Educated Guess: Why is breed labeling so detrimental to rescue and your choosing a new pet
Written By: Elsie Lodde (Founder of Recycled Pets NorCal)
We get a call or an email about some newborn puppies. We rush off to get them and the first question we get asked is “what are they?” I will generally make comment like “we think they are puppies but they might be gerbils” which no one ever finds entertaining. I still continue to battle the frustration over the obsession with breeds, their labels, and their statuses. I also say that for the most part, there seems to only be 5 recognized breeds out there: Pit Bull, Lab, Chihuahua, and German Shepherd. Most dogs are labeled one of these breeds in shelters or rescue groups and some are willing to listen to an outsider label them as “Australian Kelpie” or a “Treeing Tennessee” or some other breed that most people have never heard of, but many just keep the label.
Each breed carries different values and attracts different types of people because many people see the Pit Bull as a guard dog, Lab as a family dog, and most people have a love or hate relationship with Chihuahuas. Of course some people prefer one breed over the other and may place their own importance and sense of values on a specific breed based on their own experiences with them. I know when I got my youngest dog Bruno, I asked if he was a Pit Bull mix, to which the owner said “oh no, he is a good dog.” I gave him a puzzled look as I was wondering what behavior had to do with breed (and this was a few years before I got into rescue and really began to learn about breeds and training). Just a side note, I always said he was a Pit Bull and Rottweiler mix, and I just got the results of his DNA test in (which I did for fun and still question their validity) which said he was Pit Bull, Rottweiler, Collie, and Kurvesz which further validated my ability to label dog breeds decently well. I grew up with the standard Lab/Shepherd mix and he was a loved family dog, much more so than the Boston Terrier my parents had or the Whippet and smarter than the Basset Hound and the English Mastiff. However, I am constantly shocked by how many people need to rehome their Labs when they realize they are not the sweet family dog, but are high energy and not as intelligent as they would like. They want Old Yeller (without the foaming of the mouth and gunshot) and end up with the Marley chewing up the house and tearing everything apart. Even though both of these sides are portrayed in the media, people loose site of the fact that they both show that the breed is not important, it is about choosing the dog with the temperament that fits your lifestyle.
I admit, I feel a certain connection with Pit Bulls. I brought one home long before I was ever told to be afraid of them. Apparently while going to school to earn my English degrees, I missed out on the fact that I was supposed to think they were vicious and scary. I never was brain washed by the media as portraying them as something that was going to hurt me. Although, that first short and buff little guy (we called Chino) wanted to eat my cats. Again, knowing about prey drive in terrier breeds might have been helpful, but luckily, my cats were kept safe while we found this boy a home.
Many shelters that are limited in their breed knowledge will label 40% of their dogs Pit Bull mixes and find the adoption rates for these dogs is much lower than a dog labeled a pit bull mix. This label, regardless of whether it is correct or not, very well is a death sentence for thousands of dogs in this country. My personal wish, as a dog lover and advocate, is that these breeds would not be the first identifier of a dog. Especially considering I have ran into many shelters who automatically list Pit Bull type dogs as bad with kids and cats, and even some that require proof of landlord permission to own them. When most people who have Pit Bulls know that they can be amazing with kids, and even cuddle with a cat or two.
Why breed might be important:
The first dog my husband I wanted to adopt was a Malamute. We went to the local Malamute rescue and picked out a 2 year old, gorgeous boy. We knew very little about the breed and (like most amateur dogs owners) picked the dog by looks. We had 3 other pets at home, 2 cats and a ferret (which we did a ton of research about before getting). We brought this dog in our house, and my husband decided to introduce him to the ferret. It was one of those super cute moments, where they sniffed nose to nose (he was in my husband’s hands) and then the dog snatched it and began to shake it. I ended up spending all night at the emergency vet clinic with the poor ferret. This is where understanding breeds would have been useful to know that Malamutes (like Huskies) have a high prey drive and like to eat little rodents. Of course, this is stereotypical information, and each dog is different- but Maui fit that stereotype.
Some animals are prone to certain diseases and illnesses. It is helpful to know that Persistant Right Aortic Arch is more prevalent in German Shepherds, that Bull Mastiffs are prone to brain tumors, Parson Russell Terriers are prone to ataxia, and Viszlas are prone to heart problems. In general, mixed breed dogs have less health problems than purebred dogs. Also knowing that some breeds are sensitive to medications (like Collies and Australian Shepherds can have a sensitivity to Ivermectin which is in many heart worm medications) or that some breeds such as Bulldogs and Doberman Pinschers may suffer Partial/ Focal Seizures and Paroxysmal Dyskinesia (which might be scary but not abnormal with no treatment needed). But for most of these issues, a vet can help you work through these issues. Of course there are other issues that may be present with breeding, but we will not go into that too much as we do not promote or provide advice on that.
You can find a list of breed and health concerns at: http://www.akcchf.org/canine-health/breed-specific-concerns/
How much you can spend
Some breeds, especially purebreds, can be very expensive. English Bulldog owners should be prepared to spend about $2400/yr on the upkeep of their dog (which is prone to skin problems, allergies, and breathing issues). King Charles Cavalier owners generally find heart testing as a regular part of ownership. Not only do you need to focus on the medical needs, but the dollar amount that is associated with the food, medicines, and grooming needs for a dog.
Exercise is not always walking a dog. Some dogs and breeds prefer to exercise in different ways. If you have a hound dog, working with their nose is an easy and satisfying way to exercise them. You should also know that brachiacephalic dogs (ones with short faces like Bulldogs and Boston Terriers) should not swim and can easily become over heated so they cannot go for long walks. Treewalkers can climb trees, prey driven dogs are great with flirt poles. (Side note, you can order a flirt pole here: http://squishyfacestudio.com/ and if you type RPNC in the comments at checkout they will donate one for every 5 purchased).
We are huge proponents to feeding dogs grain free food, as dogs are carnivores, and so they should also eat like carnivores (http://www.dogfoodadvisor.com/canine-nutrition/dogs-carnivores-omnivores/). Certain breeds are more likely to have food allergies. It is often helpful to know that Pit Bull type dogs are often allergic to grains (as are Bulldogs, Mastiffs and other similar type dogs); however, as we suggest this as a staple diet for all breeds, this is not a concern. Many dogs (regardless of breed) may also be sensitive to certain kinds of protein sources (chicken, turkey, beef, or others). Chow Chow dogs are best if fed a vegetarian type diet (or only using fish for proteins) as their breeding and use in China limited their access to meats. If your dog suffers from allergies, you can get blood work to test for or try different foods until you find the one that works (should feed it for 12 weeks to make sure if it works).
Many apartment complexes have banned breeds, as well as so do some cities, counties, as well as military housing. Many home owners policies also ban certain breeds- so understanding this can be paramount to make sure you do not end up having to get rid of your dog. We are huge proponents of NOT adopting a banned dog and to always make sure with the landlord or local laws if they have Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) because that puts your dog’s lives at risk. Many insurance companies also will not provide home owners insurance to cover certain breeds of dogs, Farmers Insurance just began a policy to not cover Pit Bull, Rottweiler and Wolf dogs. Most housing and insurance relies on self-reporting for breed though. However, in Lenox’s case, he was put to death based on the breed the local government decided he was (find out more about Lennox at: http://animalrights.about.com/b/2012/07/12/lennox-killed-because-of-breed-specific-legislation.htm ) .
What you should really consider when looking for a dog:
How old are the members in your family?
If your house has small children or elderly humans (or dogs in it) than a big strong juvenile dog may not be the best fit. Of course, energy level is important as well, if it is a mellow young dog that might be great. However, all puppies chew, scratch and play, so I think everyone with small children or who has an older person (who may have thinner skin) should consider this when adopting a dog. A dog who needs to be walked, should be done so only by someone able to control him or her properly on a leash. Recently, I have seen several dog bite and dog fights occur when the person on the other end of the leash has been unable to control the dog. Considering physical strength of the human and the correlation between age, size and energy level is important.
What is your energy level?
Your ideal dog should fit your activity level. People will often say “I want to jog so a dog will help me.” Realistically, these goals fall flat and you may be left with a dog whose energy level is too much for you to deal with. If you are the type of person who spends Saturday in bed, you should get a dog with low energy. If you have been running and hiking for years, a high energy dog who can keep up with you is ideal. Sometimes you may end up with a dog who is more energetic than you, there are ways to handle this (teaching tricks as that brain stimulation is exhausting or by using the previously mentioned Flirt Pole) but it requires dedication on your part.
Does anyone in the house have allergies?
This can be a tricky question! As someone who is allergic to dogs and cats, it is only my experience with them to know what is the best fit for me. Short haired dogs make me break out in hives when they touch me, and long haired dogs cause my sinus allergies to go crazy. For me, medium length fur is best, and of course dogs with hair are also better for allergies. You do not need to know the breed of the dog to know the difference as dogs with “fur” have much less hair (no undercoats) Basenji, Bichon, Cairn Terrier, Greyhound, Havanese, Irish Water Spaniel, Italian Greyhound, Kerry Blue Terrier, Lowchen, Maltese, Poodles (all sizes), Portuguese Water Dog, Schnauzer (all sizes), Shih Tzu, Wheaten Terrier, Yorkshire Terrier, Whippet, and the Border Terrier all have fur and not hair. Of course, for me, all my dogs I was allergic to at first and built up immunity to it, so I rarely break out in hives when we cuddle.
How social do you need your new dog to be?
Many dogs, regardless of breeds, have different personalities and knowing whether they like dogs, cats, kids, women, or men can make a difference. Even if you do not have children now, if a dog is afraid of children and you plan on having kids in the future (or your niece or nephew may come over) than this might not be the right dog for you. But if you think your nieces and nephews are monsters, and hate having them come over, than having a dog that dislikes them as much as you might turn out to be beneficial. Of course, for the most part, this can be worked on with training and socialization, but you need to consider it especially if you are not wanting to put a lot of work into the dog. Also, if you are looking for a snuggle puppy and the puppy is independent and would rather play with a toy, than this is probably not the best dog for you.
Although, I pointed out some reasons that understanding a dog’s breed can be helpful, I am the first person who believes you should not base this as the primary reason to add a certain dog to your family. Instead of focusing on the breed, we suggest speaking to your local rescue or shelter about your lifestyle so that they can help you find the right dog for you. Taking in consideration your physical strength, activity level, how social you are, where you live, and who else is in your house (adults, kids, cats, dogs, rabbits etc.) should be the main priority when adopting your next dog, and not purely based on looks. Luckily, my dogs love me no matter what I look like, and so does my husband, and adopting purely on breed is not only superficial but can also mean you are not adopting the right fit for you and your family. When that is the case, generally it is the animal that suffers. Our rescue takes in many dogs whose breed makes them less desirable because we see past the label and to the animal, and hope that in doing so, we can help others open their eyes to the lesser known breeds, and more importantly, the loving soul behind the label.