Miriam-Webster defines the word stereotype as, “something conforming to a fixed or general pattern – especially : a standardized mental picture that is held in common by members of a group and that represents an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude, or uncritical judgment.”
I recently had a conversation with someone about a certain breed and the “stereotypes” associated with that breed. While stereotypes are generally seen as negative, I do think we have quite a few stereotypes in our world that are neither positive nor negative, and do clearly come out of a place of at least partial truth. (An example might be that “all Southerners love sweet tea.” While we clearly know that not ALL Southerners love sweet tea, we can see by the drink’s geographic distribution that it is most definitely a beloved item in the Southern US more than in other regions.)
While dog breeds can and do suffer from negative/false stereotypes, I found in my conversation with this young person that in his/her mind, “stereotype” and “characteristic” had become synonymous – and therefore were not of much importance because he/she deemed all stereotypes to be false. Allow me to give a few examples of how these two items become muddied in the dog world:
- Stereotype – All Pitbulls are dangerous and aggressive.
- Characteristic – Pitbulls, as part of the Terrier family, are naturally tenacious and, as the AKC website jokes (about the American Staffordshire Terrier), “eager for a spirited argument.”
- Labrador Retriever
- Stereotype – All Labs are hyperactive and goofy.
- Characteristic – Labradors are bred to be working dogs and are generally very energetic and friendly.
- Border Collie
- Stereotype – All Border Collies are bad at chasing cars, people, and bicycles.
- Characteristic – Border Collies are bred to herd livestock and have a natural desire to control movement.
Here’s why I feel we can’t dismiss a breed’s “characteristics” just because it closely resembles the breed’s “stereotype:” WE BRED THEM TO BE THIS WAY.
While a person may be inappropriately stereotyped based on nationality, dog breeds have been specifically and carefully crafted over (in some cases) hundreds of years! A need for certain characteristics to become common or even close to “guaranteed” in a litter is exactly why different breeds emerged in the first place. Humans needed/wanted dogs to perform certain tasks, so they bred the dogs who showed the most promise until they had refined the kind of dog they were looking for to do the job.
You’re lost in the woods. You can choose a Bloodhound or a Great Pyrenees to come find you. Who do you choose?
You’re a senior adult with mobility issues. You can choose a Beagle or Pug to be your companion. Who do you choose?
You’re blind and you need a guide. You can choose a Golden Retriever or an Akita. Who do you choose?
If you’re reading this and aren’t familiar with these breeds, I hope you chose the Bloodhound, Pug, and Golden Retriever. 🙂 And while it is possible to get a Bloodhound with a bad nose/work ethic, a Pug who wants to run marathons, or an anti-social/unintelligent Golden Retriever, those aren’t the most likely scenarios.
So, when you’re choosing a BREED – not a specific dog – please keep in mind that whether you call them stereotypes or characteristics, certain breeds do generally possess certain behavioral qualities. Now, if you’re adopting or buying an adult dog, you can sometimes easily see where he/she differs from the generalized characteristics of a given breed. However, when you’re adopting/buying a puppy of a certain breed, I highly suggest you feel prepared to handle whatever those generalized characteristics may be!
What’s my point?
Don’t choose a high drive working breed and hope that it turns out to be a couch potato! Don’t choose a low drive, stocky breed and then be surprised if it doesn’t want to run an agility course with you!
Yes, there are ALWAYS exceptions, but I feel those exceptions are normally minor. Let’s use my dogs as an example using some buzzwords from their breeds’ AKC website listings:
Tucker: Labrador Retriever
Friendly – Yep!
Active – Ha! Nope!
Outgoing – Yep!
High-Spirited – Nope!
Affectionate – Yep!
Ellie: German Shepherd Dog
Confident – Yep!
Courageous – Mostly!
Smart – Yep!
Loyal – Yep! To a fault.
Steady – Nope!
What you see here aren’t two dogs who are totally opposite of their breed standards, but who are individuals who carry most, but not all, of those breed standards. Tucker is still very Labrador and Ellie is still very Shepherd even though neither one of them is a perfect textbook example.
So please, as you search for your next dog or counsel a friend about his/hers, don’t allow yourself to assume that yours will be the exception. When we are choosing a dog, I feel it is our responsibility to do so with great care, research, and thought. Yes, sometimes dogs (literally) just wander into our lives and we end up with a breed we never imagined – and that’s okay! But when you’re calling the shots and making the decisions – please do so responsibly!
At Discovery Dog Training, we treat every dog as an individual and we don’t have a “no-go” list of breeds we won’t train. We understand that genetics (physical health) and training play a huge role in every dog’s characteristics/personality, regardless of breed, and we feel honored to have been able to work with so many diverse breeds – and mixes thereof!