How (Not?) To Choose a Dog

10.24.08 | 5 Comments


I’ve never alluded to being an expert in any field, especially in the knowledge of dog breeds. There is no topic I tire on more easily than the discussion of “pure” breeds, in particular. In fact, that I own a Jack Russell terrier says nothing more than one thing: I’m skirting ignorance on the matter.

Ask any expert or vet. Which is more genetically fit:  purebred or mongrel? The answer, though infuriating to the linear breeder, is the mongrel, robust and hardy due to a widely-accepted term called hybrid vigor, used to describe the increased fertility, good health and growth seen in the product of two unrelated breeds. It’s all in the variation in alleles, this relative robustness one sees in mutts of any kind, and you can see this in lovely array within the human population.

It’s old news, of course. Do you remember reading in high school about haemophelia in European royalty? Perhaps more recently you gave a thumbs-up to the BBC, who threatened to boycott coverage of Crufts, the international canine championship held annually in England, in light of the documentary they produced and aired, “Pedigree Dogs Exposed,” subsequently covered at BBC News Online (You can watch this documentary online here, if you are curious). Article after article points to trouble when it comes to inbreeding in dogs, and well: Duh.

At the turn of the century, Daniel Carter Beard lacked the scope we now have regarding pedigrees; in the American Boy’s Handy Book, he wrote in circles around the various breeds of dog before defining his favorite (for boys) as the Bull Terrier, ultimately claiming “this particular dog to be about the best for a boy” in echo of the writer and naturalist Rev. JG Wood’s enthusiastic treatise:

“The skillful dog-fancier contrives a judicious mixture of the two breeds, and engrafts the tenacity endurance, and dauntless courage of the bull-dog upon the more agile and frivolous terrier. Thus he obtains a dog that can do almost anything, and though, perhaps, it may not surpass, it certainly rivals almost every other variety of dog in its accomplishments. In the capacity for learning tricks it scarcely yields, if it does yield at all, to the poodle. It can retrieve as well as the dog which is especially bred for that purpose. It can hunt the fox with the regular hounds, it can swim and dive as well as the Newfoundland dog. In the house it is one of the wariest and most intelligent of dogs, permitting no unaccustomed footstep to enter the domains without giving warning.”

Oh, the lust of the designer dog! I argue it’s an inbred trait of our own to seek such a linearly pulled specimen in the first place. I can speak for myself; I scoped out a Jack Russell Terrier twelve years ago under a three-adjective mantra: “Stout, Lively and Intelligent,” regardless of byproduct faults. First and foremost at the time, after all, came my needs. Secondly, a few years later, came my children’s; it wasn’t three years after Ford was born that our dog, Seti, snapped and sent him to the doctor for six stitches on the face.

By contrast, a well-adjusted dog is, in my opinion, a priceless thing for a boy.

stick play

Seti lives on with us, and we are firmer to stand our ground (which comes with age, and children have big boots to fill if they own a Jack), but life with an inbred dog continues and wounds heal. He follows the boys throughout the backyard and sleeps at their feet at night, on most days; on others he tenaciously demands the repeated throw of a tennis ball. That said, there are many wonderful qualities attributed to each particular variety of dog, as Beard wrote, and certainly for each person, his needs are often met with one breed’s specifics. Fortunately, we don’t mind throwing a tennis ball for three hours at a time.

throw it, dillweed

Still, in light of breed hysteria and the faults it burdens on the pedigree, I can’t ever justify buying a purebred dog again. Ultimately, all that I have ever wanted in a dog has been distilled into one thing: the desire for loyal companionship with nonjudgement, with any other natural-bred trait or function being surplus; all I think this family will ask for, after our dear Seti, is the unconditional support and feedback in the currency of wags.


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