So here are my qualifications for criticizing a study of canine behavior. Some years ago, my wife and I kept eight beagles in our backyard. Too many, she decided. Something needed to be done.
I agreed. “Tell me which ones to give away,” I said. “You are of a bitch,” she replied. And that was that. Raising beagle field trial dogs was my hobby. Some won ribbons and trophies. Most took up space under the porch. But they were all beloved pets – even Leon, who babbled so incessantly while cold-trailing rabbits that my friends in the Central Arkansas Beagle Club nicknamed him “The Journalist.” He was a favorite of Diane’s.
How many dogs we’ve owned during our marriage, I’ve never actually counted. We started out with a charismatic collie/German shepherd mix and a foundling 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, many beagles, two Great Pyrenees and several basset hounds. Also, Buffy, the spaniel who adored me. “That’s a teenaged girl’s dog,” exclaimed one cheeky visitor. remove that But from the day I rescued her from a roadside ditch, that little dog never voluntarily left my side of her. Our current lineup includes a collie/Great Pyrenees mix, two basset hounds and a “cowboy corgi,” ie a corgi/Australian cattle dog. “Officer Marley,” we called her. “Sir, I’m going to need to see some identification.” A bossy herding dog, Marley intervenes in play fights at the dog park when she thinks other dogs aren’t doing it right. She’s taught a half-dozen strangers to throw tennis balls for her. And don’t think you can ball-fake her. She’s not watching your hands; she’s watching your eyes. She and Hank the basset hound came to us as a bonded pair. He would n’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 all over him. “He’s so beautiful,” they exclaim. He appears to know it, too. Great Pyrenees are a guarding breed. Aspen wo n’t even guard his supper dish from him. When Hank and Marley first showed up, I guided them to it and watched while they ate. Human or canine, he’s everybody’s friend. When he hears his pal Dexter barking excitedly as his owner’s car approaches the park, Aspen points his nose at the sky and howls like a timber wolf. So, yes, I’m definitely responsive to that interesting study recently published in Science magazine about dog breeds and canine behavior, if less than entirely persuaded.
According to a useful summary by Katherine J. Wu in The Atlantic, university-based researchers “distributed behavioral surveys to the human companions of roughly 20,000 dogs, asking the same sorts of queries that psychologists use to suss out personality in people, with a canine -focused kick: Does your dog behave fearfully toward unfamiliar people? Cower during storms? Ignore commands? Get pushy with other dogs?”
Of course, nobody would assess the behavior of schoolchildren by asking their mommies, so the whole enterprise strikes me as less than scientific. However, the study concluded that something like 9% of a dog’s behavior is based upon its breed, considerably lower than most would think. “Breeds don’t have personalities,” one researcher told Wu. “Individuals do.” But to conclude, like the Washington Post reporter who informed readers that “the first dogs to exist evolved from wolves more than 2,000 years ago” – um, try 30,000 years – that breeds of dog are essentially the same is simply absurd.
Post reporter Katie Shepherd uses this misunderstanding to defend poor, maligned pit bulls, which score just as high in “human sociability” as breeds with better reputations, such as goldens and Labs. Alas, pits also score high in fatal human attacks, an aspect of canine behavior the professorial researchers did not study. Sure, most pits are friendly and companionable, right up until they’re not. And when they’re not, pits and Rottweilers between them account for a combined 76% of dog-bite fatalities. The reason many municipal dog parks ban pits is their dog aggression. Saying so guarantees bushels of hate mail, but it’s nevertheless a fact. My friend Patrick saved his dog’s life only by inserting two fingers into a pit’s rectum and squeezing until it relented. As it was, poor Hurley required surgery. Look, contemporary dog breeds are the product of many centuries of human genetic engineering. Many, if not most, predate the American Kennel Club and its cosmetic breed standards for hundreds of years. Beagles are the most cheerful companions you can find. But you’ll never see a beagle guide dog. Bred for persistence in tracking game, they’re stubbornly resistant to instruction. Bassets even more so.
Limiting a behavioral study to suburban backyard behavior tells you little about what dogs are.
Gene Lyons a columnist with the Arkansas Times.