The latest news from Belfast indicates that Lennox has, for the moment, been given a reprieve with a new appeal. Lennox, the dog under death sentence in Belfast, Northern Ireland for looking like a prohibited breed, has had me thinking more about the issue of breed more than usual. And as I petted Parker, my Curly Coated Retriever, while he sat at my feet, it struck me: we are doing the whole thing backwards!
To set up the situation; Lennox is a dog that never showed bad behavior towards anyone-other than barking a bit at the invaders that came into his home, a behavior that is normal and expected from nearly any dog-he simply looks like what Northern Ireland considers a dangerous breed. To verify this the dog wardens reportedly took out a measuring tape, checked Lennox’s head, body length, and leg length (which would have been nearly impossible if he had been at all aggressive), and pronounced him prohibited, based on comparisons to a written breed standard. They then seized him and have ordered his death, claiming that his physical attributes, as measured by a tape, have determined that he is dangerous and a threat to society. Oh, and that moment of barking.
The problem here is that the process of breed standard use is meant to go completely the other way around-including the issue of temperament and behavior.
If I go to a dog show with Parker, the first thing I must have is proof that he actually is a Curly Coated Retriever. This identification is typically based on registration, with documentation of his parentage back many generations. This gets us in the door. Then, he is examined by a judge and that judge compares him to the written breed standard to see if, as a Curly Coated Retriever, he compares favorably (or not) to that breed standard. He is also compared to the other Curly Coated Retrievers in the ring, who have also been compared to the written standard, to see if he is the best representation of the breed at that show on that day. He may then be compared to similarly excellent members of other breeds to be judged as to which dog most represents the ideal example of their own breed to determine Best in Show. All of these dogs are also observed for their behavior in the show setting, as aggressive or dangerous behavior is never permitted, no matter how beautiful or physically adhering to the standard the dog may be.
This particular scenario takes place in the rarefied atmosphere of the dog conformation show, but it directly applies to the real world too. We meet a dog and we ask his owner what “kind” of dog he is. We ask about his personality, we watch his behavior, and then we use this information to make predictions about the dogs’ nature, suitability as a pet, and honestly whether we think he is a good example of that “kind” of dog.
But with Lennox, and so many others, we are going the wrong way. We look at the physical form of the dog, apart from behavior and personality, and try and guess which breed the dog most resembles. Then we make personality and behavior assumptions based on that guess. In the case of Belfast, they took some measurements and then, without regard to the actual parentage of the dog, and without any regard for the dog’s individual behavior or observed temperament, made a guess that resulted in the seizure of the dog.
First off, this makes huge assumptions that the physical form of the dog (phenotype) must of necessity accurately reflect the breed (genotype), without allowing for gradations between perfect specimens. This also assumes that physical form defines the dog’s behavior. Have a largely white dog with black spots and short hair? Must be a Dalmation…unless of course it’s a badly bred English Setter. Or a pale Catahoula. Or a Jack Russell/Pointer mix. You see how well that goes.
In the real world, we may meet a friend with a new dog. When we ask what “kind” of dog it is, they may tell us “Oh, this is my new Chihuahua, Peanut.” We see that Peanut is a bit bigger then we usually find in Chihuahuas, and we may note that, but we don’t run out, get a tape measure and say “Oh no-Peanut is thirteen inches at the shoulders, and Beagles are thirteen inches tall, so Peanut is obviously a Beagle and will run after rabbits!”
This mistaken application of physical attributes to determine behavior, as ridiculous as it sounds, is exactly what is happening in the UK and other places with breed-based laws. They are attempting to use a dog’s physical attributes to assign projected behavioral traits. For instance; in this twisted world, a dog that a dressmakers’ tape says has a wide head, broad shoulders, and powerful musculature must be a “Pit Bull” or other forbidden breed. Yet I doubt, with all due respect and regard, that the Kennel Master at Sandringham Kennels would tolerate a dog warden with a tape declaring that Her Majesty’s Labrador Retrievers were “Pit Bulls”, even though they are broad (and handsome) of head, muscular and fit, and are wide shouldered so they can swim and work efficiently and with grace and style.
Contrast the following parts of breed standards for Staffordshire Bull Terriers and Labrador Retrievers, as published (and copyright to) The Kennel Club of Great Britain:
“Strongly built, short-coupled, very active; broad in skull;”
“Short, deep though with broad skull.”
“Smooth-coated, well balanced, of great strength for his size. Muscular, active and agile.”
“Good-tempered, very agile…broad and deep through chest and ribs; broad and strong over loins and hindquarters.”
“Jaws strong, teeth large, with a perfect, regular and complete scissor bite, i.e. upper teeth closely overlapping lower teeth and set square to the jaws.”
“Jaws and teeth strong with a perfect, regular and complete scissor bite, i.e. upper teeth closely overlapping lower teeth and set square to the jaws.”
Ideal examples of each of these fine breeds will have the above traits. Examples of dogs of these breeds should, according to the standards, possess the following behavioral temperaments”
“Intelligent, keen and biddable, with a strong will to please. Kindly nature, with no trace of aggression or undue shyness.”
“Highly intelligent and affectionate especially with children.”
Quickly now, which is which? Which of these potentially may be labeled a “Pit Bull” type dog and banned, and which one is known around the world as one of the finest of the waterfowl retrievers? Can’t tell from this? Exactly. That is my point.
Now let us depart from the company of Her Majesty’s finest and our Best in Show Staffordshire Bull Terrier and go down the breed scale towards home pets and general doggie companions. These fine specimens of breeds may look clearly separate at the apex of their “type”, but down the genetic lines, even though they may still be clearly Labradors or Staffies, their looks may begin to approach one another; a bit coarser head here, just a bit oversized there, one family having a bit shorter snout than the other…and sooner or later we may have a serious problem distinguishing poor examples of either breed-even though they are related directly over time to the once stellar examples. Where-and when-do we start drawing the line? When does a badly bred Labrador become essentially indistinguishable from a badly bred Staffordshire Bull Terrier?
And to get back to our original concern, when does behavior become less Lab-like and more Staffie-like, or vice versa, as their appearances converge? And more to the point, is there really a predictable difference anyway?
In my time training, working with problem dog behavior, hanging around dog shows, and investigating attacks, I have found Labradors that won’t retrieve, Pointers that hate birds, big brave German Shepherds afraid of the vacuum cleaner, and even French Bulldogs that don’t snore (well, not as loudly…). Individual differences in dogs are as critical as individual differences in people. That is why some dogs are a threat, just like some of the people that I used to arrest. Individual behavior is affected by individual learning history, individual talents and preferences, and ultimately individual choices.
My advice to the officials in the UK, and wherever else breed bans and regulations are being proposed or enforced: Forget what the dog looks like, or is supposed to look like. Life is not a dog show, and there are good and bad physical specimens of every breed and type out there. Forget what the ideal good-or ultimate evil-example is supposed to act like. The individual range across breeds is far greater than the commonalities within breeds, especially when you get away from the ideal example. Not all Best in Show Labradors can hunt. Instead, develop Dangerous Dog regulations that regulate and address specific, quantifiable behaviors regardless of appearance. Bad Old English Sheepdogs should be held to the same standard as bad Anatolian Shepherds. An evil little Jack Russell Terrier can be just as dangerous as a psychotic Tibetan Spaniel. Address individual dog behavior, and more importantly, address the functioning of the responsible human. Now there’s your dangerous breed.