Very few things in life are black and white. This is certainly the case when we look at breed characteristics in dogs. Even in a litter of purebred puppies, a predictable amount of variation is to be expected, even to the point that a pup or two display traits outside of what’s considered normal for a particular breed.
Predictable variation of inherited traits is the result of an amazing process called genetic recombination and is something that only occurs in offspring produced by sexual reproduction. When we receive copies of our parents’ chromosomes, the copies we receive are not exact duplicates. Before our parents’ chromosomes are inserted into an egg or a sperm, a random shuffling of the DNA takes place, a process called “crossing over.” This cut-and-pasting of our parents’ DNA creates a new, one-of-a-kind chromosome, which explains why each of us is unique (except, of course, for identical twins.)
That variation is a predictable phenomenon is demonstrated by the mathematical concept called “normal distribution” or “bell curve.” A bell curve demonstrates the predictability of variation in a sample of data and how, when the data is plotted on a graph, the variation consistently shows up as some sort of bell-shaped curve.
The majority of data in any sample is always going to be clustered in the middle of the graph in what’s called the body of the bell. The body of the bell represents the “mean” or “average” data in the sample. Most of us fall in the mean or average range: we’re of average height, weight and education; we sleep an average number of hours every night; we even watch an average amount of television each day.
The data that falls outside of what’s average is located on either side of the body of the bell along the narrow, outer margins. This area represents the non-average or atypical data and pertains to those of us who are overly tall, short, heavy, thin, etc.
As odd as it may seem, I often find myself thinking in terms of a bell-shaped curve whenever I get a bit depressed or start feeling sorry for myself. Doing this reminds me that if I were to locate the position of my life on a graph that measured human happiness and satisfaction, I’m certain that I’d fall somewhere in the average range (or possibly in the slightly above average range!) Remembering my position on the bell curve of happiness helps me realize that I don’t have it nearly as bad as some people do.
Though many of us are in the “average” range with respect to most areas of our lives, it’s important to note that there can be a huge difference between the circumstances of those at the upper end of the average range and those at the lower end of the average range. If a graph happens to have a bell curve with a wide body, there’s going to be more space between the data points as compared to a curve with a very narrow body where all the data points are in much closer proximity to one another.
Human happiness (like most things in life) is a gradient and we’re all located on that gradient somewhere. Most of us experience an average amount of happiness in our lives but there are a few of us who don’t. Those who don’t have an average amount of happiness are either those who are blessed with an extraordinarily amount of happiness or those who have very little happiness at all in their lives.
Seeing life in terms of a bell shaped curve can make it seem as if everything in the world is random, as if each of us is unceremoniously dropped into the world and everything is beyond our control. The world starts looking as if it’s entirely made up of luck and happenstance where we don’t have control over where we’re born, which parents we have, what DNA we get, etc. Each of us simply lands in the world somewhere and, from that point on, we’re forced to deal with whatever circumstances we’ve been dealt as best as we can.
Reminding myself that I’m on a bell curve along with everyone else in the world helps me to not feel so alone. I’m glad that I’m comfortably ensconced somewhere in the middle of the bell with all the other average people. I’d love to be a the super happy end of the bell but I’m definitely thankful to not be on the outer fringe that represents the people who have horrible unhappy lives. The bell curve’s my reality check: a reminder that even though I don’t have the best life on the planet (hence, my occasional stabs of jealousy and envy towards those who do), I definitely don’t have the worst life on the planet and for that I’m thankful!
Bell curves are as much of a reality for dogs as they are for people. Just as with people, a very small percentage of dogs enjoy an extremely spoiled and pampered life while another small percentage are doomed to lives where they’re horribly mistreated or forced to scavenge and starve on the streets. Thankfully, most dogs (like most humans) have average lives that are made up of fairly equal amounts of joy and sorrow. For the average dog, joy is a function of having a nice human who will love, feed and care for the dog. Distress, for the average dog, consists of mostly commonplace frustrations, such as being left at home alone while everyone’s at work or at school, having to share an owner’s affection with another dog(s) or people or not being allowed to gluttonously chow down on however and whatever food a dog might desire.
Bell curves demonstrate that predictable variation is a fact of life and, though we may not always be aware of it, it’s there. That’s why, if we plotted out the differences in temperament for a single breed of dog, we’d find that most of the dogs in that breed have traits that are typical for the breed. Yet, there’s always going to be a few dogs that are oddballs as far as breed standards go. That’s why not every Golden retriever will be sweet and friendly; why a tiny percentage of Jack Russell terriers will actually be mellow and quiet; why the very rare Chihuahua will wildly wag its tail with joy as it runs up to a complete stranger. These are are oddballs for their particular breed but it’s going to occasionally happen due to predictable variation.
What I’m hoping is that this discussion of predictable variation might defray some of the upset that I fear is going to occur when certain dog owners read this book. Since this is a book about genetics and temperament, there’s going to be a lot of comparison about the differences in temperament from one breed of dog to another. I’ll be drawing conclusions and making generalizations about different breeds of dogs based on my experiences as a veterinarian. Inevitably, certain of these generalizations are going to strike some dog owners in the wrong way, causing them to be insulted on behalf of their dog. I know it’s never pleasant to read a less-than-favorable assessment about one’s own dog! I can imagine how certain insulted owners might say, “Hey, I have that breed of dog and that’s not how my dog acts!”
This is where the discussion of predictable variation can come in handy. If someone gets upset over a generalization I’ve made concerning a certain breed of dog, either that person has a dog that’s not typical or average for the breed or that person has a completely different opinion as to what’s average or normal for a certain breed of dog than I do.
All I can do is call it as I see it based on what I’ve experienced as a veterinarian. I hope that readers will realize that, since temperamental variation is a given in every breed of dog, my generalizations won’t ring true for every dog of every breed. My generalizations are simply that: generalizations that aren’t intended to be absolutes.
As one might gather, some of my generalizations concerning certain breeds are NOT going to be complimentary. Though it’s not my intention to maliciously malign any breed of dog, there’s no getting around the fact that certain breeds warrant special consideration: especially the breeds with a potential to be dangerous.
As we’ll find out in a later chapter, 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs every year in the United States with 880,000 requiring medical attention. Up to 30,000 people each year undergo reconstructive surgery after a dog attack and, tragically, thirty to forty people are killed each year. Dangerous breeds of dog must be taken seriously. Thankfully, most dogs in the world are sweet and wonderful and will never hurt anyone.
The point of this book is not to slam one breed or another but to help ourselves find peace and acceptance through thinking of ourselves and others as dogs. I simply stumbled upon the fact that acceptance is much easier to find if we learn how to think of ourselves (and others) as dogs. The reason for this is simple: once we start thinking of ourselves (and others) as dogs, a certain amount of the empathy, patience and love that we so easily feel towards dogs will, by association, be showered down on us. People are simply so much easier to love when we’re cloaked in the guise of a dog! In fact, anything that has to do with dogs brings out the best in people. The mysterious and magical connection that exists between people and dogs makes it possible for us to love and accept dogs no matter what faults they may have. Just think of how wonderful the world could be if we were able to generate the same kind of love and acceptance we feel towards dogs towards ourselves and others. Hopefully, we can make a few small strides in that direction if we can learn to think of ourselves and others as dogs!
When you start the search for which breed of dog most resembles yourself, don’t be discouraged if you don’t find one specific breed that’s a perfect match. People are so much more complex than dogs that it often takes a combination of breeds in order to properly represent the individual temperament of a person. Just like dogs, many of us are simply good old-fashioned mutts!
Another factor that influences the breed of dog we choose for ourselves involves the personal subset of dogs that each of us encountered in our lives. Imagine a young woman who’s spent her majority of her childhood growing up with a Chihuahua that was abnormally mellow and friendly (I’ve only met a few of these but they do exist!) The young woman would naturally assume that other Chihuahuas are as mellow and friendly as her dog simply because that’s been her experience. It’s not likely, then, that the young woman would select a Chihuahua as the breed of dog most like herself if she was a high-strung and anxious individual since her perception of Chihuahuas is that they’re mellow and friendly. Perception is always going to be shaped by experience. So, unless the young woman has a chance to experience other more typical Chihuahuas or she somehow learns that most Chihuahuas are actually nervous and snippy, she’ll simply continue to assume that all Chihuahuas are like her Chihuahua.
Just as with this young woman, each of us has our own canine history that’s composed of every dog we’ve ever known. Consequently, when the time comes for us to select a breed of dog for ourselves, we’re naturally going to choose the breeds that we’ve personally known or have had some peripheral knowledge of (such as through literature, media, or other people’s experiences.)
Luckily, it’s not critical that we’re extraordinarily precise in the selection of a breed(s) of dog for ourselves because all that’s really needed is that we start thinking of ourselves (and others) as dogs. Doing that is what allows our perspective to shift, opening our heart to greater compassion and love.
Though it won’t ever be as easy to love a human as it is to love a dog (since a dog’s love is so unbelievably simple and pure), what’s important in this process is simply discovering a way to tap into our compassion and love. Without love and compassion, acceptance and peace simply aren’t possible.
In the next chapter, we’ll have some fun exploring the reality of our mutt-hood and why it can actually be a good thing to be a mutt. Woof!