What does breed discrimination accomplish?

During a recent visit to Barley Cove, a beach in southwest Ireland, I was surprised and dismayed to see this sign posted at the boardwalk to the beach:

Breed discrimination

I have heard about such blatant breed discrimination before, but this is the first time I’ve seen it myself. As you can see, German shepherds are on the list, along with many breeds that have acquired a negative public perception, thanks to decades of media hype and stereotyping.

Obviously, if you have a people- or dog-aggressive dog, you shouldn’t bring her to a public beach and let her off leash, regardless of breed. Which is why this ruling is so irritating to me. Dogs of ALL breeds can be dangerous. Yes, an aggressive chihuahua is going to do less damage to you than an aggressive akita, but the presumption that particular breeds are, by intrinsic nature, dangerous, could not be further from the truth. Dogs are individuals. A fear-reactive golden retriever could be much more dangerous to the public welfare than a well-socialized pit bull. By passing legislation like this, towns only further reinforce negative stereotypes about certain types of dogs.

To me, the irony of this ruling (breeds on this poster have to be leashed and muzzled) is that a dog who was on a beach like this, watching every other dog run around off leash, would be likely to be more reactive if he was the only dog leashed and muzzled. I know my dogs, who are on this list of banned breeds, would be immensely frustrated and probably act out if an off-leash dog ran up to them while they were constrained by a leash and muzzle.

Also, the crossbreeds addendum (the ruling applies to all dogs on the poster and their crossbreeds) is ludicrous to me. People, myself included, are notoriously bad at guessing breeds. Even shelter workers are just as bad at guessing which dogs are “pit bulls” and which aren’t. You simply can’t conclusively know a dog’s heritage by looking at him, and even if you could, the breed background wouldn’t tell you anything certain about the dog’s temperament. Our dog pal Howie is a great example:

Play date with Howie
Full German shepherd on the left, half German shepherd on the right. Would you have correctly guessed Howie’s “dangerous” parentage? (I wouldn’t have!)

Howie is half-lab, half-German shepherd. His mother was a purebred German shepherd who came into the rescue, but he bears hardly any resemblance to his mother’s breed. This sweet, shy pup would qualify as a “dangerous crossbreed” according to this legislation. But anyone who looked at him would think he was just a slightly leaner, leggier labrador.

Again, dogs are individuals. Our two purebred German shepherds are as different from each other, personality wise, as night and day.

Barley Cove
Barley Cove.

It makes me sad to think we haven’t moved past this in the 21st century, and especially in a country thought to be as progressive as Ireland.

And a related/recent update on this issue: The Battersea Dogs & Cats home in the UK just published a damning report of the breed discrimination law, including photos of dogs they euthanized because the dogs had a “pit bull” appearance.

What do you think about it? Do you think such bans are a good idea? Are there any breed discrimination laws in your area?

Read on

Dog Music

Paul McCartney and his sheepdog Martha.
Paul McCartney and his sheepdog Martha.

Dog Music
Paul Zimmer

Amongst dogs are listeners and singers.
My big dog sang with me so purely,
puckering her ruffled lips into an O,
beginning with small, swallowing sounds
like Coltrane musing, then rising to power
and resonance, gulping air to continue—
her passion and sense of flawless form—
singing not with me, but for the art of dogs.
We joined in many fine songs—”Stardust,”
“Naima,” “The Trout,” “My Rosary,” “Perdido.”
She was a great master and died young,
leaving me with unrelieved grief,
her talents known to only a few.

Now I have a small dog who does not sing,
but listens with discernment, requiring
skill and spirit in my falsetto voice.
I sing her name and words of love
andante, con brio, vivace, adagio.
Sometimes she is so moved she turns
to place a paw across her snout,
closes her eyes, sighing like a girl
I held and danced with years ago.

But I am a pretender to dog music.
The true strains rise only from
the rich, red chambers of a canine heart,
these melodies best when the moon is up,
listeners and singers together or
apart, beyond friendship and anger,
far from any human imposter—
ballads of long nights lifting
to starlight, songs of bones, turds,
conquests, hunts, smells, rankings,
things settled long before our birth.

. . . . . . . .

Love this poem. (Here in London, we live right around the corner from Abbey Road, so I couldn’t resist the illustration.)

Review: In Defence of Dogs

In Defence of Dogs, John BradshawOur little public library in London had a small shelf of dog books, and so I was pleased to find a copy of John Bradshaw’s book In Defence of Dogs, which was not available at my library in the US.

I had previously read and enjoyed Bradshaw’s book Dog Sense, and this book might be the same book as Dog Sense, just under a UK title. Ha. It’s been so long since I’ve read Dog Sense and the material is so similar that I’m actually not sure. Even if it’s the same, it was a pleasure to re-read and to reinforce what I have already learned about the development and history of canine science.

“Dogs have been adapted, or have adapted themselves, to all kinds of roles, in a way unmatched by any other domestic animal, and such flexibility must lie at the heart of the enduring power of the human–canine relationship.”

Bradshaw’s underlying message is clear: If dog owners knew a little more dog science, dogs and people would be better off. 

There is a trend, particularly in America, to mistrust “experts” and science. Dog training originated as more of a craft than a science, and that model persists today. Anyone can call himself a dog trainer. It is not a certified profession in the same way that law or medicine are. And thus dogs suffer from this lack of a scientific standard or professional code. Because the recent decades of canine research have shown us that most of what traditional trainers have assumed about dogs is flatly wrong.

For instance, dogs are not constantly seeking to undermine us and rule the household. Dogs do not behave like captive wolves, and so the old dominance models, which were fixated on “pack leadership” and who was the “alpha” are both completely passé and damaging to our relationships with our dogs. Bradshaw, a professor of anthrozoology at the University of Bristol, uses plentiful examples from the scientific literature to make his case. He writes:

“Personally, I am delighted that the most recent scientific evidence backs up an approach to managing dogs that I am comfortable with. As a scientist as well as a dog-lover, I am dedicated to assessing the best evidence available and then deciding on the most logical approach to adopt. If wild wolf packs had turned out to be as fraught with tension as their counterparts in zoos, I would have had to agree that the dominance approach had merit. I would still have been reluctant to adopt punishment rather than reward as my philosophy for training my dog, because for me the whole point of having a dog is the companionship it brings, and for me domination and companionship do not gel. As a dog owner, I was relieved by the discrediting of the wolf-pack idea, since I could then explain to myself and, more importantly, to others why routinely punishing a dog is not only unnecessary but also counterproductive.” (Emphasis added)

And this is what I also find so pleasing: Science confirms that gentleness and respect, not dominance and punishment, is the preferable approach to relating to our dogs.

Bradshaw also reviews the history of the domestication of the dog, dog training myths, and the perils of the purebred dog, among other topics.

Darwin's sketch of a submissive dog.
Darwin’s sketch of a submissive dog.

It’s a compelling and eminently readable book, and his chapters debunking the dominance myth should be required reading for all dog owners. I was pleased to refresh my memory of many of these studies, and In Defence of Dogs profoundly renewed my interest in canine science and general advocacy.

Have you read John Bradshaw before? 

Dogs enjoying Barley Cove

This past weekend, we took a quick jaunt to Ireland’s southwest coast, where we enjoyed the misty beach at Barley Cove.

Barley Cove

And I, of course, enjoyed watching the legal* dogs enjoy the sand and surf. Irish dogs appear to be rather like British dogs, in that they tend to behave themselves very admirably in public.

Barley Cove

Barley Cove

Barley Cove

Barley Cove

(*More on that later!)

Barley Cove

Do your dogs enjoy the beach?

A German shepherd in London

While enjoying a drink at the New Inn (where pub dogs Gin and Fizzy reside), a man walked by with this handsome pup:

Dogs in St. John's Wood

Heart all a flutter! I said, “Your dog is beautiful,” and he smiled, and I responded that we had two German shepherds at home. It’s always a good “in” if you want to pet a shepherd, which is not something that I generally ask, but bereft of P and E for the summer, my dog-craziness has reached unsustainable levels. He kindly replied that we could, and his dog sniffed me gently and let me pet him for a bit.

9-mo.-old GSD in the neighborhood

The man told us that the shepherd was 9 months old and from a West German imported line. “I’m pretty fit,” he told us, “but he makes me look like a slob.” German shepherds will do that to you!

Dogs in St. John's Wood

The dog was beautifully calm and very attentive to his person. He was also heeling very nicely, and I was pleased to see that he didn’t have a very exaggerated back end, which always makes me happy. It’s always nice to meet a stable, young breed ambassador. Live long and prosper, British German shepherd pup!

Another patient British pup

Another installment in my patient British dogs series

Dachshund at pub

This little dachshund was patiently sunning himself in a pub terrace in Highgate Village, while waiting for his humans to finish their drinks. I love his rope leash, but it looked way too heavy for his tiny body; I’d have used it on our dogs but not on a creature of his size.

The Wrestlers in Highgate Village

He has a very handsome countenance. I just wish his legs were about two inches longer. I admit that the modern build of the miniature dachshund makes me a bit sad. I have seen a few longer-legged dachshunds here in London, however, and I even saw an impressively fast one retrieving a ball in Regent’s Park. Properly proportioned doxies do exist!

Are you similar to your breed’s fans?

I am perpetually interested in how certain personality types gravitate toward certain breeds or breed types.

For instance, I have always loved dogs in the herding group most. I love their look, their intensity, their intelligence and drive to work with people. I grew up with a beautiful Australian shepherd, and I dream sometimes about getting an English shepherd. But I also have a soft spot for sighthounds and spaniels.

Through no clear intention of my own, I have become a “German shepherd person,” now raising two shepherds and having fostered six. (*German shepherds are technically in the herding group, according to the AKC, but many shepherds these days have lost that herding instinct. But there is a growing trend of getting working-line shepherds back into livestock herding, which I find very interesting.)

© Mike Hale (Flickr). Creative Commons license.
© Mike Hale (Flickr). Creative Commons license.

And yet I feel very different from the typical German shepherd person. Allow me to stereotype, will you?

The typical German shepherd person

  • ascribes to traditional, dominance-based training
  • often has a military or law enforcement background
  • is concerned with being “the alpha” or the “pack leader”
  • has no problem with shock collars, prong collars, and choke chains
  • finds schutzhund very appealing
  • is likely a gun owner
  • finds “toughness” and even mild aggression to be a virtue

Clearly, not everyone who has a shepherd fits most or even one of these stereotypes, but I find these traits to be more true of shepherd people than of other groups aligned with other breeds.

This person loves his or her shepherd as much as I love mine, and the generalizations are not meant to discount that but rather to say I often feel very, very temperamentally different from the typical German shepherd owner.

I am not tough, and I am not impressed by machismo. I do not and never will own a gun. I follow the science-based philosophies of positive reinforcement training and would never use a shock collar on my dog or on any dog. I do not think my dogs are trying to “dominate” me, a concept I find simultaneously laughable and dangerous.

For these reasons, I stay off the German shepherd message boards and have honestly distanced myself from a lot of our dogs’ rescue representatives, most of whom have bought into a shock-collar “training” franchise and encourage adopters to put their shepherds through their expensive programs, which promise fast results for “problem” dogs by the widespread use of e-collars. I’m OK with being an outsider.

My idea of a good night: wine, "Breaking Bad," and a shepherd sleeping in my lap. #draco #gsd
Draco, one of our fosters, and me.

It makes me curious, though, about other breeds, so I’d love to hear from you. What are some of the stereotypes of people with your dog’s breed? Do you fit those generalizations?