Who am I? Isn’t that what all of us want to know? When we start to explore the breed(s) of dog that most reminds us of ourselves, we’ll have to keep in mind that most of us are too complex to be defined by a single breed of dog. Like the majority of dogs, most of us are good old-fashioned mutts, a combination of different breeds. Luckily, that ends up being a good thing!
I love that it’s possible these days to perform a blood test on a dog and be able to discover all the different breeds and percentages present in that dog. We should do that with ourselves! If we can find a way to better understand ourselves genetically, we’ll definitely be better able to understand our behavior. It’s the same with dogs in that a Poodle will behave a certain way because of its genetics just as a Rottweiler behaves a certain way because of its genetics. The difficulty seems to be that most of us simply can’t accept the degree that our genetics controls our behavior, just as it controls our individual traits, strengths and weaknesses.
DNA dictates behavior. And, as we discovered in chapter four, the comingling of parental chromosomes through sexual reproduction is what allows us to be not only be different from our siblings but to be different from our parents (the only exception being that of identical twins.) It’s the reason why we’re all as original and one-of-a-kind as a snowflake (other than identical twins.)
Being a mutt has its advantages. We’re more diverse and multi-dimensional than purebreds. And, the more dissimilar the maternal and paternal DNA is, the more unique and original we’ll be.
The pairing of divergent parental DNA creates a best-of-both-worlds scenario that’s called “hybrid vigor.” Offspring that are produced from two very dissimilar parents are typically born with qualities and abilities that are superior to those of either parent. That’s why mutts (who are the embodiment of hybrid vigor) are often healthier and more capable than their purebred counterparts.
Hybrid vigor is the opposite of inbreeding. Inbreeding occurs when individuals with extremely similar DNA reproduce. With inbreeding, the offspring aren’t as likely to be healthy and hardy because undesirable recessive traits tend to show up with increased frequency in inbred individuals. That’s why, when German shepherds were being overly inbred in the past, there was a much higher incidence of hip dysplasia and other anatomical problems in the offspring.
Breeding for hybrid vigor has been a highly developed science in the cattle industry for years. One crossbreeding that was particularly popular when I was a student at the Texas A & M College of Veterinary Medicine was the cross between an Angus or a Hereford cow and a Brahma bull. The Brahma was selected due to its supreme resistance to parasites and disease while the Angus and Hereford breeds were chosen for their premier meat production. The breeding of these two dissimilar breeds consistently produced offspring that possessed both the excellent meat production and the enhanced resistance to parasites and disease.
In recent years, it’s become quite the fad to breed different breeds of dogs together so as to create what’s called “designer dogs.” Most of these designer dogs look like a caricature of a dog, like a cartoon that’s just waiting for the appropriate punch line. Even their names are comical: there are Goldendoodles (Golden retriever and Standard Poodle), Labradoodles (Labrador retriever and Standard Poodle), Maltipoos (Maltese and Poodle), Cockerpoos (Cocker and Poodle), Puggles (Pug and Beagle), Schnoodles (Schnauzer and Poodle), Schweenies (Shih Tzu and Dauchshund), Peke-a-Poos (Pekingese and Poodle), Doodles (Dachshund and Poodle), Buggs (Boston terrier and Pug) and many, many more. Though these dogs might not be acknowledged by the American Kennel Club or be welcomed at the prestigious Westminster Dog Show, they’re far from inferior because they’ve been born with all the genetic benefits of hybrid vigor.
Breeding different breeds of dogs together can even be used to minimize or even eliminate an undesirable behavior present in one of the breeds. For instance, certain Dobermans are born with a bizarre condition known as “flank sucking.” As the name implies, these dogs compulsively suck at their flank areas for hours at a time, either as
a salve for boredom or, more likely, as a means of comfort akin to a child sucking his thumb. Sometimes, the flank sucking behavior is transferred to assorted toys, blankets or clothing.
I once worked with a veterinary technician who had a flank sucking Doberman. She told me how the dog was constantly making off with her slippers or one of her daughter’s stuffed toys. She played me a video she’d taken of the dog nursing with absolute abandon on a brightly colored pink bunny! Yet, if this dog had been born as a mixed-breed Doberman instead of a purebred Doberman, she most likely wouldn’t have inherited the flank sucker behavior as it primarily shows up in purebred Dobermans.
Whenever I hear mention of a mixed-breed Doberman, I always think of the one I had when I was at the University of Texas. I’d just completed my first year’s stay in a dormitory (which was required of all freshmen back then) and I was thrilled to be finally moving off campus so that I could get a dog. In anticipation of that wondrous event, I started browsing the free-to-good-home section of the Austin newspaper each day. One morning, I came across an ad for Shepobie puppies. Having never heard of a Shepobie before, I called to inquire and discovered that Shepobies were a mix of German shepherd and Doberman pinscher.
Intrigued, I took a drive to see the pups and immediately fell in love with an adorable male pup. The pup had the short, tight chocolate coat of a Doberman and the monstrous, erect ears of a German shepherd. His ears were all the more hilarious considering that most Dobermans get their ears cropped when they’re just babies. The pup’s ears were only slightly smaller than Dumbo’s and they reminded me of laundry on a clothesline because flopped wildly whenever he ran.
I officially adopted the pup and took him home. I named him Loup as I’d been studying French at school and had just learned that Loup meant wolf. What was odd was how the pup started acting as if he believed that he had to live up to his name. It’s probably a stretch to think that I could have influenced his behavior simply by naming him Loup. That’s known to happen with a people who are capable of becoming what they are labeled but I doubt that that would happen in a dog! Most likely, I sensed something in the pup that inspired me to call him Loup but, all I know is that the pup continued to become more and more “loopy!”
The Doberman part of Loup clearly had a major influence on Loup’s behavior as he was either desperately loyal or pathologically dependent. He simply wouldn’t (or couldn’t) let me out of his sight for a second. A perfect example of his eccentric behavior occurred one sunny afternoon when I was attending a class on the University of Texas campus. I’d tethered Loup to a tree outside the building where my class was being held (you did that sort of thing back in the 1980’s!) but the crazy dog performed a Houdini and somehow slipped his tether.
I can totally picture Loup in my mind even now, anxiously standing by the door, waiting for a distracted student to leave the door open just a little too long so that he could dart inside. Once he managed to get entry, my fate was sealed. He clearly didn’t have any problem tracking my scent all the way up the long marble staircase to the top floor because he found my classroom and promptly proceeded to announce his arrival by loudly scratching and barking at the door.
I was just as shocked as everyone else that a dog, much less my dog, was at the door. Though everyone seemed to be enjoying the distraction, I was completely mortified. Surprisingly, the professor was nice enough to let Loup stay by my desk until the class was over.
Loup’s plethora of eccentric behaviors could be extremely exhausting at times. His most annoying behavior was his pig-headed ability to whine and whine and whine (for hours if need be) whenever he didn’t his way. I have no doubt that the German shepherd in Loup was to blame for this propensity to whine. Like most Shepherds, Loup was excessively vocal and he felt compelled that he must express his every upset as if he were being teased and tormented by cats. Loup had been born with a flair for the dramatic and he had no problem flaunting it.
Due to his habitual whining, my friends definitely had to have had some mixed feelings whenever they saw me coming with Loup in tow. Since Loup was an eighty-pound dog and, as we’ve seen, not a mellow fellow, most of my friends preferred that he stay outside during my visits. As one might guess, Loup found this completely unacceptable.
In protest, he’d proceed to whine and whine and whine until it was either time for me to go or my friends finally relented in exasperation, screaming, “All right, all right! Let the stupid dog in!”
Until that time came when either Loup was allowed in or I left to go home, our night’s activities were repeatedly disrupted as each of us took turns yelling at Loup to shut up. Momentarily chastised, he would actually quit whining for a bit but, only long enough for us to foolishly think that he’d given up and gone to sleep. The moment that we started to relax and celebrate the peace and quiet, we’d hear the very faintest of whimpers waft through the door and everyone would groan. Then, ever so carefully so as not to incur our immediate wrath, Loup would cautiously crescendo his doggie aria of angst until it grew and grew and grew to the point that it was booming off the walls as if he were a canine Pavarotti performing La Boheme at the Met!
Loup’s protestations were an absolute matter of principle for him. He sincerely believed that he was just as human as the rest of us. And, as far as he was concerned, ostracizing him constituted a flagrant violation of his rights and he’d never stomach such an injustice in silence.
Before Loup, I would have never believed that a dog could dominate my life like Loup did. Loup was a force of nature and he loved to crash over me like a rouge wave might a sleepy seaside village. His behavior actually had the power to change my behavior. Since Loup never had any doubts as to what he wanted, he took the position that it was simply his job to use whatever means necessary to persuade me to grant him his every wish! Cheeky dog! His strategy was to repeatedly bombard me with a series of unpleasant consequences until I finally broke and gave in to his demands.
One such instance occurred when I was visiting my boyfriend, Gary Vail, in Dallas, Texas. Gary and I were driving home from the grocery store and, as it was a hot summer’s day, we had rolled all the windows down and Loup was slobbering contentedly in the back seat. Gary and I started arguing over something or other but we unfortunately didn’t notice that our escalating voices were upsetting Loup. Loup must have finally reached his limit because, just as we stopped for a stop sign, he jumped out of the car through the back seat window! Our argument forgotten, we hurriedly scrambled out of the car and chased after him. As absolute proof of the power of Loup, Gary and I never raised our voices again when Loup was around!
Hybrd vigor is truly amazing phenomenon. In fact, I think it’s such an important asset genetically that we seek it out subconsciously. I’ve actually become convinced that our tendency to be attracted to our opposite is simply an expression of our genetic quest for hybrid vigor. Genetically, we want to reproduce with someone that’s extremely different from us because our children will inherit qualities and abilities that are superior to our own. We all want our children to surpass our level of accomplishment and hybrid vigor is simply one way of making sure that they do.
I definitely feel that I’ve been blessed by hybrid vigor as far as my half-German and half-Italian heritage is concerned. I simply can’t express enough how grateful I am for the German part of myself that’s been able to at least control to some extent the do-anything-say-anything part of me that’s Italian. On the other hand, the Italian part of me has definitely jazzed up the part of me that’s German which, left to its own devices, would tend to be stuffy and reserved.
Because I experienced myself, I wouldn’t ever recommend that a child be raised by an Italian mom in a non-Italian community. Being the only kid who has an Italian mom is on a par with being the only kid in town who has bucked teeth. I felt constantly conspicuous at all times because NO ONE’S MOM WAS LIKE MY MOM. My mom was simply over-the-top outrageous and a never-ending source of confusion and embarrassment for me. She actually seemed to thrive on fighting with everyone over anything. That’s why (as we saw in chapter one) my mom’s the perfect Schipperke. Schipperkes are one of the most ornery and feisty breeds on the planet!
My mom’s feisty behavior actually caused her to be somewhat infamous in Amarillo, Texas where I grew up. My mom’s tantrums were a matter of public record and, since I was an unwilling party to most of them, I did my best to cringe and bear it. I’d learned early on that there was never going to be a moment’s peace in my family. My mom was simply explosive: she’d blow up at my school, the grocery store and, even on special occasions, our church! There wasn’t one single place in the world that she wouldn’t fight with my dad if she felt it was warranted (as she often did!) But, my mom was by far her most rowdy whenever she had to go out hunting for my dad in all the bars in town.
My dad was a rascal and, as such, he repeatedly got himself into trouble when it came to alcohol and women. He’d simply go out to a bar with friends or alone and not make it home. That, of course, didn’t go over well with my mom. That’s when she’d either leave us kids at home for hours at a time or pile us in the car as she drove around town half the night in a complete snit searching everywhere for my dad. We’d sit bundled in the back seat as she scoured one bar after another. She was incapable of quitting. And, once she found him (and she always did!), she’d pounce on him like a lioness, publically chewing him up and spitting him out while she also threatened to punch out any woman who’d had the lack of foresight to try and cozy up to my dad.
On the home front, things weren’t much better. Every evening, as my mom cooked dinner, she’d start needling my dad, poking and prodding him like a caged Lion over his latest transgressions. As we kids cringed and prepared ourselves for what was coming, my mom simply kept on and kept on taunting my dad until he finally went wild. He’d charge her, breaking dishes and spilling food as he chased her around the kitchen, finally pinned her on the ground. All the yelling and screaming invariably caused our neighbors to call the police, whose arrival would at least bring a temporary reprieve to the madness. I was always torn between relief and fear as I listened to the crackling radios and watched the swirling lights bounce off my bedroom walls. My sister and I peeked out our bedroom door, all wide-eyed and terrified, and watched as the police calmed my mom down and tried to decide if they should take my dad in for the night.
Given the constant upheaval, it didn’t take long for me to conclude that my family was seriously messed up. Though I’d heard of other dads who’d gone out drinking and carousing, they were only gone for an evening, not days at a time like my dad. And, of course, NO ONE’S MOM WAS LIKE MY MOM: most women in my mom’s position would simply suffer in silence or, at the very least, keep their family’s problems private behind closed doors. But, not my mom. My mom possessed no filter when it came to her mouth, saying whatever happened to pop into her head. Her favorite topic was always my dad. Nothing us kids ever did could compete with her obsession with him. She’d talk and talk and talk to anyone who’d listen about all fights she’d had with my dad over his drinking and womanizing. Those battles were badges of honor for her. She never got tired of talking about them. She’d also loved to discuss the details of her sex life and in front of me no less! It was mortifying. I have no doubt that people thought our family was nuts. I know I did!
Having observed my mom’s behavior day in and day out, I simply concluded that she was an anomaly. I was certain there couldn’t be anyone else like her in the world. Now, if I’d been raised around other Italians, I’d probably have had a very different opinion. But, other than a few short trips to visit my mom’s family in California, I’d not had enough exposure to Italians to be able to get just how wild and crazy they could be. Knowing what I know now, I’d have realized that my mom’s behavior had a lot to do with her pedigree, with her being Italian.
When my twin daughters were juniors in high school, I decided that we all needed to go to Europe. I’d always been fascinated by families who traveled abroad, convinced that they must develop some kind of special bond after having experienced so many different countries and cultures together. I’d been looking for a way to bridge the ever-widening gap between my teenage daughters and I. Hopefully, this would get us back on the same page again. Considering that I also needed a break from my mom and the clinic, off to Europe we went.
I purposely selected a European tour that would take us to Italy and Germany as these were the countries where my grandparents had been born. Though I spent countless hours studying our itinerary and all the various places we’d see, nothing in my research could have prepared me for what I discovered when our tour bus finally arrived in Italy: a country of people who behaved just like my mom!
As our tour bus meandered through Italy, we stopped here and there at various eateries and shops where I simply stood and gawked at the chaos. It was as if no one in Italy had ever heard of patiently waiting in line: people simply screamed out their orders and jockeyed for position as they impatiently waited to be served: just like my mom! And, just like my mom, everyone seemed royally pissed off! After witnessing the pandemonium for several days, it all of a sudden hit me like a pot of pasta to the side of the head that my mom would be completely normal here! In fact, she might even seem mellow compared to the Italians that I’d seen!
Near the end of our European tour, our tour bus lumbered into Germany. Here, we found a nation of full of hard-working, taciturn, somewhat humorless individuals who were so much like my dad that I was completely taken aback.
Like most Germans (who are the polar opposite of Italians), my dad had his PhD in the art of bottling feelings. He’d bottle them and bottle them until he’d have no choice but to explode. If my mom were to start nagging him as to his latest transgressions or if my sister and I began bickering, my dad would appear to an outside observer to be tuning us out. He’d be completely stretched out on his recliner, watching TV or reading the newspaper. But, if one were to look a wee bit more closely, my dad’s escalating fury could be spied in the way he was aggressively jiggling his pocket change and violently wiggling his foot.
For some perverse reason, we never stopped before it was too late (you’d think we would have learned!) My dad was a big round man but when he flew out of that recliner, it was as if he’d been launched from a cannon. Like a pistol firing at the start of a race, I’d hear the footrest slam down and I’d take off running. Since it was the only door with a lock, I always tried to make it to the bathroom, hoping that I might bolt the door and buy myself some time. But the human cannonball that was my dad always managed to slam through the door before I could lock it. By that point, all I could do was try to cover my butt with my hands and beg my dad for mercy. But nothing ever stopped him from doling out the spanking that he said I’d asked for.
Germans simply don’t suffer fools. I not only learned this from my dad but found it to be reiterated with gusto during our trip through Germany. On a chilly day in September as we floated down the Rhine River on a cruise, I decided to visit the boat’s concession stand to order some hot chocolate hoping it might warm us up a bit. An unsmiling matron took my order and then wordlessly disappeared behind a partition. After standing there for several minutes, I elected to return to our table and simply wait there until the server to return. But, just as I started to walk away, the woman leapt out from behind the partition and barked at me, “Vere do you tink you’re going?” I simply said that I was going to have a seat until our drinks were ready. She stared at me as if I’d been so rude as to pass gas in her presence. With obvious agitation, she spat, “You Americans!” I tried to lighten the mood a bit
by joking, “Hey, at least we keep you entertained.” She snorted like a bull who’s just red, “Not so far in my lifetime!
Near the end of the cruise, my daughters and I decided to visit the restroom before the boat disembarked. But, as we entered the hall that led to the restrooms, there, anchored like a hundred-year old oak, stood the no-nonsense server. Defiantly, she plopped her fists on her hips and glared at us, daring us to just try and go around her. I told her that all we wanted to do was use the restroom before the boat docked but our full bladders didn’t seem to impress her. With a look of sinister delight, she jutted out her arms like a linebacker ready to take immense pleasure in sacking a quarterback. Her face cracked with a just-try-me grin as she growled, “You’re too late!” I couldn’t understand why there’d be a curfew on the restrooms but I chose not to press it as I could tell there wasn’t any room for discussion. We obediently turned tail and returned to our table.
When attempts are made to evaluate the pros and cons of being a hybrid versus a purebred, it doesn’t take long to discover that there are advantages to both. Any of us who have ever had a purebred dog or is of a single ethnicity ourselves knows that there’s an immense sense of pride and honor at being part of a particular heritage. Members of a specific lineage share a great number of traits in common and this shared commonality creates a powerful sense of belonging that’s almost impossible to break.
When I visited the homelands of my ancestors, I felt a revitalized sense of pride in my dual heritages. I’d always been proud of my German and Italian heritages but, once I’d actually stepped foot in the birthplace of my ancestors, I experienced a profound sense of belonging that I’d not known before. I found that I was able to gather a better sense of who I was as an individual from my participation in two cultures that had existed for centuries. In truth, my extended family consisted of all Italians and all Germans. I found that I was embracing and even becoming protective of all the odd, idiosyncratic behaviors that were characteristic of the German and Italian cultures. These cultural traits and behaviors (which were, in reality, my traits) now felt as familiar and endearing to me as an old pair of slippers.
With that being said, I won’t deny the a part of me is thankful that I’m half-Italian and half-German. Being a hybrid has allowed me to inherit some of the best qualities from both the Italian and German heritages. I adore being a German-Italian mutt, especially considering what I’ve personally observed: that being a purebred German or Italian can at times be too much of a good thing!
In the next chapter, we’ll continue to explore how genetics dictates our lives and why, consequently, it’s so difficult for any of us to ever change that much. Understanding just how little any of us can change is critical to our pursuit of peace because it’s what allows us to first, accept and then, embrace who we as genetic beings. Woof!