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 help us to understand that everything in the world is random: each of us is unceremoniously plopped down into this world and our individual circumstances and DNA is completely beyond our control. Looking at the world mathematically (per the bell shaped curve) lets us see just how much life in general is made up of luck and happenstance: 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 at a particular time and, from that point on, we have no choice but to try and deal with our circumstances and our DNA as best as we can.
Reminding myself that I’m on a bell shaped curve along with everyone else actually can help me to not feel so alone. I’m glad that I’m fortunate enough to be located somewhere in the middle of the bell with all the other average people. Of course, I would have loved to be at the super happy end of the bell but I’m certainly grateful thankful that I didn’t end up on the outer edge of the bell that represents the people who experience horribly tragic lives. The bell curve’s my reality check: a reminder that even though I don’t have the best life in the world (which inspire 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 very thankful!
Bell curves are as much of a reality for dogs as they are for humans. Just as with people, a small percentage of dogs enjoy very spoiled and pampered lives while another small percentage are doomed to lives where they’re abused and 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 that particular dog. Distress, for the average dog, consists of a variety of commonplace frustrations: a dog might develop anxiety over being left at home alone for long periods of time while the people in the household are at work or school; or a dog might become stressed when it has to compete for their owner’s affection with other pets; or a dog may feel anxious when it’s not fed enough food to satisfy its hunger or even have the water bowl run dry.
Bell curves demonstrate that variation is a predictable part 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 dogs in a particular breed have traits that are predictably standard for that individual 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; or why a small percentage of Jack Russell terriers might actually be somewhat mellow or quiet; or why a rare Chihuahua will wag its tail with enthusiasm when it encounters a complete stranger. These are are atypical expectations for these particular breeds but it’s going to occasionally happen as a result of predictable genetic variation.
I’m hoping that this discussion of predictable genetic variation will defray some of the upset that some readers might feel when they read this book and hear me mention some not so desirable traits of one of their favorite breeds. Due to the fact that this is a book about genetics (most especially as concerns temperament which is dictated by our DNA), there’s going to be a lot of discussion about the differences in temperament from one breed to another. I’ll be making generalizations about particular breeds of dogs based on my 40 plus years of experience as a veterinarian. Unavoidably, some of these generalizations are going to rub some dog owners in the wrong way, possibly causing them to feel insulted on behalf of their breed of dog. It’s never pleasant to read a less-than-favorable assessment of a particular breed that someone happens to have! It could be the case that the temperament of a certain owner’s dog is atypical for that breed of dogs usual temperamental traits. I’m sure that certain owners are going to say, “Hey, I have that breed of dog and that’s not how my dog acts!”
This is where the discussion of predictable variation and bell shaped curves can be helpful. If a dog owner feels upset over a particular generalization I’ve made concerning a certain breed of dog, either that person’s dog is not typical or average for the breed or that person has a different opinion as to what’s average or normal for a certain breed than I do.
All I can do is to state facts as I’ve come to know them based on my years of experience as a veterinarian. I hope that readers will realize that, since temperamental variation is to be expected in every breed of dog, my generalizations unavoidably won’t ring true for every dog in a particular breed. My generalizations are simply that: generalizations. They aren’t intended or meant 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 malign any particular breed of dog, there’s no getting around the fact that certain breeds warrant special warnings: most especially the breeds that have a predicable penchant for being dangerous.
As will be discussed in more detail in the chapter on dangerous dogs, the reality is that 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs every single year in the United States and 880,000 of those individuals require medical attention. Up to 30,000 people every year must undergo reconstructive surgery after being attacked by a dog. Most tragically, thirty to forty people are killed each year in the United States. Certain breeds of dog that have been bred to be aggressive guard dogs or attack dogs must be taken very, very seriously. Thankfully, most dogs in the world aren’t dangerous. In fact, most dogs are sweet and friendly and won’t ever bite or seriously injure someone.
The point of this book is not to slam a particular breed even though some dogs are definitely more dangerous than others. The most important quest of this book is our search for self-acceptance so that we might be able to finally find a bit of peace in our lives. Learning to think of ourselves as genetic beings is facilitated by realizing that our temperaments are very similar to our dogs’ temperaments: a matter of DNA. We seem to be to accept that a dog’s temperament is genetic as evidenced by the differences in different breeds but it’s much more difficult time to accept the same reality when it comes to our own individual temperaments.
The reason it’s so much easier to accept ourselves for who we are genetically when we think of ourselves as dogs has to do with the incredible empathy and compassion we instinctively feel towards dogs and, by association, we can apply this empathy and compassion to ourselves and to others. People are so much easier to love if we can learn to think of them as certain breeds of dog! In fact, anything that has to do with dogs will bring out the best in us. The amazing connection most of us feel towards our dogs makes it extremely easy to accept them and love them no matter what faults they may have. Try to imagine how much more compassionate and understanding the world would be if we could take the same level of love and compassion that we feel for our own dogs and apply it to ourselves and the people around us. That is the greatest hope I could ever have for this book.
When you start the search for which breed of dog might most closely resemble yourself, don’t be discouraged if you don’t find one singular breed that’s a perfect match. People are so complex that it often takes a combination of breeds to properly characterize the temperament of one individual person. Just like the majority of dogs, many of us humans are good old-fashioned mutts!
Another factor that influences the breed of dog we may eventually choose for ourselves is unavoidably affected by the subset of dogs that each of us has encountered in our lives. If a girl spent her childhood growing up with a Chihuahua that was atypical in that the Chihuahua was very mellow and friendly (I’ve met very few of these), the girl would naturally assume that other Chihuahuas would be similarly mellow and friendly since that had been her experience with her Chihuahua. Consequently, the girl would be quite unlikely to select a Chihuahua as a breed that would represent her temperament if she were a high-strung and anxious person because her perception of Chihuahuas would be that they’re mellow and friendly. Perception is always going to be shaped by experience. So, unless the girl has a chance to interact with other more typical Chihuahuas or she somehow learns that most Chihuahuas are actually quite nervous and snippy, she’ll simply continue to assume that all Chihuahuas are like the mellow and friendly Chihuahua that she knew growing up.
Just as with this girl, each of us has our own canine history compiled of each and every dog we’ve ever known. That’s why, when the time comes for us to select a breed of dog that represents ourselves, we’re naturally going to make a choice from the breeds of dogs that we’ve personally known or have had some outside knowledge of (such as through literature, media, or other people’s stories and experiences.)
Fortunately, it’s not that critical to be overly precise when it comes to the breed (or breeds) of dog we choose because all that’s really needed to experience a change in the acceptance we experience towards ourselves and others is to embrace the fact that our temperaments are genetic and, as a result of that, we’re essentially unchangeable in the same way that the individual temperaments of dogs are unchangeable. Just understanding the fact that we’re genetic beings and that each of us is stuck being the person we were born to be (just like dogs are) is all it takes to experience a shift in our perspective and it’s that shift in perspective that allows us to experience a greater compassion and acceptance for ourselves and others.
Though it’s never going to be as easy to love a human as it is to love a dog (since a dog’s love is so much more unconditional and pure), what’s important is to try and tap into the compassion and acceptance we have for dogs and apply that same acceptance and compassion to ourselves and others. Without empathy and compassion, acceptance is simply not possible and, without acceptance, peace of mind won’t be possible.
In the next chapter, we’ll have some fun exploring our mutt-hood and why it can actually be a good thing to be a mutt. Woof!