a label around a box that doesn’t exist beyond ideals. These ideals can alienate others and set your dog up for failures, and you will constantly look for ways to make that box more real than it needs to be. Plus, talking about and displaying your dog’s breed or mixes irresponsibly and inaccurately can lead to the wrong people getting the wrong dogs from the wrong places.
But as long as there are existing breeds and ideals attached, people will enact on them and shape the dog world like we have been doing for thousands of years since wolves were domesticated. So, luckily, there are different breeds for different people. Some breeds are clean and quiet, others are prone to lot’s of genetic disorders, a few will try to kill any cat they see, and plenty are known to be stubborn and difficult to train (which by the way, a good dog trainer is only good when they can work with virtually any breed or mix, and adjust their training style accordingly). As a responsible dog person, you should take the time to get to know different breeds, but also different dogs. You might fall in love with an individual from a breed, type, or size you never expected!
After all, not many dogs are used for their original purposes anymore, and nowadays, people choose breeds more for aesthetics than any other reason. It’s not very surprising that these people often end up with the dog that isn’t the right match. Sometimes it’s not the right breed, and other times it’s not the right dog.
All you can do at the end of the day, regardless of the breed/mix you know or think you have, is really see your dog as an individual. Every dog will be predisposed with something, and sometimes it’s because of their breed and genetic history, and sometimes it’s how their life began before you.
Breed does matter, but the real question is…how much does it to you?
Jasper exemplifies the athleticism for a Podengo, and comes from championed bloodlines, but has his fair share of “faults.”