Who am I? Isn’t that what all of us want to know? When we start exploring which breed of dog best reflects the individual traits we possess as a genetic being, it’s important to keep in mind that most of us are too complex and diverse to be defined by a single breed of dog. Just like most dogs, the majority of us humans are mutts or a mixture of different breeds of dogs. As we’ll see, that usually ends up being a good thing due to hybrid vigor.
It’s thrilling these days that it’s possible to perform a blood test on our mixed breed dog and discover all the different breeds that are contributing to the unique individuality of our beloved pooches. Understanding our dog’s genetics can help us to understand why our dog behaves the way it does. With the advent of ancestry.com and other genetic researchers, we humans are able to discover the same things about ourselves! The more we’re able to understand our genetic makeup, the more we’ll be able to understand our behavior. In the same way that a Poodle or a Rottweiler have very different ways of behaving due to their very distinct DNA, people will behave quite differently if they’re German or an Italian.
Being a mutt or a mixture of different DNA has its advantages because we’ll naturally be more diverse and multi-dimensional than a “purebred” individual. The more dissimilar maternal and paternal DNA are, the stronger their offspring will be since the offspring will have received the best of each parent’s DNA due to the dominant and recessive genes that exist on the parental and offspring’s DNA.
This pairing of divergent parental DNA creates a best-of-both-worlds scenario 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 individually. That’s why mutts (who are an example of hybrid vigor) are healthier than their purebred counterparts.
Breeding for hybrid vigor has been common practice in the cattle industry for years. One particular crossbreeding that was very 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 had been selected for its superior 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 produced offspring that had a great resistance to parasites and disease in addition to being excellent meat producers.
Hybrid vigor is the opposite of inbreeding. Inbreeding occurs when individuals with extremely similar DNA reproduce. With inbreeding, undesirable recessive traits tend to show up with increased frequency than in outbreeding situations. That’s why, back in the day, when German shepherds were being overly inbred, there was a much higher incidence of hip dysplasia and other anatomical problems than we see in the puppies born today to dissimilar parents.
In recent years, it’s become popular to breed different breeds of dogs together in order to create what’s called a “designer dog.” Most of these designer dogs look like a cartoon that’s waiting for a 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 too many more to count. Though these dogs may never be acknowledged by the American Kennel Club or welcomed at the prestigious Westminster Dog Show, they’re far from inferior because they’re endowed with the genetic benefits of hybrid vigor.
Breeding different breeds of dogs together can often be used to minimize or eliminate certain undesirable behaviors in a breed. For instance, a certain percentage of 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, possibly as
a salve for boredom or, more likely, as a means of comfort akin to a child sucking his thumb. Sometimes, the flank sucking is transferred to a toy or a blanket or clothing.
I once worked with a veterinary technician who had a flank sucking Doberman. She told me how the dog would constantly sneak a slipper or one of her daughter’s stuffed toys. She showed me a video that she’d taken of the dog nursing with total concentration on a brightly colored pink bunny! Yet, if her dog had been a mixed-breed Doberman instead of a purebred Doberman, the dog most likely would not have inherited the flank sucking behavior since it’s primarily seen in purebred Dobermans.
Whenever I think of a mixed-breed Doberman, I always think of the crazy mixed-breed Doberman I purchased when I was a student at the University of Texas. As I’d just finished my first semester of college in a dormitory (dormitory lodging was required of all freshmen back then), I was thrilled to be moving off campus so that I could finally get a dog. In anticipation of that wondrous event, I’d started browsing the free-to-good-home section of the Austin, Texas newspaper on a daily basis. One morning, I discovered an interesting ad for Shepobie puppies. Having never heard of a Shepobie before, I called to inquire and was told that Shepobies were a mixture of German shepherd and Doberman pinscher.
Intrigued, I took a drive to see the pups and immediately fell in love with a goofy looking male pup. The pup had the short, tight chocolate coat of a Doberman but the monstrous, erect ears of a German shepherd. His ears looked like two socks blowing in the wind on a clothesline as they flopped around wildly whenever he ran. His ears were all the more hilarious since most Dobermans get their ears cropped short as a puppy.
Having fallen in love, I took the pup home. After much deliberation, I decided on Loup as a name since I’d been studying French in school and had just learned that Loup meant wolf. The pup seemed to take his name to heart as he got more and more “loopy” as time went on!
I blame the Doberman part of Loup for the fact that he was either desperately loyal or pathologically dependent as he wouldn’t (or couldn’t) let me out of his sight for a second. The perfect example of his eccentric personality took place one sunny afternoon while 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 (believe it or not, people did that sort of thing back in the 1980’s!) but, as soon as I was out of sight, the crazy dog somehow performed a Houdini and was able to slip his tether.
Instead of just running around and having a good time once he was loose, Loup was compelled to find out where I was. I can just picture Loup in my mind even now, anxiously standing by the door where he’d seen me go in, waiting for a distracted student to leave the door open just enough so that he could sneak inside. Once inside, it was only a matter of time. Incredibly, he managed to track my scent all the way up a long marble staircase to the top floor where he found my classroom! Once there, he announced his presence by scratching and whimpering at the door.
I was just as shocked as everyone else that a dog (much less my dog) was scratching and whining at the door. Though everyone seemed to be enjoying the distraction, I was mortified. Shockingly, the professor was nice enough to actually allow Loup to stay in the room by my desk until class was over.
Loup’s plethora of eccentric behaviors could be exhausting at times. His most annoying behavior was his tendency to whine and whine (for hours if need be) when he didn’t his way. I blame the German shepherd part of Loup for his incessant whining. Like most Shepherds, Loup was extremely vocal and, as such, he felt compelled to express his every upset. Loup had clearly been born with a flair for the dramatic and he liked to flaunt it.
Because his habitual whining, my friends had to have had mixed feelings whenever they saw me coming with Loup in tow. As Loup was an eighty-pound dog and, as we’ve seen, not an especially mellow fellow, my friends tended to prefer that Loup stay outside during my visits. Loup, of course, found this completely unacceptable and, in protest, he’d whine and whine and whine until it was time for me to call it a night or my friends finally relented as they screamed in total exasperation, “All right, all right already! Let the dumb dog in!”
Comically, until Loup was let in or I left to go home, the night’s activities were repeatedly disrupted as each of us took turns yelling at Loup to shut up! Momentarily chastised, he’d actually shut up for a minute or two, just long enough for us to think that he might have given up and fallen sleep. The moment that we’d start to actually enjoy the peace and quiet, though, the faintest of whimpers would waft through the door and, on cue, everyone would groan. Then, from that moment on, though ever so carefully so as not to incur our wrath, Loup escalated his aria of doggie angst until he sounded like a canine Pavarotti performing La Boheme at the Met!
Loup’s protestations were an absolute matter of principle to 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 wasn’t going to stomach such an injustice quietly.
Before Loup, I’d have never believed that a dog could actually take over my life: Loup was a force of nature and he’d crash over me like a rouge wave might a sleepy seaside village. His behavior actually had the ability to alter my behavior. And, as Loup never had a doubt as to what he wanted, he’d simply decided that it was his job to use what ever means he needed to to get me on board! Cheeky dog! He’d keep at me and keep at me until I finally broke and gave him whatever he wanted.
Another example of his ability to control my behavior happened one day 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 all the windows down and Loup was happily slobbering in the back seat. To Loup’s displeasure, Gary and I started arguing. As we were in the middle of trying to prove each other wrong, we didn’t notice that our agitated voices were upsetting Loup. Clearly, Loup reached his limit of what he was going to tolerate because, just as we stopped for a stop sign, he jumped out of the car through the back seat window! Our argument immediately forgotten, Gary pulled the car to the curb, we jumped out and promptly started chasing after Loup. As proof to the power of Loup, Gary and I made a pact to never raise our voices again whenever Loup was around!
Yes, Loup was a hybrid. Personally, I believe that hybrid vigor is such an important goal genetically that we humans seek it out subconsciously. I believe that hybrid vigor is the reason we’re always attracted to our opposite. If we choose someone who’s completely different from ourselves, then we’re going to create a hybrid vigor situation for our offspring. Children who come from completely different parents genetically are going to be more likely to inherit qualities and abilities that are superior to that of either parent. As all of us parents long to have our children surpass our level of accomplishment, hybrid vigor is simply one way of making sure that they do.
I definitely feel that I was blessed by hybrid vigor as far as my half-German and half-Italian heritage is concerned. I can’t express how grateful I am for the German part of myself that’s able (at least to some degree!) to control the wild out-of-control-do-anything-say-anything part of me that’s Italian. The Italian part of myself, though, has definitely jazzed up the part of me that’s German which, left to its own devices, would tend to be a bit stuffy and reserved.
Because I experienced it myself, I wouldn’t recommend that any child be raised by an Italian mom in a non-Italian neighborhood. Being the only kid who has an Italian mom is on a par with being the only kid in town who has braces. I felt constantly conspicuous as NO ONE’S MOM WAS LIKE MY MOM! My mom was simply over-the-top outrageous and a never-ending source of embarrassment for me as she seemed to thrive on fighting with everyone over anything be it the grocery store, the post office, my school, you name it. That’s why (as we saw in chapter one) I decided that my mom was a perfect Schipperke because Schipperkes are one of the most ornery and feisty breeds on the planet!
My mom’s feisty behavior actually resulted in her being somewhat famous in Amarillo, Texas where I grew up. Her temper tantrums were a matter of public record and, as I was an unwilling party to most of them, I eventually learned to simply cringe and bear it. Early on, I surmised that there was never going to be a moment’s peace as far as my family was concerned. My mom was explosive and there wasn’t a single place in the world that she wouldn’t fight with my dad if she felt it was warranted (as she often did!) By far, though, my mom was her most rowdy when she went bar hunting in search of my dad.
My dad was indeed a mischievous soul and, as such, he constantly got himself into trouble with alcohol and women. He’d go out to a bar with friends, the men who worked for him or all alone and never make it home. That, of course, didn’t go over well with my mom. That’s when she’d either leave my brother, sister and I at home for hours at a time while she went in search of my dad or she’d pile the three of us in the car to accompany her as she’d drive around half the night in a rage, screaming and crying, hunting for my dad. All of us kids would sit huddled and terrified in the back seat, dreading what might happen, as she scoured the parking lots of bar after bar in the hopes of finding my dad’s truck. My mom was incapable of quitting. And, when she finally found him (and she always did!), she’d immediately get up in his face in the middle of the bar, cursing and slapping him while threatening any woman who’d been stupid enough to try and cozy up to my dad.
On the home front, things weren’t much better. Each and every night, like some kind of ritual that we were all doomed-to-repeat, my mom would cook dinner all the while making increasingly nasty comments about my dad’s latest transgressions which, of course, he could hear! As the pits in our stomachs grew, we kids silently prepared ourselves for what was coming. Once again, as my mom was incapable of quitting, she kept on poking and prodding like a tiger in a cage until my dad had finally had enough. Leaping from his recliner, he tackled her breaking dishes and spilling food as he pinned her to the ground. All of their yelling and screaming would finally force the neighbors to call the cops, whose arrival would temporarily bring a stop to the madness. I always felt a confusing mixture of fear and relief as I heard the crackling of the police radios and the swirling blue lights danced around the interior of the house. My sister and I would peek out of our bedroom door, wide-eyed and terrified, as the police calmed my mother down and tried to decide whether they should take my dad in for the night.
Given the constant upheaval in my family, I concluded early on that we had to be seriously messed up. I’d heard of other dads going out and drinking but they’d only been gone for an evening instead of 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 try to suffer in silence or, at the very least, keep their family’s problems private and behind closed doors. But, not my mom! My mom possessed no filter whatsoever when it came to her mouth, blurting out whatever popped into her head. Her favorite topic, of course, was my dad. Nothing us kids ever did could compete with her obsession with my dad. She’d talk and talk and talk to anyone who’d listen about all the fights she had with him over his drinking and womanizing. Those battles were badges of honor for her and she never got tired of talking about them. Much to my eternal mortification, she wasn’t shy about discussing her sex life with other women, detailing her complaints and in front of me no less!
Having observed my mom’s behavior day in and day out since I was a child, I’d simply come to the conclusion that my mom had to be an anomaly, some kind of aberration of what a mom should be. There was no doubt in my mind that there wasn’t any mother like her in the world. What I had no way of knowing was that, if I’d simply been raised in an Italian neighborhood, I’d have known just how typical her behavior was for an Italian. But, other than a few short visits to my mom’s family in California, I’d had very little exposure to Italians, certainly not enough to understand just how wild and crazy they can be. If I knew then what I know now, I’d have known that my mom’s behavior was very simply a reflection of her Italian pedigree.
When my twin daughters were juniors in high school, I was so completely burnt out from my work at the veterinary clinic, that I decided (very impromptu like) that we all needed to go to Europe! I’d always been fascinated by families who traveled abroad, convinced that they must have develop some kind of unique bond after sharing so many adventurous travels together. I’d been secretly searching for a way to bridge the ever-widening gap between my teenage daughters and I thought that this might just be the thing to get us back on track again. So, off to Europe we went!
I purposely had selected a European tour that would take us to Italy and Germany since these were the countries where my grandparents were born. Though I’d spent countless hours studying our itinerary and reviewing all the places that we were scheduled to see, nothing 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 the Italian countryside, we’d occasionally stop at various eateries and shops for refreshments where I stood anchored in shock as I watched the chaos. It was as if no one in Italy had ever learned how to wait in line! Instead, people pushed and shoved, jockeying for position as they screamed and shouted out their orders: acting just like my mom! And, just like my mom, everyone was royally pissed off, grumbling and complaining at the poor service and how they were forced to wait so long. After watching this kind of pandemonium at every establishment we entered for several days in a row, it hit me like a pot of pasta to the head that my mom would be completely normal here! In fact, she might actually be considered a bit mellow as compared to the other Italians I’d seen!
Near the end of our European tour, the 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 had no choice but to explode. If my mom were to start nagging or my sister and I were to start bickering, my dad would initially appear to be tuning us out. He’d be stretched out on his recliner, watching TV or reading the newspaper, seemingly oblivious to the activity around him. Yet, if one were to look a wee bit closer, my dad’s steadily growing irritation could be spied in the way he’d started to jiggle the change in his pocket or wiggle his foot back and forth.
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’d fly 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, without thinking twice, I’d take off running! As 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 always managed to slam through the door before I could lock it. By that point, the only thing I could do was cover my butt with my hands and beg for mercy. But, once his fury was released, nothing was going to stop him from doling out the spanking that I had coming.
Germans simply don’t suffer fools. I’d learned this from my dad but also found it reinforced daily on our trip to Germany. One chilly day in September as we floated down the Rhine River on a cruise boat, I approached the boat’s concession stand so as to order some hot chocolate to warm up my daughters and I. After wordlessly taking my order, the unsmiling matron disappeared behind a partition. After standing there for several minutes, I decided to return to our table and simply wait there until the server returned. But, just as I was starting to walk away, the woman leapt out from behind the partition barking at me, “Vere do you tink you’re going?” I explained 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 undisguised irritation, she spat, “You Americans!” In an attempt to lighten the mood I said, “Well, at least we keep you entertained!” She snorted like a bull who’s seen red and said, “Not so far in my lifetime!
Near the end of our Rhine cruise, my daughters and I decided to visit the restroom before the boat reached the dock. 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 propped her fists on her hips and glared at us, daring us to just try and go around her. I explained that we simply wanted to use the restroom but our full bladders make her budge an inch. With a hint of sinister delight, she jutted out her arm like a linebacker ready to take immense pleasure in sacking a quarterback and growled, “Vell, you’re too late!” I was confused as to why there’d be a curfew on the restrooms but I didn’t argue as I could tell there wasn’t any room for discussion. Very obediently, we turned tail and skedaddled back 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 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 before me. In actuality, 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 that part of me is extremely thankful that I’m half-Italian and half-German. Being a hybrid has allowed me to inherit some of the best qualities from both Italians and Germans. 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 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 as it’s what makes it possible for us to first, accept and then, embrace who we as a genetic being. Woof!