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 pups, a predictable amount of variation is to be expected, even to the point that a pup or two might display traits that are outside of what’s considered to be 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’ chromosomes creates a new, one-of-a-kind chromosome, which is what accounts for the fact that each of us is singularly 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.” This concerns the predictability of variation in a sample of data and how, once that data is plotted on a graph, the variation consistently shows up as some kind of bell-shaped curve.
The majority of data in any sample will always be clustered in the middle of the graph in what’s called the body of the bell. This represents the “mean” or “average” data. Most of us fall within this average range: we’re of average height, weight, education; we sleep an average number of hours every night and we even watch an average amount of television each day.
The data that falls outside of what’s average will be 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 turning to the concept of a bell-shaped curve whenever I get down or start feeling sorry for myself. It helps me to remember that if I were to locate the position of my life on a graph measuring human happiness and satisfaction, there’s no doubt that I’d fall somewhere in the average range (or maybe even in the slightly above average range!)
Though a majority of us fall in the “average” range in most areas of our lives, it’s important to note that there can sometimes be a huge difference between the circumstances of those at the upper end of the average range versus those at the lower end. If a graph happens to have a bell curve with a wide body, there will naturally be a lot more space between the data points as compared to a curve with a 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 a few of us don’t. Those who don’t are either those who are blessed with extraordinarily wonderful lives or those who are cursed with extraordinarily tragic lives.
It’s as if all of humanity throughout time has been unceremoniously plopped down into this world of ours where we soon discover that most everything is out of our control. We find that this is more of a world of luck and happenstance where we don’t have any control over where we’re born, which parents we have, what DNA we’re given, what drunk driver slams into us. We all simply land somewhere in the world and, from that point on, we must deal as best as we can with whatever circumstances we’ve been dealt.
That’s why I like to remember my place on the bell curve of human happiness. It reminds me that I’m not
all alone out there on the outer fringes of the bell but, instead, I’m comfortably ensconced somewhere in the middle of the bell with all the rest of the average people. The bell curve’s my reality check: a reminder that even though I might not have the best life on the planet (hence, my occasional stabs of jealousy and envy towards those who do), I certainly don’t have the worst!
Bell curves are as much of a reality for dogs as they are for people. Just as with people, small percentages
of dogs get to enjoy spoiled and pampered lives while certain others are either grievously mistreated or condemned to scavenge and starve on the streets. Mercifully, most dogs (like most humans) experience average lives that are composed of fairly equal amounts of joy and sorrow. For most dogs, joy is mainly a function of having a nice human who will love, feed and care for them. Distress, for the average dog, is mostly a consequence of certain 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 other dogs or people, or not being allowed to gluttonously chow down on whatever and however much food a particular dog might like.
Bell curves illustrate that predictable variation is a fact of life and, though we aren’t often aware of it,
it’s still always there. That’s why, if we were to plot out the differences in temperament for a single breed of dog, we’d expect to find that the majority of dogs in the breed possess traits that are quite typical for the breed. Still, there will always be a few dogs that are oddballs for the breed. So not every Golden retriever will be sweet and friendly, certain Jack Russell terriers will actually be mellow and quiet, and the occasional Chihuahua will wildly wag its tail with joy as it runs excitedly to greet complete strangers.
What I’m hoping is that this discussion of predictable variation will defray some of the upset that I fear will occur when certain dog owners read this book. As this is a book about genetics and temperament, there will naturally be a lot of discussion about the variation in temperament from one breed of dog to another. I’ll be drawing conclusions and voicing generalizations about these different temperaments based on my experiences as a veterinarian. It’s probably inevitable that some of these generalizations will strike certain dog owners in the wrong way, causing them to feel insulted on behalf of their dogs. I know it’s not pleasant to read a less-than-favorable comment about one’s own dog. An insulted owner might be inclined to object, saying: “Hey, I have that breed of dog and that’s not how my dog is!”
This is where I hope the discussion of predictable variation will come in handy. If someone happens to
get upset over a generalization that I’ve made about a particular breed of dog, that person either has a dog that’s not typical or average for the breed or is someone who possesses an entirely different opinion than I do as to what’s average or normal for a certain breed of dog.
All I can do is call it as I see it based on what I’ve learned as a veterinarian. I hope that readers will realize that, since temperamental variation is a given in every breed of dog, there’s no way that my generalizations could ever 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 aren’t going to be complimentary. Though it’s not my intention to ever maliciously disparage any particular breed of dog, there’s simply no escaping the fact that certain breeds warrant special consideration: especially those breeds with the potential to be dangerous.
As we’ll find out in later chapters, hundreds of thousands of people are severely injured by dogs
every year in the United States and twenty to thirty are killed. Dangerous dogs must be taken extremely seriously. Luckily, most dogs in the world are quite wonderful and, due to the fact that they’re dogs, they’re able to love us as no human can: without judgment or reservation.
So, the point of this book is not to slam one breed of dog or another but to try and find some peace through the acceptance of ourselves (and others.) I’ve simply managed to stumble upon the fact that finding peace is much easier to do if we first 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, it’s inevitable that a certain amount of the empathy, patience and love that we so effortlessly shower on dogs will, by association, begin to sprinkle 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 connection that exists between people and dogs permits us to consistently love and accept dogs no matter what faults they may have. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could foster some of that generosity towards ourselves (and others?) Hopefully, that’s what’ll happen once we start transforming one another into dogs!
When we start the search for the breed of dog that most reminds us of ourselves, we mustn’t be discouraged if we can’t find one breed that’s a perfect match. This is partly the consequence of people being so more complex than dogs. But, the main reason that one breed isn’t sufficient to define us revolves around the fact that most of us are simply good old-fashioned mutts! Just as it is with dogs, the majority of people in the world are a mixture of two or more breeds.
Another factor that influences the breed of dog we choose for ourselves concerns the personal subset of dogs that each of us has encountered throughout our lives. Imagine, for example, a young woman who has spent her entire 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 likely assume that the majority of other Chihuahuas are also mellow and friendly simply because that’s what she’d experienced with her Chihuahua. It’s unlikely, then, that the young woman would ever select a Chihuahua as the breed of dog most like herself if she were a high-strung and anxious person (which is how the majority of Chihuahuas really are!) because her perception of Chihuahuas is that they’re mellow and friendly. Perception will always be shaped by experience. So, unless the young woman has the opportunity to experience other, more typical Chihuahuas or she somehow becomes aware of the fact that most Chihuahuas are actually quite nervous and guarded, she’ll probably 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 interacted with. Consequently, when the time comes for us to select a breed of dog for ourselves, we’ll only be able to choose from those breeds that we’ve either personally known or to which we’ve had at least some peripheral knowledge, such as through literature, media, or other people’s experiences.
Luckily, it’s not critical for us to be overly precise in our selection of a breed of dog for ourselves. All that’s really needed is that we learn how to think of ourselves (and others) as dogs. Doing that allows our perspective to change and opens the door 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 whole process is finding a way to tap into our compassion and love…because, without love and compassion, peace simply isn’t possible.
In the next chapter, we’ll have some fun exploring the reality of our mutt-hood (as was mentioned above) and why it can actually be a good thing to be a mutt. Woof!