Are Dogs As Exceptional As We Think They Are?

Are Dogs As Exceptional As We Think They Are?

Are Dogs As Exceptional As We Think They Are?


February 2019

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Our society, in general, thinks dogs are exceptional. We love them. They love us. The co-domestication process that happened thousands of years ago left humans and canines with an inexplicable bond. Because of that, most of us set dogs on a pedestal. They exist, in our minds, above other animals.

And then science comes along and says, “hold on! Not so fast! Dogs really aren’t that smart or exceptional in the animal world!”

A few months ago, Scientific American published an article titled, “Your Dog May Not Be A Genius After All.” The article went viral on Twitter, with thousands of people having an intense emotional reaction to the headline. Most everyone had a humorous reaction, but the feeling behind it was almost one of betrayal.

For this episode of the Individual Animal podcast, Arin Greenwood joins us to discuss why people had this reaction, what our own dogs mean to us and whether or not we think they are intelligent. We discovered that one of Nikki’s dogs can sing. Regina’s dog is a jerk. Arin’s dog is lazy and forgetful.

What we do know is that the we all love our dogs unconditionally.

We also (unscientifically) dive into some other studies, like the social bond cows have with one another and whether or not animals understand the concept of fairness.

 The podcast takes a surprising twist at the end when we discuss how dogs fit into our view of farm animals and where we think society will be in the future with regards to eating meat.

(Also, Arin says “jiff” and not “gif” and she and Regina get into their first fight after years of close friendship because of it.)

Want to be on our podcast to talk about dogs, people, and social justice? Want to yell at us for our opinions? Email us!

The Individual Animal is available on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, Google Play, and wherever you listen to podcasts.


*note that we have edited the transcript for clarity and removed repeated words and “umms…” Please excuse any missing punctuation or typos we may have missed!


Nikki: [00:00:00] Hey everybody welcome to the individual animal, a podcast about animal welfare and discrimination. I’m Nikki.


Regina: [00:00:10] I’m Regina. And that’s Arin. Arin say hi.


Arin: [00:00:14] Hi.


Nikki: [00:00:15] We have Arinn Greenwood on our podcast once again because she’s amazing and we are very excited to talk to her today about a study that was attached to an article that came out a couple weeks ago… Or a week ago.


Regina: [00:00:33] No a couple months ago months.


Arin: [00:00:35] Month ago yeah.


Regina: [00:00:36] It doesn’t seem like it was that long ago but it really was.


Nikki: [00:00:39] Geez. Wow.


Arin: [00:00:41] We’ve been stewing in this one for months now.


Nikki: [00:00:46] Regina, I’ll botch the title again. So why don’t you just tell everyone what the title was.


Regina: [00:00:49] Hold on I flipped off the screen…. So The Scientific American article that went viral on Twitter and caused a lot of people to have really emotional but humorous reactions was titled “Your dog may not be a genius after all.” And then it has the subtitle “new study finds that canines are not exceptional in the animal world.” I think it was the exceptional part, that canines aren’t exceptional that people really had a…. People took exception with that little line


Nikki: [00:01:20] I had a… I didn’t read any of the Twitter stuff. So can you I I’m guessing I like some of the folks that are listening are like me and stuff. Like, I suck at social media. So can you guys tell me what people were so upset about or what they were saying or give me some examples?


Arin: [00:01:38] I think people responded to this headline, probably not so much the substance of the article. But I think they responded to the headline as if it was just a troll post basically. So you know the Twitter reactions were largely of the gif variety. A lot of kind of dogs looking….


Regina: [00:01:57] Wait wait did you say “jiff”


Arin: [00:01:58] I said “jiff” what do you say “gif.”


Regina: [00:02:01] Yes.


Arin: [00:02:02] We’re going to have to have a whole nother podcast about this…


Regina: [00:02:07] it’s GRAPHICS interchangeable format, not GIRAFFICS interchangeable format.


Regina: [00:02:13] Reg-GHEna, I don’t know how you can say this.


Regina: [00:02:17] We’re going to have our first fight.


Arin: [00:02:20] You missed my joke. Re-GHEna, do You want me to make that joke again.


Regina: [00:02:29] That was funny. OK moving on… We’ll have the discussion later in private.


Arin: [00:02:37] All right. Well let me let me read you Nikki and also listeners some of their reactions here from Twitter. Here’s one that says “no one asked you science!” And others says “take it back!” Can I swear on here?


Nikki: [00:02:56] Yes.


Arin: [00:02:57] OK. “This kind of bullshit is why people stop trusting scientists.” “I bet you’re not a genius either a steady guy.” Here’s my favorite. “This is pretty well written for a cat.”.


Regina: [00:03:11] That was my favorite too.


Arin: [00:03:13] Yeah. Right. And then let’s see oh and then here’s Keith Olbermann who I thought actually had you know this sounds kind of jokey but I think he’s actually pretty nuanced take on it. Keith Olbermann tweets “As several have noted: only one species has changed another to supply its food, housing, health care, transportation, breeding, exercise, family and affection needs, be its gigantor of the Space Age robot, and pick up its poop. It says “dogs are not just geniuses. They are the geniuses”


Regina: [00:03:55] And you know I’m mean think backs that up because it was like you know co domestication right. That’s what studies say like dogs also domesticated themselves. So I think science agrees with Keith.


Arin: [00:04:08] I think so too. Well should we should we actually get a little bit into what this this article and what this study really says and then we can respond sort of specifically to it? I mean that the headline, is it does sound pretty troll-y but the article itself and the study itself… Would you want to take it away? What does it actually say?


Nikki: [00:04:26] Oh so…


Regina: [00:04:28] Oh yeah…. You go ahead Nikki, you take it away.


Nikki: [00:04:31] I mean I tried to read the whole 20 page study, which is very lengthy. But I think what I took away from it was that dogs are not any more exceptional than any other mammal. So the study looked at dogs and compared them to wolves, cats, spotted hyenas, chimpanzees, dolphins, horses, pigeons and just basically found that they were no. They were different it as it compares to a mental capacity and just being exceptional from their other mammal counterparts. And They looked at things like domestic. They looked at they compared them to animals that are also domesticated social. Hunters were another part. And basically, from what I think that we already know that they’re not exceptional compared to other animals, but it’s the way that we live with dogs that makes us feel like they are exceptional… because nobody’s teaching their cows to fetch a ball for them or for a beer out of the fridge.


Arin: [00:05:51] Nikki, when you were saying that, I just had this image of pigeons giving each other high fives being like “look at that dog!” Yeah. But that’s exactly right. So this study was looking at it. It wasn’t doing its own independent research. It was a lit review. So, it was looking at a bunch of research that had been done and saying you know, what does this research tell us about dogs cognitive abilities their ability to use tools their self-awareness as compared to other animals who have been studied. And you know, and the broad conclusion was by and large you know dogs have not performed better. These studies have not shown dogs to perform better on most of the tests than other animals who have been studied – with the caveat that not that many animals have been studied and not that many tests have been done. And dogs have been researched more than other animals. But, you know even they haven’t been researched all that much. And It just seemed to me that, you know, that the broader conclusion here is… Just… We don’t know that much about animal intelligence. I mean animals seem to do pretty well out in the world, but we we just don’t know that much about their intelligence. And you know this other… This Atlantic article that we all read that was not a response to this particular article, that came out a few years ago, was basically just describing the limitations of these cognition tests anyway. Just saying you know they they measure animals intelligence in this very kind of human centric way and that it doesn’t tell us a lot about what makes animals animals. It tells us how well they perform on you know a small variety of tests that humans have come up with thinking that these might tell us something meaningful about animal intelligence. But you know maybe maybe they don’t, maybe we’re testing them the wrong ways. Mybe we don’t understand what it is that we’re looking at when we’re looking at animal intelligence.


Regina: [00:07:41] I have something to say guys and it just flew out of my head.


Arin: [00:07:44] Was it about pigeons? It was probablyabout pigeons doesn’t it.


Regina: [00:07:48] It was not. That was funny. We should leave that in…. Now, although… I am wondering like why…. and this Is a side note, not what I was going to say… But I wonder why they didn’t have crows or ravens in the study. Because if you look at animals that have been studied frequently and are really smart I’m surprised that there weren’t any corvids in the study. Unless maybe because… They are like… probably Be smartest animal around, so they just figured it would be pointless to add to the theory I don’t know.


Nikki: [00:08:18] They did pigeons instead of crows because pigeons are more domesticated they’re looking for a bird. I don’t know if that answered your question but that was like in the I think that was in there somewhere.


[00:08:31] That does make sense. But I was thinking actually I think this is what I was going to say and and Arin, this relates to you talking about how you know there aren’t a lot of studies about animal behavior about their intelligence that are in like a natural environment… There Was a study a couple of years ago, and I cannot remember, I’ll see if I can find it and put it in the show notes. But there was a study a couple of years ago, that looked at how domesticated dogs and wolves respond to puzzles and how they fix things to overcome challenges and whether or not they look to a human to help them. And the domesticated dogs looked to the humans more than the wolves did even if the wolves knew that the humans were there and could help them. They wanted to figure it out themselves but at the same time this was not a study in nature.


[00:09:25] This was a very controlled study. So that makes it harder for us to really know… When we’re studying something in a controlled environment, it’s really hard for us to know how much that applies to the real world. Especially, I know there have been other tests about like that try to measure a dog’s intelligence and look at it like what what dogs are the smartest dogs. And One of the things they look at is how long it takes a dog to repeat the task, and I just know anecdotally, a lot of dogs if they’re not motivated to do a task they’re not going to do it doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not they’re smart enough to do it. They’re just not motivated.


Nikki: [00:10:03] Yeah, and your point with the wolves. You know you would come to a conclusion that maybe dogs are smarter because the wolves are looking at you and you’re pointing at something in that study. But, also you actually look at what things wolves can do that dog certainly wouldn’t do. I’m sure a wolf is a way better hunter than any domesticated dog is. Does that make a wolf smarter than the dog. I don’t know.


Arin: [00:10:28] Probably, because the wolf has to have different skills to survive. I mean you know, the wolf has to be more clever I guess in that particular way. I mean I suppose if you want to use that as a measure of intelligence, you probably could say that they’re smarter. I guess that the point of this that kind of that really gets me and this is what I worried about when the when the initial article came out and the study came out, too, was I think often times, we use intelligence as kind of a proxy for an animal’s right to to be alive… Its right to be treated well. Its right to exist. It’s right for us to consider its needs. You know, like every time a study comes out showing how smart pigs are. I wrote one of these articles once after one of these studies came out. You know, it leads to a whole bunch of articles that say pigs are really smart and should we not be confining them in small cages? Should we not be eating them? And personally, I think, no, we should not be confining them in small cages. And I don’t personally eat them. But you know, do we need them to be smart to think that they deserve good treatment? And that that’s kind of what I worry about when we look at these animal intelligence studies. As if we’re using intelligence as a proxy for how much consideration we have to give them.


Regina: [00:11:51] I know. I wonder if that’s part of why people had such a big reaction to it. Because we do like to think of dogs as different… dogs and cats But animals that live in our homes with us… That we like to think of them as different than the animals outside of us. And so maybe because this study and the article headline really highlighted that dogs are animals. They’re not necessarily any more special or there’s not necessarily anything that truly sets them apart. And maybe, maybe that’s why people had such a strong reaction because it challenged their own personal view of how special they that they view their dog and all dogs.


Nikki: [00:12:35] Yeah especially just people that I’m sure that’s behing most of the the negative reaction of people that owned dogs… And while I agree with the study ,that I don’t think that dogs are exceptional… Sorry everybody!


Arin: [00:12:49] Nikki! How could you!?


Nikki: [00:12:56] I know I’m gonna get some raw eggs thrown at me for that one. But, we all have stories of our dogs, right, where we’re like… how can this be? My dog can sing to the harmonica or my dog knows how to balance a treat on her nose while giving me paw. Of course, she’s exceptional, but I think if we really think about it… I mean… I agree with this study. I think that all animals are exceptional. No one is more exceptional than any other.


Arin: [00:13:28] That’s a great way to put it. Nikki. Yeah. Maybe they’re all exceptional. Maybe the issue is the dog more special than these other animals? What makes it special is that we live with the dog and we love the dog. You know they’re special to us. They’re exceptional to us. But you know I think you put it exactly right that they’re all special. They’re all exceptional.


Regina: [00:13:50] I wonder if there’s something… I think we’re all we all really want… Like our dogs to be the smartest. And we talk about this a lot on the podcast, when we talk about how people obsess over their dog’s breed, but we all want our dogs to be the smartest because that makes us feel special.


Arin: [00:14:07] Oh, I don’t know, Regina. I don’t want my dog to be the smartest! I’m Really happy living within an average intelligence dog. I mean… He’s, you know, I see with exceptionally intelligent dogs require in terms of the agility classes and you know they can open up cabinets…. You have to toddler proof your house for an exceptionally smart dog. I feel like what makes my dog as lovable as he is, is that he truly is content to do what he’s doing right now – just sit on the couch and stare out the window for about five hours!


Regina: [00:14:46] I don’t know that my dog is exceptionally smart. Honestly, he’s obviously smart but I don’t know that he’s exceptionally smart. But yeah having a dog who can unlock a double locked crate is truly a pain in the ass. I mean, thankfully, he never got into anything… this was way back when I first got him… I would come home and he would just be like standing in the entryway, just like “Hey.” It’s like…. “You were not there when I left!”.


Arin: [00:15:16] But what’s the smartest thing that Buttons has ever done?


Regina: [00:15:20] Oh gosh.


Arin: [00:15:21] I mean besides get you to adopt him.


Regina: [00:15:23] Yeah that was pretty smart. I don’t know. I mean how do I how do I pick the smartest thing….


Arin: [00:15:30] Well, what are some of the smart things that he done? What did he do that…. What does he do that impresses you?


Regina: [00:15:37] So there’s this there’s this one thing that sticks into my mind, other than being able to unlock a double locked crate – that I can’t figure out how he did that. No idea! This just shows like his independence, and I think that… I Don’t know if that necessarily shows his smarts… For a while we lived in a house with another dog, and Buttons that had like a big rawhide (and no people I don’t feed him riawhides anymore. Nobody Freak out.) But he’d had a big one. And the other dog went to chew on it. And she wasn’t supposed to have it. So I picked it up, because she also pushed him anyway. She’s this tiny dog right, but she pushed him away. He was obsessed with her, so he didn’t mind. So I took it away and I put it up high to where the other dog couldn’t reach it. And Buttons looked at me and kind of gave me a dirty look (I know dogs really don’t do that but you know it looked like a dirty look.) And he goes over and grabs the rawhide from where I put it, and puts it back in front of the other dog and walks away.


Arin: [00:16:43] Like He was giving it to it as a present? Awww.


Regina: [00:16:46] He was just like “I don’t care if she has it. So why did you take it away?”.


Arin: [00:16:56] That was so gentlemanly of him!


Regina: [00:16:56] I know! That was so sweet! I Felt like that showed like his own intelligent disobedience. You know that was him recognizing why I took it away I guess. But maybe in his mind he thought that I was protecting his stuff? Maybe? I don’t know. I don’t really know how dogs brains work… So I’m sure someone will listen to this and tell me I’m wrong but I just thought it was a cute thing that showed like his gentleness, but also how smart he is.


Arin: [00:17:20] It’s really interesting. I read another study a while ago about how dogs have senses of fairness. So, if you have 10 biscuits you know they can count basically and they think it’s corrective. Each of them get some more or less equal amount of biscuits…. I don’t know how you know when they think that something unfair has been done. I gotta go back and look at that again. Nikki is your dog smart?


Nikki: [00:17:47] Yeah. Yeah sure. Both my dogs are. I can’t think of anything particular. My Dog does sing to the harmonica, which maybe you will have to do before the end of hte podcast. But just to go back to what you were saying, either of you guys familiar with the monkeys and the grapes?


Arin: [00:18:08] No.


Nikki: [00:18:10] So this is it really. I’ll have this. Maybe I can find that video for it. But it was scientists and they had to monkey side by side in cages out there are monkeys are you there. Whatever. But they would be like asked to give the scientist a rock. So when the monkeys figured it out and gave them a rock they got a reward. But one of them got a really good reward. I forget what it was. I don’t know. Like a good reward for a monkey. But the other one would get a grape every time and a monkey that’s got that grape, you can see in the video, get super frustrated that the monkey next to him get better reward than he is. It’s a really cool video I recommend checking it out, but it’s interesting that they understand that they’re not getting my fair a fair deal.


Regina: [00:19:05] It’s interesting. I know and I’m sure probably your dogs are the same, where they know when you have a better treat than the one you’re giving them. Because sometimes what I’m doing training with Buttons, he knows that I have two treats available, and that I’m giving him the less desirable one. I usually give him more of those because they have less fat and aren’t as bad for him. And it’s like he would just turn up his nose like he knows! He’ll be so excited and then it’s like “No, bitch, no!” And so I wonder I wonder if that was part of what you mean. So we know dogs do that and so maybe yeah that just kind of makes sense that in that kind of fairness they would know that another dog or another animal was getting something that was better than what they had.


Arin: [00:19:54] Again it also seems possible given that they can make these sorts of decisions and distinctions that maybe they just choose not to perform on some of these intelligence tests too. Maybe they think that the rewards aren’t good enough or that the test is stupid and not worth their time.


Regina: [00:20:10] Yeah I mean look I can’t get my dog to behave a lot of the time at home.


Nikki: [00:20:17] That’s true for most of us!


Regina: [00:20:17] When we’re out, when he’s working and we’re out, he’s a perfect boy and then I’m like “oh my dog is such a jerk” and people are like “Oh my God you’re a monster.” I’m like “No he really is a jerk at home.”


Arin: [00:20:31] Regina, I don’t believe that. I don’t believe it for a second.


Regina: [00:20:34] I tell you what you both need to come visit. Oh we should do like a slumber party podcast where you both just come here.


Nikki: [00:20:40] Can I wear onesie pajamas?


Regina: [00:20:41] Yes.


Arin: [00:20:44] Can Buttons also wear onesie pajamas?


Regina: [00:20:47] We could put him in them and laugh hysterically at his misery. Yes.


Arin: [00:20:51] Oh no I don’t want to make him unhappy!


Regina: [00:20:55] But he’s so cute when he’s unhappy! You guys stay here a couple days and then when you leave you’ll be like “Oh yeah, that dog is a jerk.”.


Nikki: [00:21:08] I’ve been to hotels with your dog and what you consider Buttons being a jerk is not what other people consider their dogs.


Regina: [00:21:15] OK. Let me. OK. First of all just so everybody knows who’s listening to this, feel free to make a drinking game of every time I mentioned my dog. You’ll be drunk really fast. Right. OK. So I don’t know if this actually goes like explaining that my dog is a dumb or that my dog is a jerk. So one day I thought I let him inside the house from outside. This is when we had a fenced yard. I let him inside then I go upstairs and I haven’t seen him for the past half hour. I don’t know where he is. He is not a follower at all. And so it is like 45 minutes later, I’m just going to go check on him and I can’t find him anywhere. Nowhere. He is nowhere. And then I think, oh my god did I not let him inside? What happened? I’m searching for him. I am screaming for him. Screamed for him outside. He is nowhere. I am hysterical. I am literally on the floor thinking I left him outside and someone stole my dog or he got out and then my mom, she also lived with me at the time. She was like “I went to the garage right after you let him in…” He was in the garage. She locked in there. She didn’t know he was in there. She opens the door. He is sitting right at the bottom of the steps! Never Made a sound while I was hysterically screaming his name! He is sitting there like “what’s up?”.


Nikki: [00:22:49] I think he just likes to fuck with you.


Regina: [00:22:56] He is a jerk! He is an absolute jerk.


Nikki: [00:22:58] He gets really good entertainment out of it.


Regina: [00:22:59] I think he does. OK. I feel like I’ve talked enough about my dog. You Guys need to talk about your dogs.


Nikki: [00:23:10] Arin, what about you? Do you like various smart moments that you can think of?


Arin: [00:23:16] No. I mean, like I said, I feel really grateful to live with an intellectually mediocre dog. Personality wise, obviously, he’s the greatest dog in the history of the world and I love him. You know, I love him so, I like gaze into his eyes sometimes and can’t believe this magical creature exists and that I get to live with him. He’s like, he’s a perfect dog but, no, he is definitely not a smart dog. I mean he loses things in the house that he’s just seen a second ago.


Regina: [00:23:53] That’s what I do!


Arin: [00:23:54] Yeah me too! I’m probably not the smartest dog in the world, either!


Nikki: [00:24:01] All right guys. Let’s just pause for a song. Are you ready? *Nikki plays the harmonica*


Nikki: [00:24:11] Give him a second. He’s coming over.


Ruckus the Dog: [00:24:27] Sing-howls to the harmonica Nikki is playing.


Nikki: [00:24:27] Well all right. My dog won!


Regina: [00:24:32] This is officially the best podcast we’ve ever done.


Nikki: [00:24:37] I wish I would have lyrics already lined up. So I could’ve have been like… *plays the harmonica*


Ruckus the Dog: [00:24:48] Sing-howls.


Nikki: [00:24:49] (singing) he’s down on the farm….


Ruckus the Dog: [00:24:49] sing-howls.


[00:24:50] I think we just found our outro music! Nikki, you need to record him and the harmonica. And then that will always be our outro music.


Arin: [00:25:00] Hey Nikki, how did you discover this? Are You just playing the harmonica one day?


Nikki: [00:25:10] We’ve known it for so long I don’t really remember how it started…. It could have been…. It’s just a harmonica though. I’ve tried to like play flute music on my phone or trombone or trumpets and he like rolls his eyes. But the second you play the harmonica…. *plays harmonica*


Ruckus the Dog: [00:25:24] Sing-howls


Regina: [00:25:36] Your dog is a musical genius.


Nikki: [00:25:40] There we go. Well I’m glad you guys got some laughs out of it. Good job boy!


Regina: [00:25:46] I am serious about that being in our outro music… The harmonica and then him singing along. Okay, listeners, I know you may be wondering what the F is going on, but we all wanted to talk about our own dogs because that’s part of the reaction that people had to this article and this study, was that it evokes a truly emotional response, because we all have such emotional relationships with our dogs. We all love them and when anything may like kind of challenge how we feel about our personal dog, our individual dog, I think that that really elicits a big emotional response.


Arin: [00:26:26] Yeah I think that’s totally right. And it was such a mean headline! …This New study finds that canines are not exceptional in the animal world. Of course, they’re exceptional! Of course they are! Look how much we love them. Look how much they love us!


Regina: [00:26:47] But you know what I think it’s almost like what makes it interesting. Like it clarifies… Because you know the issue is when you see like canines are not exceptional, your immediate reaction, as a dog lover … or Maybe even as just a person, right, because dogs are so ingrained in our society… Is to think like well fuck you! Dogs are exceptional! But when you finish reading that sentence, it’s “dogs are not exceptional in the animal world.” Not that “dogs aren’t exceptional in our world and in our society,” because in our society dogs are exceptional.


Arin: [00:27:21] Yeah I think that’s exactly right. Yeah. Well so can we…. So let’s let’s discuss this then, do we think it matters? Well first of all are we convinced by the the finding or the the supposition that dogs are not smarter than other animals? And if they are, does it matter?


Regina: [00:27:40] I think that… I mean I’ve heard in a lot of articles about various studies that sort of come to the conclusion that… when they try to compare dogs and human intelligence…. They say dogs are not smarter than or as smart as a 2 year old – which to me doesn’t make a ton of sense because my dog can do things some 2 year olds can’t do. And then there are lots of things two year olds can do that my dog sure as heck isn’t smart enough to do. Sorry… I don’t know where I was going with that! Oh, Yes. I know that the answer is a lot more complex than just that “dogs aren’t as smart as we want them to be.” I think dogs have their own intelligence. How Can we really compare it to the intelligence of another species? I think that’s the challenge.


Arin: [00:28:22] Yeah. I mean, I look at this… this is partly just an epistemological problem right. Like you never know what’s going on in anybody else’s head. Like how do I even know what’s going on in your head. You know, it’s the idea that we could but we as humans could be hubristic enough to think that we could really know what an animal’s intelligence is. It’s kind of an astonishing it’s an astonishing claim I think to think that we could know that. I mean I don’t know that it’s not worth pursuing. I’m not a scientist. I’m sure there are good reasons to try to find out about an animal’s intelligence both for sort of just to know the information and also maybe to help with conservation… Help us understand the animals so that we want to do better things for them. I mean there’s probably good reasons to try to find all this out. Yeah I just I think it’s I think it’s a pretty arrogant pursuit to think that I guess I don’t think it’s an arrogant pursuit to try to understand animals better and to understand their minds better and to understand their intelligence better. But I think to draw conclusions they’re not that smart is pretty hubristic.


Regina: [00:29:36] Yeah. And I wonder though was this saying like oh they’re not that smart. Which was I think what we all took away like the initial reading of it. It was that even my first reaction having written about a lot of these studies my first reaction was still the same my dog isn’t smart but that’s not really what it was saying. Right. It was saying that dogs aren’t as smart as we used humans want to believe they are.


Arin: [00:29:58] They’re not smarter comparatively.


Nikki: [00:30:01] They’re just as exceptional as every other animal.


Arin: [00:30:05] Yeah. Just as exceptional. Yeah. And also I don’t know anybody… I guess I maybe I came into this not knowing the right people. I don’t know that many people who go around bragging about dogs being so smart anyway. I mean I feel like they kind of they amaze this all the time with the things that they can do. You know, it’s just the the ways that they can enrich our lives. The way that they make our world safer and more interesting and more full of fun. You know ,the tasks that they can do. The joy they bring into our lives. All Of that is undeniable and it seems like every day we get new examples of amazing things that dogs do do. I Don’t know I never I never understood anyone to think that the chief reason we love dogs is because they’re smarter than other animals.


Regina: [00:30:50] Well, I think also we think of some of the things that we think of… there are lots of different kinds of intelligences and for one… I just I think I just made that word up so so intelligences is a word now… We’d like to think of dogs as maybe being emotionally intelligent because of how many people say “you know my dog knows when I’m sad so he’s so smart because he knows when I’m sad and he comes in sits on my lap” or whatever. And also just so you know, my dog does not do that. My dog isn’t emotionally intelligent or he just doesn’t care. I’m not sure. He loves me though.


Nikki: [00:31:33] My dogs don’t do that either they I think just come to me and cuddle when they want to be cuddled and now it’s just a coincidence when you’re sad and your dog comes and cuddles with you, because they just want to be cuddled with who knows really what there motives are.


Arin: [00:31:50] Same with my dog.


Regina: [00:31:51] I wonder what they’re responding to? Is it because… Are they responding to hormone changes and that makes them want to come and see what’s going on? I’m sure there are studies about this and I don’t know if I said this already but we’re not scientists! So we’re probably saying a lot of things that are wrong.


Arin: [00:32:12] And that’s why you should listen to our podcast. But we love dogs so much!


Nikki: [00:32:21] I just want to say that I have been staring baby cows this entire time that live across the street me, from my window.


Regina: [00:32:30] Did you ask them how smart they are?


Nikki: [00:32:32] I kind of want to go over there, but I feel like baby cows probably just run away from you. And I feel like the farmer would be mad if I went over there.


Regina: [00:32:39] The farmer would probably be mad, yes.


Nikki: [00:32:41] This is all…. we’re now not doing the podcast anymore! I am pretty much blabbing.


Arin: [00:32:53] Well here is a question for you… OK. So back to your cows for a second. I feel like viral videos of cows have started to become a bigger thing. Do you think people are starting to love cows more now? I mean do you think you think people will start feeling like I like they are… like they want to defend the integrity of cows, soon too? Like they’ll get offended if a study comes out that says cows are not exceptional? Or you know people love Esther the Wonder Pig and I think that that’s made some people love pigs more broadly. Do you think more people will start rushing to the defense of these other animals, too, if studies come out like this saying cows might not be geniuses…. pigs might not be geniuses?


Nikki: [00:33:43] Well, I hope with the times… we’re almost reverting back to… Like we sort of gone on this like throughout history… I guess now – I’m just kind of speculating – but you know, we used to be all about just eating farm and animals from farms. I don’t know what the hell talking about this point.


Regina: [00:34:05] Yes I do. I get you. Yeah.


Nikki: [00:34:06] And then we we kind of became a society of factory farming and things like that. And I feel like from what I’ve seen as of recently that we’re really starting to get back to basics on that. I think we’re going to start really caring about the integrity of these animals more and more. That’s my hope.


Regina: [00:34:31] I think that’s I think that’s true. And I don’t remember what this study was. Arin, maybe you do. But there was a study that came out, and said like cows have best friends and that was just really emotional for me to learn that. And I think to anybody who learns that that’s that’s a really emotional thing to learn about animals that we consume. And just to clarify for everyone. I’m not a vegetarian although I’ve drastically reduced to my meat and dairy consumption because I’m I think eventually I will be a vegetarian. But I just want to throw that out there and that we’re not telling anybody what you can or can’t eat.


Nikki: [00:35:17] I am also not a vegetarian but I am very cautious about what animals I do eat… And I feel like the more I learn about animals, I just start to realize that it’s more important to the well-being of these animals than what you’re putting in your mouth. So I don’t know… So I feel like as a society that’s where we’re headed. And especially with all this like beyond me and stuff like that. It gives people so many more options on how we got onto the topic of animal products… Well I guess that’s to say that like you know all animals are exceptional, including the animals that we eat. And maybe we as a society don’t currently look at them as exceptional, partially because we don’t want to, because then we have to face realities that we’re also being you know in some cases very nasty to these animal.


Arin: [00:36:15] Yeah.


Regina: [00:36:16] Yeah. And no one wants to face that reality. Like I said with that one study about cows having best friends. I just… Yeah that was so hard for me. But you know I’m sure any number of my vegan and vegetarian friends were like “Yeah of course.” But it is that we don’t want to think about it because we don’t want to change our own habits and we put our habits above critical thinking and the effects that that has on other individuals. This was not so heavy. This conversation got so heavy so fast now!


[00:36:53] Yeah and if we’re going to keep this it I just want to say, soyou all know, Animal Farm only serves vegan vegetarian meals. And when we work, we only eat vegan or vegetarian meals. So you know as me and Regina talk about our personal choices. I just don’t want that to reflect on what Animal Farm’s choices are.


Regina: [00:37:18] Yeah. And but you know though that is one thing that I like about this organization is that what we’re not encouraged.. it’s Like we don’t have to give up our undeveloped individuality to work here. But we are encouraged to make healthier and better and more humane choices. And because of our rules about eating like on business trips that it has to be vegetarian. That’s how I had in my first beyond Burger maybe was the impossible burger. I don’t know. But I loved it. It was amazing.


Nikki: [00:37:46] Do you do eat beyond burgers, Arin?


Arin: [00:37:50] No, I find them to meaty, personally. But I think that they are really great. I think if they can convince… If they can encourage meat eaters to eat the non meat burgers sometimes, then they’re great. I’ve been vegetarian almost all my life. So I find them little disconcertingly meaty, personally. I think what makes them appealing to others makes them disconcerting to me.


Nikki: [00:38:17] I’m not a big fan. I’d much rather like a fresh veggie burger over the beyond burgers. But I’m really excited to to have that as a society. And if we are now… I am excited to see where we go with the future with things like the beyond beef burgers and the options for meat eaters to really switch over.


Regina: [00:38:48] To tie this back to some of the stuff that you were saying before… why are you laughing?


Nikki: [00:38:53] Because this has nothing to do with dogs being smart!


Regina: [00:38:56] No it does. It does it does it does. I’m gonna try to go back. It’s that the more that we learn about the intelligence of other animals, then the more that affects our eating habits. And then the more that so the more science advances and understanding the intelligence of other animals… The more that will force us to be compassionate human beings… And then also the more that… Sorry! Now I got myself off track but I know what I’m gonna say….


Arin: [00:39:33] Well let me ask you this then…


Regina: [00:39:36] No wait wait wait wait. Let me get my point. Let me get to my point. I do have one! So the more that we understand the intelligence of other animals, animals that we typically consume for food, the less we’re going to eat those animals. But then also the more equal domestic animals will seem to non domesticated animals and to farm animals. So that maybe in 50 to 100 years, people won’t have the same reaction that they had to this study because we’ll be like “Yeah of course dogs are dogs. Dogs are animals.”


Nikki: [00:40:12] That’s a really good point.


Regina: [00:40:12] It just took me a long time to get to that point, but I did have one!


Arin: [00:40:16] Yeah I think you’re exactly right. And I would just say one more time – that headline was so troll-y, though! Definitely trying to get a reaction out of us with that headline!


Regina: [00:40:26] Kudos to the person who wrote it because that’s how you do it. It was an accurate headline. It was accurate.


Arin: [00:40:34] Well, as somebody who is exceptionally good at headlines, Regina, what would you have headlined the piece?


Regina: [00:40:40] Oh I don’t know.


Arin: [00:40:42] Would you have gone for a troll headline like this?


Regina: [00:40:45] Oh of course I would have!


Arin: [00:40:47] Because it’s good to get people to click…


Regina: [00:40:50] I trolled people in one of our last podcast posts about pit bulls and I said for starters they aren’t even real. People got so mad.


Arin: [00:41:02] Yeah. You don’t run away from a bold headline.


Regina: [00:41:05] I do not.


Arin: [00:41:07] Well good for them then and good for them for having a discussion. it’s prompted a lot of interesting talks, a lot of interesting discussions and some funny tweets.


Regina: [00:41:16] And some really disjointed podcasting.


Arin: [00:41:22] Buttons had some good points to make though.


Regina: [00:41:27] No he he made some silent judging points, I’m sure. But I think I think Murray and… that was Ruckus that was singing?


Nikki: [00:41:35] Yeah it was. That was Ruckus.


Regina: [00:41:38] You know you’re honestly, you know, you’re your dog has like a really soulful spirit. I mean you can’t listen to that voice without thinking, like, wow your dog is deep. You don’t know what’s going on behind those eyes man. There could be some serious. Like deep thoughts.


Nikki: [00:41:56] Like give me cookies give me cookies give me cookies give me cookies


Arin: [00:41:59] I mean I’m going to be honest. That’s what’s going through my head about half the time to. Okay, I gotta get going.


Nikki: [00:42:11] All right. Thanks for your time.


Arin: [00:42:14] Thank you so much for having me. Thank you.


Regina: [00:42:17] And if you like what you heard here and you like the work that we do to bring dogs and people together to end discrimination you can visit Animal Farm foundation dot org slash donate and send us money or follow us on Facebook at Animal Farm Foundation and also on Instagram at Animal Farm foundation to interact with us and see lots of pictures of dogs and people.


Nikki: [00:42:40] We also have some pretty good swag out there. Guys I don’t know if you know but check out our shop if you can. If you don’t if you want to and get some swag like a T-shirt or we got some cool you got leashes and fun stuff like that.


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Are Purebred Dogs Individuals?

Are Purebred Dogs Individuals?

Are Purebred Dogs Individuals?


February 2019

Listen to the episode

To subscribe to the podcast or if the player isn’t worker, you can find the Individual Animal on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, Google Play, and wherever you listen to podcasts.

Veterinary geneticist Jessica Hekman joins us for this episode of the Individual Animal to talk about breed traits and how they affect a dog’s personality. She answers the question of whether or not they dictate personality and behavior (spoiler: they don’t).

It’s important that individuals and companies who set the tone for how society views dogs look to actual experts on dog genetics and behavior for their information. PetSmart’s breed ban (applied subjectively through visual identification) at their daycares and playgroups is prime example of this. They claim to have experts that say banning dogs labeled “pit bull.” But canine science isn’t on their side.

As we’ve said before, dog behavior is complicated and is the result of an incredible amount of variables – all which lead to the science that dogs are individuals. You’ve heard us say it and you’ve seen our infographic, but we know the topic can be confusing, especially with all of the misinformation out there on what contributes to an individual canine personality.

We cover a lot of things in the episode. We talk about the role things like a dog’s early environment play in who the dog becomes, the role of responsible breeders, how individual circumstances can change how a dog sees the world, and of course, we discuss how breed traits fit into all of this.

We address the role breeding plays in selecting service dogs, and whether or not it’s a guarantee that the majority of dogs from a program will make the cut. Jessica, who works with a guide dog program, says the average washout rate is 50%. It’s all about the individual dog.

We also talk about the fox domestication project and what that says about the evolution of dogs and their behavior. (another spoiler: It’s not a clear cut answer.)

We all like simple and predictable answers. It’s human nature to want those things. But science tells us that predicting who a dog will become or who a dog is based on one, or even on two, set of criteria is a fool’s errand – and even if you do take into consideration every knowable aspect of a dog’s genetics, history, and experiences, you still have no way of predicting how all of those things will translate into a dog’s personality.

But this is all better said in Jessica’s own words, so have a listen to the episode, or read the transcript below.

You can follow Jessica Hekman @dogzombieblog on Twitter and on Facebook.


*note that we have edited the transcript for clarity and removed repeated words and “umms…” Please excuse any missing punctuation or typos we may have missed!

Regina: Hi and welcome to the Individual Animal a podcast about animal welfare and discrimination. I’m Regina.

Nikki: And I’m Nikki.

Regina: And today we have Jessica Heckman on as our guest to discuss breed traits and what they are and whether or not they affect a dog’s personality. Jessica I do want to introduce yourself. Tell us about yourself.

Jessica: Well first of all thanks so much for inviting me. This is super cool and I’m really looking forward to it. So I’m a veterinarian and then after getting my veterinary degree I went and got a PhD studying the genetics of… I like to say it was the genetics of dog behavior, but I was actually studying foxes at the time. I was using them sort of as a model for dogs. But I’m now a postdoc working at the Broad Institute of M.I.T. and Harvard. Back home in Massachusetts, I’m working for a lab that actually does study dogs directly which is super nice. We study pet dogs in the home. People come and fill out surveys and answer questions about their dog’s personality and then they also send us some DNA and we take a look at the genetics of their dog’s personality that way.

Regina: Well I think we should maybe also talk about the the domestication of foxes in that program. That’s in Russia right.

Jessica: Correct. Yes.

Regina: Because I think a lot of people use that as an example of how breed traits definitely are real and affect everything about a dog and connect to everything about a dog. So I think that’s really relevant to the conversation we’re about to have. I’m talking about the foxes. I’m going to start us off by saying let’s just get to the point. Do you breed traits exist and what are they.

Jessica: Yes. So I mean I think it depends on what you mean by breed traits, right. And so when I think about genetics, I always think about it in terms of risk. And so I don’t think about it in terms of black and white. So if you’re saying that a breed trait is something that tells you that a dog of a particular breed is going to be a particular way for sure 100 percent then no, those don’t exist. There aren’t there aren’t any…  not in terms of personality, right. There might be in terms of physiology, like all corgis have short legs or else they’re not corgis, right. But in terms of personality there is no 100 percent.

If you’re talking about in terms of risk,  then sure that there are some breeds that they have higher risk of developing certain certain traits. And I say risk not just in terms of bad things, I would say golden retrievers have higher risk of developing extreme friendliness than other breeds. But it doesn’t mean that every golden retriever is friendly right.

So there was one time, was walking my dog I actually had the dog I was walking at the time wasn’t golden by some other woman with a golden and she started yelling from like an eighth of a mile away, “My dog’s not friendly!!” And I could just see her life of no one believing her that her golden retriever didn’t like other dogs. This poor woman was struggling with the preconceived notions about her dog.

Regina: That’s interesting. You know I think people don’t think of it that way. I mean I know we do and we think about adopting dogs but I’ve never really thought about how it could affect people when they’re just walking with their dog and that could create a really dangerous situation.

Jessica: Yeah! I imagine that this woman had people just letting their dogs run right up to her dog without asking, right. if you have a German shepherd, people are much more likely to ask… if you the golden people… and I’m guilty of this too, right. Like, I judge based on looks and I know it’s not scientific and I shouldn’t do it but we all do it and I’ll be like, “oh that’s a golden I’m sure it’ll be fine.” And you really need to ask because it’s the you know dogs are individuals.

Nikki: How much can we guarantee the dog of a specific breed is going to have a certain trait.

Jessica: Well it depends on the trait. I mean there’s no guarantees. I would say rather than looking at a whole breed, I would look at the individual dog and where it comes from. 

So within a breed you have a lot of different types of dogs. Som sticking with the goldens, right , you can divide goldens into working dogs, field line dogs who are really bred for trials, and then you can also alternatively have the show goldens –  who are bred to be pretty and those are the ones that more often are seen as pets, but you get the field dogs as pets, as well. They look pretty different and they have somewhat different personalities as well. So you’re going to have different sort of spectrums of traits right. Again, not 100 percent that one is only one way or another one’s going to be the other way. But, you know, you’re more likely to have the field ones be high energy and pretty smart, and the confirmation ones to be a bit lower energy and perhaps not quite such intellectual giants.

But then if you start narrowing down even more… if you go narrowing down into those field breedlines, well some of them are bred for hunting and some of them are bred for agility and so you see differences there. And then if you start going and talking to the individual breeder, she’ll say, “you know this particular part of personality is really important for me, so I really focused on breeding my dogs to have a whole lot of interest in toys” … maybe an agility breeder might tell you. So then your your risk of getting a dog who’s really interested in toys is pretty high from that particular population that you’re looking at when you look at the breed as a whole.

Goldens do tend to really like toys, but some of them don’t. And it just really depends on the population the subpopulation that you’re looking at.

I hate talking about breeds as a whole because there’s there’s still populations within breeds.

Regina: Well so this is a question I was going to ask a little bit later. But I think it’s relevant right now. You know a lot of the dogs out there at least my understanding is, you know, they come from puppy mills or backyard breeders or accidental litters… and these are a lot of the dogs that people have as pets. You know, I would say the average person doesn’t go to a reputable breeder to get their dog, more than likely. So then how can you know these dogs are not bred with any kind of intention, like what you were just talking about. There’s no intention. So then how can we even say that a dog from a puppy mill or a backyard breeder or whatever regardless whether or not it’s quote unquote “purebred” will have breed traits at all because there’s no intention

Jessica: Right for sure. And so, if I were to acquire a golden retriever that I got out of a shelter or or that I got from a puppy mill rescue, I would have very few preconceived notions about a dog like that. And again I might think this dog would be a little bit more likely to be interested in water and toys and things like that. But I would I would be less confident that the dog was going to grow up to be like that versus a dog that I knew a lot more about its background.

Nikki: So I want to backup to the dogs that are bred for intention that also doesn’t… so go back to the woman with the hypothetical woman with the retrievers that’s breeding to really want them to like toys. That doesn’t mean that she’s going to get a dog all of her dogs and all of her litters to have that likeness for toys, right?

Jessica: Correct, for sure. And it’s one of those things that people who are breeding and really trying to select hard for particular traits are balancing right now, where there’s this balance between where you can start breeding stronger and stronger selective pressure for a particular trait that you’re really interested in…  and as you do that you end up inbreeding.

And so you get these purebred dog populations right now that come from breeders who we think of as responsible breeders and we’re certainly putting a lot of thought into it, but there’s really this tradeoff at this point between …. Well you can have these dogs where you breed more and more carefully to have them more and more to almost like clones of each other…. But then, you’re going to start having health problems and inbreeding problems.

So I’ve actually been working with schools that breed and train guide dogs recently and that’s been really eye opening. They obviously have a particular suite of behaviors and personalities that it’s really important for them to have. And they absolutely, despite the fact that they have, you know people with PhDs in animal breeding, you know, managing how these dogs are bred…  they still aren’t breeding 100 percent of dogs that can go on to become guide dogs. And they even so are being very careful to keep bringing in from the outside. And in dealing with that tradeoff, well you know… We don’t want our group to be inbred and so we bring dogs in from the outside and then we see a bit of a dip in what we’re breeding for. And it’s, you know, that next generation isn’t exactly what we want, maybe, but you have to keep doing that to get back to keeping the population healthy. So even people who are breeding so carefully like that have had trouble. They don’t get all of their dogs being what they want.


Regina: Do you know what they flunk out rate is? What the washout rate is?

Jessica: It’s a really hard question, actually. So, a lot of it depends on how you measure it and you think it would be really easy to measure, right? Because it’s like pass/fail. How hard can it be? It’s a lot of questions. 

So the number that gets kicked around a lot is 50 percent and then you’ll talk to some schools that will be like, “Oh no no! 90 percent of our dogs pass!”  But then you’ll find out that program isn’t quite so rigorous or that they start measuring after the dogs have already had a couple of chances to fail. They start measuring later on.

But then the other thing with the 50 percent is that some of the schools that you talk to breed a certain number of dogs a year in order to have extras. Then they take sort of the top 50 percent and so maybe of the 50 percent that fail you know maybe the bottom 10 percent really truly couldn’t ever have been guide dogs and others of them maybe could have managed it but they weren’t so confident.

Also failing doesn’t necessarily mean they go off to be pets. It might mean that they do what they call a career change. They end up going, instead of working for a blind person which is one of the very hardest jobs they can do, they might end up being an assistance dog working for somebody needs help with picking stuff up… or you know a balance dog or that kind of work – which is still challenging but not quite as top tier being a guide dog for the blind. So it ends up being a fairly complicated question. But 50 percent is a number that gets kicked around a lot.

Regina: I think this is a point that we try to make with our service dog program. It’s that because people have this big misconception that if a dog is born and is purpose bred then that dog is guaranteed or maybe the washout rate is 1 percent or something like that. And so for us, with our service dogs, you know, we’re showing that it is up to the individual dog and even in these programs it’s still up to the individual dog. I’m going to take a second to talk about my dog, which is my favorite thing to do. So I am legally blind and he’s a guide dog but he’s a shiba. So talk about breaking like major stereotypes there, right?!


Jessica: Woah!

Regina: But then we could say maybe he does have that breed trait of being stubborn, right? So let’s say maybe he has that which, I mean he is stubborn, but I don’t know if that’s because that’s something he inherited or if he’s just stubborn because some dogs are just stubborn. But that helps because really I didn’t have to teach him intelligent disobedience. He’s just like, “no we’re not going to do that.” And I think that’s part of the thing though about breed traits especially. He was a rescue. And I know he was not carefully bred or anything like that. I have no idea if his behaviors are ticking boxes from breed traits or if it’s just who he is. There is no way for me to know that.

Jessica: Well… I would also push back on saying that those are two different things – ticking boxes for breed traits versus is how the dog is. I mean, how the dog is a combination of genetics and environment working together to sort of mold his personality, right.

And so breed traits are basically the genetics that you get based on the fact that you are part of a particular breed, which is a closed breeding population. We don’t let dogs in that can’t trace back to those founding dogs, theoretically. So breed traits are genetics. And then how the dog is, is genetics…. and so, you know, did he get some genetics that made him stubborn and was it also part of, you know, part of his or early life that shaped in that way? Yes, it was both things. Absolutely was both things.

And then the genetics that he got that made him stubborn… were those sort of from the gene versions… the alleles that are very common for shibas? Or were they part of you know some variation that’s unique to him? I don’t know. I think probably both. 

But I just I guess I would say that I don’t like thinking of genetics in such a black and white way. That it is very much this really fluid interaction between the environment and genetics… and there’s…. you can’t just say these traits are due to genetics and these traits are due to environment. And and you know split them off and these traits are due to being part of a breed and these traits are not. You can’t put them in boxes like that.

Regina: And that’s one thing that, so you know, there was the this study that went viral… It wasn’t really the study that went viral, it was just the article that went viral. It was titled “Breeds really do have distinct personalities. And it comes from their DNA.” And that really… people’s response to that, even though the article and certainly the study, were not black and white, the title made it black and white and people responded to it in such a black and white way. Saying yes it proves… and I think one of the things about breed traits that I see especially in the dog community that I’m a part of is that these distinct traits…. they make them feel special. Their dogs don’t care. Dogs don’t need to feel special. But it makes them feel special that they own such a dog with such a distinct personality.

And I think that’s one of the reasons why people really latch on to titles like that and one of the reasons why it went viral. It just made everybody feel special about their dog.

Jessica: Yeah. Which which we all love to do. I think the other part of it, too, though is that we really like predictability.

I mean I think that’s why chain restaurants do so well because when you’re traveling, you like to know what you’re going to eat, right? And I think you know when you bring a dog home. When I brought…. So, I am I’m right now rubbing the belly of my two year old English Shepherd, Dash. And when I brought him home, I really wanted a dog to do agility with. And it was really important to me to get a dog that fit into my life in certain ways that was going to get along with my other dog. And even if people don’t have, you know, goals like specific dog sports, you definitely want a dog who’s going to get along with all the humans in the house, with all the other animals in the house, and have the energy level that you expect.

We have a lot of things that we want from a dog and we don’t get to date dogs in the same way, like my husband. I got to date him for a while and decide and I could have kicked him to the curb at some point if he didn’t…. I’m saying this all with him in the room, by the way! I could have kicked him to the curb if he didn’t measure up, if he wasn’t what I wanted. But with a dog you bring the dog home and that is it. You can’t…. you don’t… we don’t generally date dogs for two weeks or six months and say, “oh you aren’t really what I wanted.” 

So people really, really want to know when they bring a dog home that’s going to be what they want. And, the number of questions I get as a veterinary geneticist, and where people come to me and say basically, “how can I guarantee that I’m going to get this puppy or this dog from a shelter and have that dog turn out to fit into my household and exactly the way I want?” It’s like you can’t. It’s a living being, unfortunately.

But there’s this hope that if you get a dog from a particular breed, that it will conform to the expectations of that breed and that you’ll be able to predict what you’re getting and it’ll be exactly like that last dog that you had. It was so wonderful of that same breed. Or that it will be you know the next agility champion or that it will be a dog that you can do therapy work with that you can take anywhere with you know. And it’s unfortunate that that’s not the case. I totally sympathize with people wanting predictability.

Nikki: So we talked about working dog dog aspect of breeding and breeding. Service dogs to get specific behaviors. I know that breeding for behavior is a lot different from breeding for looks and I would say the majority of pet dogs that are in people’s homes are coming from breeders who breed for looks. Can you talk about the difference between the two?

Jessica: So breeding for looks and if you if you talk to someone who breeds dogs for the show ring, they’ll all tell you that they don’t breed just for showing. They do breed for personality, as well. And I think that is true. They’re breeding for a dog is gonna do well in the show ring, but they they certainly don’t want to breed a dog that’s not going to do well in their home… or not that, you know, is going to produce puppies that they can’t place in pet homes. 

But what’s really hard is trying to do both at once. So, if you try to, you know, if you have too many criteria that you’re selecting on, you can’t efficiently select on all of them.

So, looking at, again going back to talking about these people who breed guide dogs, they do it very mathematically. It’s lovely. At least, at the school that I’ve been working with most closely does it very mathematically. And so they have a list of characteristics that they care about and it’s things like you know “is the dog able to do some intelligent disobedience?” and “is the dog too sensitive to body handling?” “Is a dog able to have a harness on them?” “Is the dog afraid of weird things under its feet?” … So all those behavioral things that you want, but then they’re also breeding for health. So, they are also looking to see if a dog comes from a line of dogs that had cancer and such like. And it’s really hard for them to balance all of those things. So, if you’re also balancing in addition, you know… for example, if they breed too hard in one direction, then they’ll start seeing stuff pop up in the other direction they’ll find, “OK. Well we weren’t paying attention to this particular type of cancer because we hadn’t seen it for a while. And so we’re just sort of letting it go because we were more interested in the dogs being really good at being guide dogs and then all of a sudden it got into the population and now you know more and more dogs are being diagnosed with this particular cancer and so we have to start paying attention to that again.”

So it’s this constant push/pull of trying to to balance all of the different things that you’re breeding for. So putting… in breeding for as few things as possible makes you better at getting where you want to go for those few things. And so, if you add in having a particular coat color and having a particular head shape and having a particular white coat color patternings, and having particular ear position…  on top of all of that on top of health and on top of personality… it just makes it so so much harder to get there.

So I do believe people who say that they take into account health and personality in addition to breeding for confirmation in the show ring. But the fact is you can’t… the more things you breed for the harder it is to get to where you want to go. And I think that health and personality should be prioritized so, so much higher than winning in the show ring.

That is what I had to say about that. And it might be actually a good time… we had talked about possibly coming back to the foxes because they are fabulous example of breeding for just one thing.


Nikki: That’s where I was getting to.

Jessica: Oh, I looked ahead too far?

Nikki: Oh, you’re good. If you want to talk a little bit about the fox thing that you worked on I think it’s a really amazing study.

Jessica: Yes, I should probably provide the background in case there are a few remaining people out there who are interested in dogs and animals and haven’t heard of the foxes.

It’s the study that started in the 1960s in Siberia. Dr. Dimitri Belyaev started it. And the hypothesis was that if you take foxes who are… they were farmed foxes, so they were being kept by humans. They weren’t technically wild, but they were certainly not tame or domesticated and they were very afraid of an aggressive towards humans. So, if you take foxes like that and start selectively breeding them where you take the least wild of them and breed those together and you just keep doing that, would you be able to basically replicate what happened with the wolf turning into the dog? And would you be able to create some foxes that are super tame? So they have been doing that for about 60 years now. And in fact, they have generated this line of foxes that they refer to as the tame foxes. These foxes are incredibly tame.

So, they will… I actually did get to go to Siberia to visit the foxes for one week. Where I did my PhD was in Illinois and we did not have foxes there on site. We worked with samples and with data from Siberia. But, I did get to go and meet them.

And on the one hand the foxes are super tame. So, even though they haven’t been formally socialized to humans… they have been fed by humans twice a day their whole lives… but they haven’t been formally socialized, but they will come want to interact with you. They’ll enjoy being held by you. They’re very, very friendly.

And then there’s another line of foxes that they bred for aggressiveness. And those foxes are pretty scary. So, on the one hand breeding for just the one thing got them pretty far. On the other hand, what the popular press doesn’t tell you is… the popular press loves writing about the tame foxes. And there’s this nuance that’s hard to come across in a short magazine story…. And so when I met them, I was really surprised to discover that there’s still a lot of variation in their personalities even though they’d been bred for 60 years to have very particular personalities.

The only thing they’d been selected on was basically their reaction to humans during a very specific short test. But, there were still some foxes that would really want to come up and swarm all over you. Some of the tame foxes that were sort of like, “oh I’m not sure I’m going to hang back and sniff you and think about it.”

The line of foxes that were bred to be more aggressive, my guide took me too to meet those and she took me to meet the first one and we watched it to the cage and the fox hid in the back of the cage and she said, “well he’s a bad example.” So we went to meet the next one and he hid in the back of the cage. She said, “Oh he’s not a great example either.” We went to meet the third one and he started slamming himself against the front of the cage trying to kill us. And she’s like, “there’s a good example of an aggressive fox!”

But again, there’s this still pretty impressive behavioral variation within the lines. So what’s really interesting about taming the aggressive foxes is that the most aggressive of the tame foxes is still more tame than the least aggressive of the aggressive foxes. Did I say that right? So there’s no overlap between the populations. However, there’s a lot of variation within the populations.

Regina: But they’re also bred in an extremely strict environment that I that I don’t think any dog breeder… well I mean except for maybe puppy mills… but that’s unintentional. But I mean they’re bred… I mean I wouldn’t say it’s an ideal environment humanely probably…

Jessica: No. Right so I’ve only been talking about genetics. But yeah. So the environment for sure is not the kind of environment that we bring dogs up in. So, a couple of ways in which they differ from dogs… one way is that they’ve been very, very strictly selected for just for personality for 60 years. And we don’t see any dog breeds where that’s true. Right? We don’t see any that have been selected only for personality for that long.

So you certainly wouldn’t expect ,even based just on that you, wouldn’t expect to see any dog breed to have as little variation as the foxes. You expect all dog breeds to have more personality variation just based on the fact that they haven’t been selectively bred as rigorously. Then secondl,  as you make the excellent point, the environment’s very different.

So the foxes are raised in a very sterile, basically laboratory environment. They’re basically a fur farm and that is so that they can make sure that they all have very similar environments, so that when they compare the tame to the aggressive foxes, they really know that what they’re seeing is a difference in genetics and not a difference in environment. And that again, not at all true of dogs.

And when you look at the influence that environment has on dogs personality… it’s really massive. So that in some ways the foxes are really interesting examples for dogs, but there this example sort of distilled down to the sort of sort of perfect very small model. And there is so much else going on with dogs. So I guess what I want to say is that if you were to selectively breed dogs that rigorously, you might be able to change their personalities that much, but no one has done it yet –

Regina: nor probably should anyone…

Jessica: Yeah, I would not want anyone to do that.

Regina: Yeah. I’m gonna skip ahead a little. But going back to breed traits and people assuming that breed traits equal personality or outright equal behavior… There are so many quizzes out there now. I know Petfinder has one. Animal Planet, I think used to have one. And then there are just all those like BuzzFeed quizzes.. “what dog are you?” or “what dog best suits your personality?” And I think the Petfinder one is really… dangerous is the wrong word… but maybe irresponsible… because that’s where you go to adopt dogs. So then you take a quiz on what breed is right for you…. And so then you’ll go look for a dog and have these expectations for the dog you adopt may not have.

I don’t remember if the one that I took when I got my dog many years ago… seven years ago… was on Petfinder on Animal Planet, but that is how I started looking for a shiba because that was my number one match. And it turned out that, yeah I got a dog that is pretty much my exact personality, but I didn’t just walk away with any dog. Like it took me a long time to get a dog. I got him from a rescue and they matched me with one that fit my personality.

So I don’t exactly think that quiz was correct because I know lots of shibas with vast variations who wouldn’t fit the description that the quiz gave me at all. And so I think there’s a big danger for people when they, again that’s strong of a word, when they take those quizzes and then they jump right to adopting a dog based on what that quiz said because it really is just taking the stereotypes and things that may not even be true.

Jessica: By just taking breed traits and making a personality out of them and I think that’s really wise. Yeah I think that makes a lot of sense.

And it’s it’s hard, because people really like for biology to be black and white. And so while on the one hand, I like the idea of educating people about dog breeds… And so you know, you see people bringing home a dog that has way too much energy for their household. And you think gosh maybe a Labrador retriever wasn’t the right dog for you. Maybe some large dog would’ve been, but your chances of getting a really super mellow dog were much lower based on the fact that she went looking for a lab. So on the one hand, I feel like it’s nice to educate people and have them really think about what their needs are. But on the other hand, you can’t then go from, “you know I want this and my best chances of getting that are going for this breed.” You can’t go from that and think you will just get any dog of this breed and it’s going to be totally fine. That’s a huge leap.

And it’s people just you know people need to understand that getting a dog is not the same thing as purchasing an item on Amazon where you know that it’s going to be exactly as advertised and that’s used to be what a lot of people think.

Regina: I notice in a lot of dog communities online where people just… they really think all dogs are carbon copies of one another and they all have these very specific traits and that those traits again equal personality. And like I said before I think some of that might be because it makes them feel special. Yeah. Their dog is special with these particular traits but I think that can also lead to barriers and adoption when people assume when rescues or shelters assume that dogs when we look at what maybe as a negative trait that people assume that then they have to protect the dog from being adopted to someone who may not be able to handle those behaviors. Nikki, you want to talk about that because I know you. You’re the expert on removing barriers for adoption.

Nikki: This actually made me think of…  I was actually speaking to our colleague Christa today about this podcast because I’ve never owned a purebred dog but she’s had German Shepherds her entire life. So, I wanted to get some insight from her as to why was she making this decision of adopting a German shepherd every time she got a dog. And for her, what it sort of came down to was that the looks were more important to her than how the dog behaved. But it had worked out for her with every dog that she’s had.

She also said every dog that she’s had has been extremely different in personality. So I think for adopters, the barrier is that they are looking for… I would say most of the time is a specific look and not really are always looking for a specific behavior. So when you know so and so goes out and adopts that lab like you said, Jessica, and there they’re faced with a dog with a lot of energy, they were only worried about what that dog looked like and not how it was going to behave. So I think it sort of goes… it goes the other way for shelters. They have just been doing such a great job making sure that if you want a dog that looks like X Y or a purebred dog of this breed, then we are going to make sure we find you one that’s going to work in your household. So that that doesn’t happen so much anymore where we are in animal welfare. But I definitely can see how it can be people can have false expectations in the beginning.

Regina: I see it a lot with rescues… and I’m friends with a lot of rescuers. Some general rescues and some breed specific…. And I see some of them kind of fall prey to those stereotypes that X Y Z breed is an escape artist so you have to have a fence and the fence has to be so high.

I see that a lot still with rescues. And I just think that’s that’s a poor assumption because then you know it’s not like rescues have a plethora of foster homes or even space for these dogs and maybe they have some dogs that don’t need an eight foot fence. So then they’re they’re keeping those dogs in their rescue for a long time, looking for that perfect adopter based on something that may or may not be true about that dog.

Jessica: Yeah I was in I was in rescue. I did lab rescue around like 2005 to 2007ish, and then after a vet school I did a shelter medicine internship and I saw in the shelter world that people were starting to realize and make really great strides in removing barriers to adoption. And it’s not clear to me… There definitely were super barriers to adoption in the rescue world when I was in that world and I keep hearing a lot of stories now… you hear all these stories about people coming to you and they’re obviously really good potential dog owners saying “Well the rescue wouldn’t adopt that to me because I didn’t have a fence or because I had a twelve year old child,” or something like that. You know, “they wouldn’t even consider me.”  And I don’t know if they’re…. I’m hopeful that there are rescues out there that are starting to learn, as this information is percolating through the shelter world, and start to remove some of the barriers to adoption but there’s certainly still a lot of them that do have it.

Nikki: Do you have any experience working with breeders and how they pick who gets what dog that they have in their litter at all.

Jessica: Some. So a lot of breeders will do a puppy test and a lot of them will have someone come in to do a puppy test and get some information on. So this will be at around sort of six or eight weeks of age and get some information on the puppies behavior that way. And obviously. the breeder will, if it’s if they’re a good breeder, they’ll know a lot about the puppy by the time they’re placing the puppy. And so they’ll start to have an idea that like, you know, I think this puppy’s personality looks more like this, and that one looks more like that, and then they’ll work with the owners to help the owners decide.

And you see the gamut, right? You see some breeders that are just like “OK owners! You can figure out what you’re gonna do.” And that can either be because the breeders are just not making an effort, but it could also be because the breeder knows that the people that they’re working with know what they’re doing. So I work with a lot of people. I hang out with a lot of people who are deep into the dog sports world right now and they are very competent about picking their own dogs and the breeders will just let them do that if they think they know what they’re doing. When I picked Dash, I called up the breeder and said, “I really wanted a male.” I thought he would get along with my female better. And the breeder said, “OK well we have two that sound like they’d be good for what you’re looking for.” So she basically weaned it down and then was like, “of the two you pick.”

But it’s not clear. So there’s been there’s scientific evidence about the utility of doing these puppy tests or doing any sort of assessment of personality in eight weeks that suggests that personality is so likely to change after eight weeks that it’s almost not worthwhile to make any guesses at all. And I’ve heard some people, high level dog sports trainers, basically say when you’re picking your next puppy go meet both parents make sure that the parents and the lines are what you’re looking for and then pick a puppy at random…

Nikki: and hope it works out!

Jessica: And hope it works out! Because that’s the closest you can get. And given that I sort of feel like, “well if you want to do behavior tests and make guesses that way, that’s just as good as saying that you like the markings.”

But you know you can you can tell something about how the puppy is built at eight weeks but you’re going to have a fair amount of trouble really predicting their personality.

Regina: So why do you think that is? Is that just I mean just like human children we change as we grow up or do. Do you think that’s something about how much nurture affects a dog?

Jessica: Now all of that eight weeks is really young. Think about how much you changed when you went through puberty and they haven’t had not gone through puberty yet. And I know my dog changed a lot. I really wanted to get it. I had never had a puppy and I really wanted to see what development was like. I was amazed at how much he changed when he hit like five and a half months. I was like, “Well where did my sweet puppy go?” He listen to everything I told him and was a little sponge for learning and now you just want to pee on things and sniff girl pee and you know that’s all you’re interested in! So, they they change a lot when they go through adolescence and they don’t necessarily go back to how they were when they come out the other side. So there’s just… they, you know, it’s how the owner is going to handle them and how the owner is going to socialize them and just a lot of stuff can change and it’s chance.

You know my dog Dash is sort of an extreme example of a dog who had sort of a big sort of life changing experience when he was young. I think really changed the course of his personality. When he was five months old, he injured himself. It turned out that he had actually broken a very small bone in his elbow. I knew that he was lame, but I rested him and then it got better and then it got worse. I spent a year and a half trying to diagnose what was going on before I finally found a surgeon who figured it out and went through arthroscopic surgery and fixed it. And then we had a really long recovery. So he had spent a good portion of the first two years of his life being in chronic pain, learning that running around and playing and exercising getting close to other dogs and all those things could cause pain.

It really affected his personality, and I’ve been I’ve been seeing him change as he’s recovered. And I’ve been doing a lot of work with him to get him, you know, unafraid of things hurting him. We’ve been getting back to where I want him to be, but that’s… I thought that was a great example of a dog who you know something happened and it really affected his personality.

Nikki: And you also done a lot of work on how the parents affect the dog’s behavior, correct?

Jessica: I haven’t done that work myself, but I’ve done a lot of reading. You mean in environment? I’ve done a lot of reading and thinking about how the mom effects the baby’s behavior by how she raises the baby. which I’m assuming you’re talking about.

So there’s some really fascinating work out there, which I would love to get into. Some people have started doing it with dogs, but it’s it’s hard work to do. It basically involves watching moms and their puppies for hours and hours and hours on end. Or more likely, video recording them but then watching hours of Dog TV.

So, though the work was originally done in the 1990s in rats and it showed that rat mothers who were much more sort of interactive with their babies so that they would look and groom them more and then they would be more likely to arch their backs to make it really easy for the babies to nurse, that those babies tended to grow up to be much more confidence in the world… much more resilient to stress compared to babies whose moms just didn’t spend as much time sort of doing those kinds of caretaking tasks…. They knew it wasn’t genetics because they would cross-foster, so they would take rat pups from moms that were very nurturing at birth and they would put them with moms who were not very nurturing. They would see that sort of opposite behavioral affect personality as they grew up. So this is super interesting work and particularly interesting because they were able to map it down very finely to exactly what’s going on in the brain. I love when we can really understand the biology, right. And so people are just starting to look at that in dogs.

Then there’s a study that came out… and it’s really early days in dogs…. There’s a study that came out where they looked at something similar in guide dogs and they found actually sort of the opposite, which is that guide dog moms who made it harder for their babies to nurse, those puppies were more likely to grow up to be guide dogs. And so, that may be because that early challenge made it easier for them to do that kind of independent work that guide dogs have to do. So we don’t we certainly don’t know how to make the environment perfect for the puppies or the puppy grows up to be exactly where you want it to be. But it seems like there’s a lot of stuff going on there, if we only knew how to harness it.

Regina: But I feel like that kind of goes back to what I was saying about…. Because there are so many puppy mill dogs and backyard breeder dogs and we really don’t know how much time, if any their moms are spending with them and for puppy mill dogs, probably not a lot. So again, people are making all these assumptions about a dog from a specific breed for having possibly all these behaviors. But there’s so much that goes on when you have all these dogs in the population that are not coming from ideal conditions despite the fact that we all think they are.

Jessica: Yeah. The idea of getting a puppy out of a pet store… I think most people realize this but some people not, if you get a dog from a pet store, it almost positively has come from one of these environments where… you know… maybe there are better and worse puppy mills some of them are not clean…. some of them are clean but they’re still not in a situation where people are socializing them and you know they’ve been raised in a kennel with their moms and best case they’ve been raised in a kennel…. worst case in sort of a small cage.

So it’s just you know it’s so, so, so different from what breeders or really high quality foster parents who raise puppies that would otherwise have been born in shelters. You know the proper way that a human helps a mom dog raise a puppy, you know starts from mom dog not being stressed out when she’s pregnant. That’s important. It’s… puppy brains are already learning when they’re in the uterus that, “if mom is stressed then the world is a scary place and I should be prepared to live in a scary place.”

And then you know having mom in a place where she feels comfortable taking good care of the puppies and then the humans working so hard to socialize them… So you know we all think how important it is to socialize a puppy when we bring it home at eight weeks. But, it turns out that the really the most important part of their socialization period has already closed by then. So there’s a lot that we can and should be doing from 8 to 12 or it’s eight to 16 weeks. But the biggest bang for your buck is in the hands of that person who’s raising that puppy for when it first starts coming out of the nest at four weeks until it leaves their hands at eight weeks. Those those weeks between 4 to 8 weeks are the most important ones for the puppy learning what the world is gonna be about and what to be afraid of and what not to be afraid of. And to have a puppy be in a big commercial facility at that at that age and not have someone be spending, you know, for eight hours a day dealing with that litter…. It’s just you know some puppies may still manage to grow up to be fine and you hear the story of someone saying, “Oh well I got my dog from a pet store but he’s you know he’s turned out just fine.” And yes sometimes they do. But again it’s all about risk and the risk of having a dog who doesn’t turn out to be fine from that environment is so much massively larger.

Regina: I have a friend who… I don’t know if you know about the shiba puppy cam that went mega viral on the internet….

Jessica: ohhhhh

Regina: My friend is that breeder and he just had a very small… well he didn’t have a small litter, one of his dogs had a small litter and he still has a puppy cam. And I’ve learned so much about proper dog breeding from him. And he’s so involved. He and his wife are so involved. They’re so involved before the dog goes into labor. And I think most people have… I think people want to ignore… I mean this isn’t a conversation about puppy mills…. But you know I think a lot of people have the idealized version that like what happens with a responsible breeder is what happens with the dog that they get. And that’s just not the case. And so again that can bring a lot of so much variation into the population.

Jessica: Yeah for sure and you don’t want to believe that the dog that you love didn’t have the best possible start in life. But you know that is sometimes the case.

Regina: And I think that’s something most people don’t think about when they think about what their dog might behave like. I think it’s really good that we ended up on that on that topic. Is there anything else that anybody feels like we should cover

Jessica:  I think we’ve got we’ve got most of it down.

Regina: Yeah I think this. I think this will be really educational for a lot of people it was educational for me.

Jessica: Yeah I hope. I don’t know how to reach. I’’m struggling right now with how to reach the people who really like dogs and are really interested in doing the best for their dogs, but are not sort of rabid members of the dog community. So when I lived in Illinois I walked and we had this lovely dog park – and a lot of dog parks are pretty scary places – But this one was 33 acres with trees and grass and it was fully fenced in and we would go early in the morning when there weren’t that many other people there. It was a very safe lovely place and I walked with two or three friends who I got to be very close with their dogs and they loved their dogs. They loved their dogs a lot and they really wanted to do what was right for them as is evidenced by the fact that they got up early in the morning and went everyday to the dog park right… But there was massive amounts of stuff that I, as a member of the dog crazy culture, was just shocked that they didn’t know.

I mean… and they didn’t, you know, none of them had really taken their dogs to obedience classes or dogs did OK but that wasn’t something that they, you know, that they thought was important and they went then when they had behavioral issues with their dogs they had no real idea how to tackle it.

I had this conversation with them where I realized they didn’t fully understand what a dog breed was. Then I explained that if you crossed a lab to a golden and then you took the resulting puppies and just kept bringing them back to labs for 20 generations. So you got this minuscule amount of golden in this lab… 20 generations later is still not a purebred lab it can never be a purebred lab again. Ever ever ever…. no matter how many generations if there’s only one golden in there and they were like “What!” Like that’s what a dog breed is!

So there’s these there’s there’s people out there who love their dogs but I don’t know that they listen to podcasts like this and I don’t know that they you know they don’t read stories in the places where I publish stories and I don’t know how to reach them.  I feel like those are the people we want to reach. And I don’t know how to get there.

Regina: Well I think I actually would say kind of the opposite. So I am super involved in the primitive dog community and Shiba Inu community and I mean the breedism and there is kind of nuts. Luckily there are a lot of behaviorists there too but and for anybody who’s listening I love you all even if you’re a crazy breedist. But I will say, I used to be, too, until I started learning actual science but I think we need to reach those people too because a lot of the assumption that people make about breeds and same with huskies. Same with really any breed of dog where any treats treats traits can be perceived as negative and then can become like I said a hindrance to adoption or a hindrance to training the dog right… Because I see so many people in the primitive dog community say “well I guess my dog is just stubborn or my dog is just too independent and I can’t do anything about it.” That’s just the way the dog is. Yeah. And then that that does a big disservice to the dog. And then if you think that you can can’t train the dog or can’t work with the dog to be a positive member of your household, that sucks.

So I think that this podcast and this discussion is really good for everybody because I think a lot of people it’s just really like pop culture stereotypes when it comes to their dogs.

Jessica: Yeah. But you know when you want to tell a story about how your dog is special you can turn it on its head right and tell the story about how your dog is special is a really special special Shiba not just like every other Sheba but her own individual who’s an individual.

Regina: Yeah that’s what I do with my dog but I talk about my dog every five minutes if I can.

Jessica: Do you? I have noticed!

Regina: Yeah I do think that we should make it a drinking game and this podcast that every time you talk about my dog we just we take a drink. We’d be drunk. Nikki, do you have anything else that you want to talk about?

Nikki: I feel we’ve covered everything was good. Good information. And hopefully it will get into the right people’s hands. Jessica, thank you so much for coming on our podcast we were really excited to have you on today.

Jessica: Sure it was so much fun. Thank you so much for inviting me. It’s fabulous. Oh and you should actually, you should tell people where they can follow me on Twitter and on Facebook. Cool. So Twitter is @dogzombieblog. So the joke is that I really like dog brains, so I’m a dog zombie. Yeah. So it’s a little less professional that I would like. I came up with it in vet school and it was fine then and now I’m like, OK….

Regina: No! I think it’s cool

Jessica: but when I’m emailing like veterinarians trying to get myself into talk with the AVNA conference I think that this is my email address now. OK. But @dogzombieblog on Twitter and then on Facebook if you search for like Jessica Heckman dog zombie you’ll find it. But it’s

Regina: Cool we’ll link to it in the show notes, too.

Jessica: Oh that’s perfect. That’ll make it work.

Regina: And hey if you ever think of a topic that you want to talk about. You are welcome back anytime. So just let us know.

Jessica: All right.

Regina: Thank you so much Jessica.

Jessica: Yes. Thank you both. This was lovely. Thank you.


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What’s the Problem with Saying “Pit Bull”?

What’s the Problem with Saying “Pit Bull”?

What Do “Pit Bulls” and Unicorns Have In Common?


January 2019

Listen to the episode

To subscribe to the podcast or if the player isn’t worker, you can find the Individual Animal on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, Google Play, and wherever you listen to podcasts.

We know this is going to be a controversial and emotional podcast episode, as so many people are attached to the term. It was an emotional topic for us to discuss, too. 

Nicole has always felt that while it makes sense for scientists, journalists and animal welfare workers to be completely accurate in how they talk about dogs, individual dog owners should be able to call their dogs whatever they want – even if that term doesn’t refer to anything that has a solid definition and, in fact, refers to something that doesn’t actually exist.

And if you’re thinking “But what about American pit bull terriers!?” don’t worry, we cover that. But to get to the point, very few people use it to refer to a specific breed. It may have had that meaning once but the term has been diluted and no longer has any real meaning.

Janis Bradley, Director of Communications and Publishing for the National Canine Research Council, the term is just as relevant as calling a dog a unicorn. She steps in to discuss the damage the inaccurate label of “pit bull” can cause to dogs and their owners. And, most importantly, she explains why it’s an empty term with no real definition – which is what makes it dangerous.

It has no definition, but it has a whole lot of stereotypes associated with it – both negative and positive.

Yes, there are positive stereotypes associated with the term, but they’re just that, stereotypes and stereotypes of any kind don’t do anyone any favors. Remember, it’s not a term of endearment for everyone who uses it.

 The use of this non-defined label, even in our own homes, creates the perfect conditions for scapegoating. Because there is no definition and no standard, because “pit bulls” don’t actually exist, we can apply the label to any dog – effectively labeling that dog a “villain” in our collective unconscious because the label is so loaded with negativity.

We don’t realize it, but when we use the term we are enforcing one of the very things we know to be false – that any dog with this label is dangerous.

“You’re affirming that this group actually exists and that we know what it consists of and we’ve seen that this just isn’t so.”


“It allows any and all bad encounters between dogs and people  to be attributed to this group because it’s an undefined group. So if something bad happened it must have been a pit bull . . . it’s a circular thing.”


But what about other dogs who deal with negative stereotypes like Dobermans or German shepherds?

Janis makes the point that because these dogs are actual breeds with a clear definition, they aren’t subject to the arbitrary labeling that perpetuates negativity. Everything goes back to accuracy and how inaccuracy can have devastating consequences.

We know this topic is going to bring up a lot of emotions and maybe even anger. We just ask that you think about the things we talk about here and also ask yourselves why you are so tied to a term that doesn’t really mean anything at all. 

Want to be on our podcast to talk about the intersection of animal welfare and social justice? Want to yell at us for our opinions? Email us!

The Individual Animal is available on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, Google Play, and wherever you listen to podcasts.


*note that we have edited the transcript for clarity and removed repeated words and “umms…” Please excuse any missing punctuation or typos we may have missed!

Nikki: Hey everybody! Welcome to the Individual Animal, a podcast about animal welfare and discrimination.

Regina: (laughs) You don’t sound too sure.

Nikki: Regina usually says that part. That was right, right?

Regina: That was correct, yeah.

This is a sensitive subject, I think. I think this topic is going to be sensitive for a lot of people because we talk about something people really cling to and that is the label “pit bull.” People cling to it a lot. And there are all kinds of emotional reasons and we do touch on that a little bit. But, I think we’re gonna have some angry and confused people probably when they’re done with this podcast and I think that’s OK.

Nikki: Yeah I think that’s how people change. When we first decided to do this topic and Janis sent over her notes, I got a little emotional. I had a conversation with you about it. You know I was talking about how I sort of cling to labels sometimes, too. I wish I wouldn’t. So, I don’t know if people are going to be upset as much as they’re going to be like wanting to know more and wanting to figure it out a little bit more.

Regina: And it’s a habit it’s hard to break habits. And we talk about that a lot. That language is habit. And that’s that’s the case here with the term “pit bull” or just the need to define our dogs in general. And that goes for anybody with any kind of dog.

Nikki:  So, our guest today is Janis Bradley who is the Director of Communications and Publications for the National Canine Research Council. And she’s going to be talking about “pit bulls” and how they are very similar to unicorns. So I hope you’ll like it. Let’s get into the show… what did you want to say?

Regina: Oh yes just that National Canine is a subsidiary of Animal Farm Foundation, just wanted to put that disclaimer out there.

Nikki: I think this recording comes at a good time. I am talking about removing breed labels on Friday and Southeast Conference in Georgia. And all time I get from people listening to the presentation, “well, I know what a “pit bull” is. I can tell you by its characteristics.” So, Janis can you tell me a little bit about the best way to go about how to answer that question.

Janis: I certainly hear that all the time. I hear that kind of comment. You know, “I know one when I see one” all the time. Then people may try and persuade me to talk about the characteristics of “pit bulls.” I have to confess that when that happens, I am more than tempted to respond with something like, “OK yes. Right after that we can have a nice scientific discussion about the characteristics of unicorns.” And then kind of wait for the expression on the person’s face that tells me that they are visualizing me with a with a horn in the middle of my forehead.

I know that sounds facetious, but the analogy is actually a pretty decent one between unicorns and “pit bulls” in quotation marks. The biggest difference really is in the real world effect. Because, if you think you can seriously talk about unicorns you’re just making yourself look foolish and ignorant. But, if when we start to discuss “pit bulls” as if they existed, we do harm to dogs and to the people that care about them. So it matters.

Nikki: But… are you saying that there is no dog breed?

Janis: Oh no. There’s there’s certainly such a thing as a dog breed and it’s a very specific thing has been for the last at least 150 years. A dog breed is a group of dogs that are all members of a closed gene pool. And that’s just a fancy way of saying there’s no cross-breeding allowed with dogs that aren’t members of that breed. And so, then each of these groups is designated by a particular name according to one of the major breed registration organizations. There are a couple of great big organizations. But, there is no such group that is called “pit bulls” there.

Regina: OK so one thing… I’m going to interrupt you. One thing that I see a lot online is, you know, people say “oh a pit bull is only an American Pit Bull Terrier.” So what do we say to those people?

Janis:  You can say that there is a breed called an American Pit Bull Terrier, often called APBT for short. It’s a breed that’s recognized only by the umbrella organization called the United Kennel Club. And the United Kennel Club doesn’t require the same documentation of a long-term closed group pedigree, as do the the larger the breed clubs that are recognized by the two big registration organizations. So, to be recognized as a breed by the UK city is a bit looser than then to be recognized by say the American Kennel Club, which is the big organization in the United States or the… Oh boy… can’t pronounce this…. Fédération Cynologique Internationale. I apologize to any French speakers here! I know that’s just ghastly! I just think of it as FCI, which is the big group of breed clubs in Europe.

But, the other difficulty, even with American Pit Bull Terrier, is that none of the companies or the researchers who have developed DNA profiles for specific breeds… you know those are those people you can you can send up a cheek swab you know to and then they’ll come back with a whip with a breed identification, none of them have DNA profile for APBT.  So. the registration documentation is a bit loose and there is no DNA documentation.

But it’s reasonable to be generous and agree to call a UKC pedigreed American Pit Bull Terrier a member of a breed. Let’s say we grant that, although you know again somewhat loosely defined. So if you say that your dog is registered with the UKC as an American Pit Bull Terrier, you’re talking about something that does exist. That’s real. However, this is not often what people mean when they refer to “pit bulls” and certainly not when they talk about “pit bull type” or “pit bull” groups. Usually people mean something much broader than dog registered as an APBT with the UKC, but it’s an actual thing it’s not a fantasy as are the rest of the [identifications].

Nikki: Yeah, I would say for shelters that most of the time they’re not referring to an American Staffordshire Terrier or an American Pit Bull Terrier when they’re slapping that label “pit bull” or “pit bull” mix on a dog in a shelter.

Janis: Yeah, they tend to be referring to something, you know, sort of more general and vague. But, again, there is such a thing as an American Staffordshire Terrier. But, if that’s what you mean, that’s what you should say. That is in fact a breed. And then say, if you say you know this dog is an American Staffordshire Terrier, that’s a label that can be verified or it can be disproved either by reference to a pedigree or through DNA testing.

But to call that same dog something else, like “pit bull” is a little bit like saying my dog is a water dog when when somebody asks you what the breed of your dog is, and expecting the person you’re talking to, even if that’s a knowledgeable person, to actually decode that what you mean is your dog’s a Labrador retriever. And so, that kind of relationship… that the two things just don’t mean the same thing.

Regina: But people are, and I know I feel like I’m belaboring the point, but I will say that people do belabor this point, the general public does. But, you know, isn’t there a group of breeds called “pit bulls.” I mean there is certainly in the public understanding and I use understanding in quotes. So, I mean isn’t there a group of dogs that are called “pit bulls.”

Janis: No. I mean the simple answer is no. They’re just there just is no such thing. The AKC for example divides breeds up into groups but none of those is the pit bull group.

There’s a hound group. There’s a terrier group. There’s a working group. There’s a herding group. There’s a sporting group. There’s a non sporting group. There’s a toy group and There’s what’s called a miscellaneous class, which is breeds that haven’t quite reached full status in the organization yet.

So, grouping various breeds together under this label “pit bull” is an idea that was mostly concocted by lawyers and legislators – obviously, not dog experts. And which came out of kind of old casual folklore ways of referring to any dogs that were forced to participate in dog-fighting. It has nothing to do with canine genetics or breeding practices. So you’ve got these made up groupings that vary, and according to which legislators or lawyers are talking about it, they vary and they often include breeds that are actually plucked out of several different AKC groups. So you might have a couple at so many you know one of the definitions might say that that a pit bull is one of these terriers or a dog from some from the working dog line or some from the non-sporting dog groups. So you wind up with a kind of a conflation of breeds that aren’t even consistently closely related according to what we now know about the DNA documented family tree of dog breed.

We now have quite good kind of family trees that show how closely related various dog breeds are. And often these these arbitrary groupings are plucked from all over the place. So this this “pit bull” type designation of dog breeds is really about as closely tied to reality as I hate to belabor this as the Unicorn Group is did is to equine breeds.

So using the term “pit bull,” it really creates the same kind of confusion as when you identify your dog’s breed to your friend as a water dog. I made that up by the way just in the interest of full disclosure there’s there’s there’s there’s equally no such thing as a water dog. But, if you say this, your friend doesn’t know any more than you did before you might mean Portuguese Water Dog or Irish Water Spaniel or American Water Spaniel. Those are all real breeds that have water in the name… or maybe you mean breeds with a reputation for liking to jump in the water that might include many of the dogs with retriever in the name, who are from those who are from the sporting group… or perhaps a Newfoundland or Landseer from the working group then because those are breeds that are famous for rescuing drowning people… or maybe it’s just your casual way of referring to to your dog as one who likes to swim.

And of course, you know that that could be pretty much any breed. You haven’t really told the person anything. Exactly the same situation with saying that this is a member of the “pit bull” type dog. You haven’t said anything.

Regina: You know, this made me think I’m trying to do a real world example and of course talk about my dog which I do as much as I can but I don’t tell people. Well he’s a Spitz. Like that’s the class of dog that the AKC has thrown his breed into. But I don’t. When people ask me I don’t say he’s a Spitz. So then why would anybody say “my dog’s a pit bull”? It’s interesting how they’ll try to use that fake classification when nobody else does that for their dogs really.

Janis: Yeah, I mean people don’t even use the real classifications when they’re when when they’re talking about their dogs, so it makes even less sense to use, you know, a made up one. One of the claims, and one’s that that’s that’s commonly used here, is let’s say OK. “Well then, I’ll call them bully breeds.” Again, exactly the same problem. Who’s the “them” you’re talking about. There’s no definition.

Nikki: Yeah. So what if we say a pit bull dog is a certain appearance or specific characteristics and then we describe what that is.

Janis: It doesn’t help us, because what that really means is that you’re no longer talking about a dog breed at all according to any meaning of the term. Because, remember, that’s a closed gene pool of dogs that are only allowed to mate with each other. So you’re not even talking about dogs that are genetically related. You’re just talking about characteristics.  And you wind up talking about mixed breed dogs, as if they were all members of a single breed but they’re not. That’s you know the opposite of the definition of a breed.

All you can possibly know by looking at two dogs and seeing that they resemble each other in appearance, is that they resemble each other in appearance. That’s all you know. You can’t know anything about what the rest of that dog’s genome, which is ninety nine point seventy five percent of the of the dog’s genome that is not appearance, you can’t know anything about that remaining ninety nine point seventy five percent. The huge preponderance that affects everything except their looks.

So I mean, you can think of how hard it is to win the lottery. So, think of having two lottery tickets and they’ve got six numbers each (I know this because I play the lottery, in defiance of all logic) and the two tickets, they share one number and all the rest are different… and you magically have some kind of insider knowledge – we won’t say how you got this knowledge because most of the ways you could do that I think could land you in jail – But let’s say you have this knowledge that the next combination… the next jackpot is going to be a combination of the numbers in these two tickets. And at first you’re going to be really excited and think you’re a slam dunk to win the next drawing, but you still better have a whole lot of money. Because, if you start doing the calculations, you’re going to realize that there are still tens of thousands of possibilities and that’s only with a total of 12 numbers and 12 variables.

Now think about the dog genome with 20,000 numbers from each parent, a total of 40,000 thrown into a pot, and you look at your two dogs who, even if they look identical, are only demonstrating that they’ve got an overlap on 50 out of those 20,000 numbers or one in 400. You pretty quickly realize that trying to predict what other stuff they might have in common in their genome is pretty much useless.

You’ve just got no information about it. And things would only look this good if people could agree on what they think constitutes looking like a “pit bull.” OK. I mean not even then because, here we’re talking about two dogs that look identical. Clearly, there are dogs of widely varying of appearances, but different people will say “that looks like a “pit bull” to me.”

Repeated studies show that people can’t agree about this. And multiple other studies show that people are just plain lousy at figuring out the ancestry of mixed breed dogs by looking at them to begin with. So that means you don’t even have a list of twenty thousand or forty thousand in your lottery pool to choose from. You have something like zero to infinity so appearance just doesn’t get you there.

Regina: OK. But you know I think that for a lot of people just the general public I think they can grasp why scientists sense and everything so then use the term. I think they can probably understand everything you’re saying. But, for a lot of people it’s kind of a term of endearment for their dog. So if it doesn’t mean that much then what’s the harm in doing it and using the term.

Janis: I would say mainly because it’s not a term of endearment for everybody. And so every time you use this term or one of the various euphemisms for it, like bully dog, you’re you’re granting… you’re tacitly affirming that this group actually exists and that we know what it consists of… that that it’s a group of animals that are both identifiable and in some way related. And we’ve seen that this just isn’t so.

This means that any dog can be labeled this way by anybody who is so inclined. You can pretty much apply this label to any dog if you want to. There’s no way to demonstrate that a dog isn’t a member of a group if no one knows what the group is. This is the perfect condition for scapegoating and this is what’s happened to dogs who were labeled this way more often than not.

It allows any and all bad encounters between dogs and people to be attributed to this group because it’s an undefined group. So it’s if something bad happened, it must have been it must have been a “pit bull” and then turn around and use the fictitious attribution the mistaken attribution to demonstrate the guilt of the members of the targeted group. So it’s a circular thing.

And so, I think fondness for the term is and I can certainly understand that is trumped by the way that dogs have been and continue to be scapegoated by this term. It may well be the reason that the term “pit bull”… the label “pit bull” has lasted longer in kind of the general conventional wisdom than that of of of any of the previously vilified actual breeds, except possibly bloodhounds. And so I mean this isn’t this isn’t the first grouping of dogs or labeling of dogs that’s been that’s been used to to vilify a group. But it’s the one that stuck the longest, except for blood bloodhounds, which were the the earliest that I know of. But, they were given this label in the 19th century and at the time bloodhound was almost as loose a definition as “pit bull” because it occurred before there were you know breed registries that really defined what particular breeds work.

But for Spitzs, who were considered horrible dogs for a while particularly in New York… for bloodhounds as they exist now…  for German shepherd dogs… for doberman pinschers… all of these dogs have been called, you know, the scary breeds in popular perception, but they actually are breed. They actually exist as breed. So, that means that this demonization eventually could fade away in the face of reality.

Since there is no real thing that corresponds to the term “pit bull,” that kind of failsafe that contrast to what’s real, doesn’t exist. So if if you decide you use this term you as a term of convenience to describe any group no matter how no matter how good your intentions, you’re actually inadvertently participating in this scapegoating tradition and keeping it alive.

So, I think it’s fair to ask yourself if you feel you know kind of attached to that term, particularly if you’re somebody who’s going to be writing about this and talking about this in any public way… or reporting on identifying your dog in this way to anyone… you’ve got to ask yourself why are you so attached to using this term when it has such potential for harm. It’s time to let it go.

Nikki: Yeah, I completely understand why scientists and journalists and any sort of animal expert should not be using the term “pit bull,” but I will say, honestly, I almost got a little bit emotional about people with pet dogs and them calling their pet dogs “pit bull” or whatever they want to call their dog. Pet owners should be able to call their dogs whatever they want. And I’ve said that a couple times and a few podcasts and I still agree with it in some sense. I had talked to Stacy and Regina about this a little bit last week, and after my talk with them I sort of really thought about it with myself and came to the realization that yes you can call your dog a “pit bull” if you want to…. and I think I was getting so emotional about it because I think that there shouldn’t be those consequences – but that’s not the world that we live in. That’s not the climate that we live in. So, if you call your dog a “pit bull” there are consequences and I think I get really emotional about it because I don’t think there should be those consequences. Does that make sense at all?

Janis: Yes, yes. And you put the thing your finger on the issue there, which is there are consequences, even if for you it’s a it’s a term of endearment. You know, people are going to are going to call their dogs all kinds of pet terms. It’s when that becomes confused with reality that’s when there’s a problem.

So let me give you a a a really unpleasant hypothetical: Let’s say that your dog, who you fondly refer to as a “pit bull,” some far fetched situation occurs and your dog bites somebody. Maybe it’s you, maybe somebody visiting you, maybe it’s a stranger. Maybe it’s completely accidental. But in the course of this, you know, person who’s bitten… and maybe it’s a little scratch… doesn’t know you or doesn’t know whether or not your dog was vaccinated and so goes to an emergency room. What do you want to have happen when the intake people at this emergency department, and they’re probably going to do it, ask that person or you what the breed of the dog is?

Do you want them to say “pit bull”? There are consequences for using a term that isn’t real.

That becomes one more penny on the scale of A) this is a group that exists and B) it’s a group that’s dangerous. So, is the fondness that you feel for the term important enough for that tradeoff?

And that’s it. That’s a decision I think that that that that every person needs to make for themselves. But at least it should be…

Regina: I want to clarify just because I know that some people are going to wonder this. Some people who don’t like us are going to wonder this… that you know there’s going to be that issue that we get a lot of times with removing breed labels as “well are you trying to hide what a dog is or lie about what it is” and I just want to clarify, which Janis you said several times throughout this that like German shepherds and bloodhounds and all these things and Spitz as they are real breeds. So you’re not saying hide what the dog is you’re saying just be accurate about what the dog is. And so if you don’t know say you don’t know and if you do know don’t call it a label that doesn’t exist.

Janis: Exactly. I mean if you you know if you in that in the unlikely event in a shelter situation for example that you actually know that the dog is a pedigree dog of a particular breed I mean and and a person asks you you can tell them. That’s a fairly far-fetched scenario it doesn’t really happen in in shelter situations it happens in breed rescues. OK. So I have I have two greyhounds sleeping in my living room right now. And they came from a greyhound rescue. They have tattoos in their ears that that you know that that verify their pedigrees.

Janis: It’s perfectly legitimate for me to say I have two Greyhounds. So if this this is about whether or not you’re saying anything real and when you’re not what harm it can do.

Nikki: Would you say the same thing for dogs that wouldn’t be labeled “pit bull” in a shelter? So dogs that wouldn’t be labeled a shepherd mix for a lab box or mix. The same sort of applies in those context as well, where you shouldn’t be calling those dogs such and such mixes because that’s not really a thing either. A boxer lab mix is not really a breed.

Janis:  And you’re very unlikely to know that anyway right. Yes. So. So a it’s going to be inaccurate. So you’re attaching an identification that probably isn’t true and B)  that identification can then go on to carry assumptions about how the dog may behave which are completely unpredictable in any mixed breed dog and extremely limited usefulness in pedigree… but have zero predictive usefulness in terms of behavior in in mixed breed dog. So you’re giving a false impression. A) you’re giving a false impression that you know what the dog’s background is because you don’t and B)  that’s actually that you’re telling them that because it’s somehow significant to what you know what kind of personality they can expect this dog to have which they can’t based on that so you’re misrepresenting the situation for this person in at least two ways. It’s really sort of, you know, deceptive advertising.

Regina: Stacey did you want to chime in?

Stacey: Well Janis, how do you feel about answering any questions like on a more philosophical level too because you certainly qualified to do that as well.

It occurs to me that we are talking about pitbulls are not a breed pit bull is more like a unicorn. But we still just keep talking about the dog and not about the human need to have a label for it. And Nikki touched on it a little bit… but breed is a science term. There’s nothing that is gray about what breed is. Once it’s established, it’s very definitive. it’s defined and you know precisely what it is.

As soon as a dog out crosses from that, we still have like the psychological need to label it something. And I don’t know… it seems like we’re missing an opportunity to talk about the psychology of the human need to label this dog and feel like when it tells us something about it.

Because I got an email from Palm Beach County animal shelter because they want to do a 30 minute special one on their…. what’d they call them?… their square-headed dogs… because they somehow thought square-headed was better than blockhead was better than “pit bull”. And I remember when we first started finally making the progress on getting the attention of some of the larger groups that were really holding on to quote unquote “pit bull” especially some of the longtime well-known “pit bull” rescues, where they started calling them blockheads. Or then they started calling them short haired muscular mutts or something like that. I can’t remember what Best Friends called them for like 20 minutes. They came up with another thing that was just as inaccurate.

But there’s gotta be… and I’m not articulating this very well… but there’s gotta be something we can say about the need, as humans, to be able to label something as if we know something.  What does that confidence come from? …I can’t get…I’m so not explaining this very well!

So what I’m gonna need to explain to the Palm Beach people is that the fact that they are… they think they’re describing a common physical attribute in these dogs is incorrect too. Because it’s all subjective. So what they think is square-headed, may not be what I think a square headed… which is just exactly the same thing you’re just replacing one with the other. And I don’t know do you feel like we’ve tackled that enough in this conversation? or is there anything, Janis, that you can sort of explain about human nature that draws us to this and makes us think that it’s correct?

Janis: I mean I. I think Stacy I’m actually a bit more optimistic than you are about this. I think it’s possible for people to learn to say mixed breed you know with some with some satisfaction. I’ve had a couple of dogs that I that that I you know referred to that way and then and then use actual individual physical description.

I mean, I think people have learned to do this to a much greater extent than they used to do, at least in polite conversation, with other human beings. I think I think we’ve really learned that it’s not appropriate to say you know describe a person to label a person by some sort of, you know, more full logically assumed ethnicity, for example, that we’re that we’re more comfortable with actually describing the you know the person’s physical and behavioral attributes you know for for that for that matter. We can talk about a person as tall or short or large or small or blond or dark or you know any any of those things. And we’ve grown comfortable with that. I think we can. I think we can do the same things with dogs… that mixed breed you know and a description and sometimes a facetious you know description of a physical attributes that are that are individualized is possible for people to learn to do. So I’m a bit more optimistic is because as soon as you capitulates to any of these groupings, particularly this this fictional grouping, you open the door to stereotyping which is the complete enemy of any kind of improvement in human canine relationship. It just it puts a barrier of stereotype between the person and their ability to perceive that particular individual. For me I think this is a fight worth fighting…. That one morphological group shouldn’t shouldn’t have to have a fictional title among the mixed breed dogs in a shelter that another morphological group does have.

I mean if if you can let go of shepherd mix, you know which people are now really letting go of. You can let go of people. It’s just it’s just a matter of of keeping insisting on it being important.

Stacey: I guess what I’m trying to understand is the human element of it all is like how what is it about us humans that….

Regina: So I can…. so I’m going to pull way back on when I was starting my life and planning on being an academic so I’m going to pull on my philosophy and anthropology degrees and I think I can answer that for you.

Labels make us feel comfortable. They help us identify the world. They help us identify ourselves and identify things that are outside of us. And in some ways, and Don touched on this in the podcast we did with him on social constructs, is that for people who have dogs labeled “pit bull” or dogs that they just perceive as “pit bulls,” they’re kind of reclaiming the term, because they feel like they’ve had to fight so hard to get their dogs considered acceptable by society that that for them it has almost they are reclaiming the term and it makes them feel better. And there is this whole thing with a lot of people especially those you know people who use the term pibble or bullies for them, that is saying their dog is special, right, which is the opposite of what we want them to do. But we all have a need to feel special and to feel like the things that we love or special. And so that’s that’s part of it.

Now with the shelter I think that that just fits into people feeling like we need labels to identify stuff. It’s so hard for us to let go of identifying things as something different than just that almost it makes life easier for us in our little theory in our mind when in reality we’re actually making life more difficult. And to Janis’ point we have to keep making people aware of why the label not only isn’t important, but why it’s dangerous. So all we have to do is keep talking about it.

Janis: I firmly believe….

Regina: To make people think about it because…

Janis: oh, go ahead.

Regina: I was just going to say that people don’t… labels are almost instinctual for us now. You know I study classical history too and I mean way back when even prehistory people had labels they label thing. So it’s so ingrained in our human nature that we don’t even think about about it we just do it. So we have to kind of unlearn that. We have to unlearn that habit.

Janis: But mutt is a label too…. mixed breed is a label too that that can be that can be used either you know positively or pejoratively… but as far as I know I really think that as long as we’re applying these kind of falsified categories, he problem of victimization will not go away. The targets will just change. It just…. you know it will. It just becomes a continuous unwinnable fight. Somebody is going to be victimized as long as somebody can be can be identified as a as as a target because I would submit that scapegoating can be a more powerful piece of human nature then the simple urge to categorize. Because what it allows you to do is give yourself a false sense of safety. It’s not me and mine. It’s a “that.” And as long as we accept that way of looking at dogs and behavior there will always be an “other” that is not that that’s at fault. So. So it just has to be pushed back again.

Regina: I completely agree.

Janis: You know, I mean, it may not always be “pit bull.” So that could be it may not be always be that right. That could be you know the the ultimate effect of taking back that label but you haven’t solved the problem right.

Regina: Well it’s just like when when people will say well I’ve been bitten by more X breed than “pit bulls” they’re just replacing it and they’re creating a new problem right.

Janis: Yes. And those pejorative labels are extremely sticky even when they’ve faded for a long time. They’ve they’ve they’re they pop up again. I’ve just been you know talking talking with people who are dealing with you know a dog being vilified because it’s the Doberman and that’s a long time ago. You know since that was the new breed of choice but it’s still there just you know you give it an opening and it pops back.

Stacey: So… OK… Question then though… We keep talking about labels and the labels that we’re talking about, especially with breed, and about how we label humans…. it’s all based on appearance not on like behavior observation. So we look at dogs we think we know what that dog looks like. We lump that dog into a category and then we make assumptions about how that dog will behave.

So this, right, this cycle of discrimination is it always based on appearance or perception of appearance? And I guess that’s what I really want to stress is it’s perception of appearance because we don’t always perceive what we see the same or interpreted the same as the others around us. Is it but is it always based on appearance on we when we label and then discriminate? That’s all I can think of is that when we look at something, we put a label on it and then we make decisions about it based on our visual inspection.

Janis: Well there’s another step in there. You visually identify something and then you associate it with whatever in your experience is positive or negative about it. And then you apply that perception to the next individual that meets that same appearance.

So, you know, I mean there’s kind of this other step there. And of course that intermediate piece is gonna be different for different people though. So, in some cases it’s going to be positive. In some cases it’s going to be negative. I just started reading a really interesting study where they showed that they showed a bunch of people positive and negative pictures of German Shepherds and then they gave them a questionnaire to rate a bunch of different breeds according to various characteristics. And it had an immediate and dramatic and lasting effect on those people. Just looking at a picture or in some cases that people would read a would would read on a news story and depending upon whether whether that stimulus was was scary or friendly seeming affected their responses  on a kind of a questionnaire rating various breeds as far as their temperament.

So you’ve got to remember that everybody’s got their own experience all in there. And in some cases, the almost culture wide experience. You know, the kind of media experience… what the received wisdom is… negative and in other cases, it’s mostly positive. So that’s where you get your kind of culture wide stereotype. It’s still a matter of what you’ve heard, what you’ve seen, what you’ve been told, or even more powerful what more powerfully what you have directly experienced yourself. And then you attach that experience to the next entity that comes across the screen of your life that resembles the one that you derived your experience.

Stacey: So in the case of when we talk about Pitbull and we mean it in an endearing way… So like for all of us on the call we don’t have that negative connection to the phrase pit bull, because we’ve all overcome or resisted or whatever that whatever that fear influences of that we were taught to to assume from the media or from whatever….

Janis: I don’t think that’s what’s happened. I think what’s happened to us is that we’ve had a large enough accumulation of pleasant experiences that that becomes….

Stacey: OK. So that’s kind of what I was getting at. So then when we have the people who are well intentioned who come up with a phrase that’s cute like square-headed or blockhead added or pibble… it’s coming from a place of endearment. So they recognize that the word… the phrase pitbull doesn’t really mean anything. They come up with something alternative…

Janis: Maybe maybe not. I think some of those people…

Regina: Yeah I don’t know that that’s true necessarily because we…. I see people say things like… I feel like I say this every podcast…. that say “pitties,” “bullies,” or “pibbles” are the best with kids or whatever. You know, so they’re still grouping them as something and not necessarily just referring to their own dog. I’m not sure if that’s what you’re getting at but I think they still group them…

Janis: I think it’s the rare person. Yeah I agree. I think it’s the rare person who uses the term with the awareness that it doesn’t actually mean anything. Whether their association is positive or negative.

Stacey: So what about then when we see research that uses the term pitfall in it. So this is something that we’ve talked about before Janis. But when we see research studies come through, whether it’s in a medical journal or a veterinary journal or a behavior journal, what does that tell us about the research if they’re using the phrase “pit bull” in it?

Janis: I mean there are two possibilities and I think both of these both of these happened depending upon depending on on the particular researchers. Sometimes it means that the researcher really is so ignorant about dogs that they don’t know that there is no such breed and that the term doesn’t mean anything OK.  And I mean that’s something that theoretically at least can be corrected. You know understand that you’ve said something and you might as well as that blah blah blah. Because it isn’t it isn’t real.

But the other the the other thing that I think happens with with people who do know that this is an empty construct that is purely a social construct with no actual real life members in the category, seem to feel the need to use it as a term of convenience. I guess as a way to try and say identify a group of dogs even that they think may be being discriminated against but the effect of that is to, regardless again of the intention, reinforce the reality of the time.

So, it reinforces that practice. It gives that strong give strength back to that practice of the emergency department person taking that that identification in as a real thing in the intake of somebody who’s who comes in with an injury. It strengthens the idea that the data that result from that is actual real data and not the garbage data that we know it to be.

Stacey: Can you… you mentioned social construct and your answer can you give us other examples of what a social construct is so that we can relate it to other things so that we can understand it better?

Janis: Some things that we think of as part of the definition of a social construct is something that has that has a wide variety of definitions without any real agreement. You know, the concept of deviance, for example, is very, very relative. And it’s society specific. it’s culture specific. That’s an example of a social construct.

But, you can think of, even when you’re talking about real breeds, the perception of those of those breeds is clearly socially constructed. And I can give you one example, because it’s because it’s one that that affects my life sort of theoretically, a little bit. The breeds of dogs that are that are generally kind of thought of or legislated against as dangerous varies broadly among cultures. So, you know, the hypothetical category of “pit bulls” is probably the most common label that’s used in this country.

The top scary breed in Northern Ireland and Australia is greyhound, where the where the conventional wisdom is you let them loose and they’ll kill your small children and small pets –  which is shocking to people here because it’s completely different from the perception here. So, you can think of it as a kind of a perception of something… the definition of which has no agreement. It varies from culture to culture, from subculture to subculture, sometimes from person to person.

So there’s no real possibility for human communication if you don’t agree or if you can’t agree on what the words you’re using mean. And that’s definitely the case with this particular [inaudible]. There’s no agreement as to what it means.

So, you can have the impression that you’re actually communicating with someone, but in fact, when when you say blue they’re thinking you mean green.  It’s really that kind of a gap. And it doesn’t matter how you change the words that you use. You know there’s no more agreement if you stay blockhead, for example, than if you say “pit bull.” You still don’t have any two people who necessarily agree on what you mean. But you can’t talk about it in an intelligible way.

Stacey: Right. I’m glad you got to that because it’s kind of where I was going with bringing up the example that some people come up with what they feel like is a more endearing phrase to describe the same unidentified, undefinable group.

Janis: That doesn’t make it real.

Stacey: It doesn’t make it real. So this…  is breed in and of itself a social construct?

Janis: No I would say not. As long as we agree on up on a specific definition, which we pretty much do now. No, I mean it’s something that’s been created by human beings for whatever reasons – and we can debate that forever – but a closed gene pool is a real thing.

Stacey:  But it was purposely constructed by humans….

Janis: It was. It absolutely was constructed by. By humans. But not, you know, not necessarily socially constructed in the sense of a thing that only exists on a conceptual level. A building is constructed by humans too. But it’s not a social construct.

Stacey: I feel like this is. This discussion has gone pretty well I think. I think it’ll be yes turning into a good resource to refer back to.

Nikki: I agree. And I also think that people will still have a lot of questions because it is definitely something that’s hard to wrap your head around. So if anybody has any questions I know I personally would love to hear from people and see what we can add to this conversation and maybe record another podcast at a later date to sort of to add on to what we’ve already talked about. And to answer some viewer question… listener question.

Regina: Yeah I agree. I believe we would love to do a question and answer so if you have questions please send the men or comment on Facebook because it would be really excellent if we can answer questions from people.

Nikki: All right well Janis thank you so much for coming on our podcast. We were really excited to have you.

Janis: You’re most welcome. This has been an interesting conversation.


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Are We Loving Shelter Pets to Death?

Are We Loving Shelter Pets to Death?

Are we loving shelter pets to death?


January 2019

Author and animal advocate Arin Greenwood joins us as we talk through what’s really behind the negativity surrounding free adoptions. 

We need to get honest about what happens when we demonize free adoptions and holiday shelter promotions due to our desire to protect animals from potential cruelty. We also need to get honest about whether or not these emotional responses to potential cruelty are really based in reality.

First, let’s squash the idea that animals are adopted by just anyone during these adoption events. Adoption counseling happens. No one randomly hands out leashes to anyone who walks into a shelter. The animal welfare workers who participate in these events are not irresponsible. They are helping good pets find good homes.

Then there’s the reality of the open intake shelter system. These shelters have low cost and free adoption promotions because shelters are overcrowded and need to get pets into homes. And again, the majority of people are good. The majority of these homes are good and loving.

As Arin points out in the podcast, these promotions aren’t done because animal welfare workers don’t care about the dogs in their care. It’s the opposite. They want to get shelter pets into loving homes and out of the shelter system where there may be no choice but to euthanize them for space.


Listen to the episode

Recently, we’ve seen people say that they would rather a dog be euthanized than having him potentially be exposed to abuse. Let’s be clear, you are not a dog advocate if you would rather a dog be euthanized based on an incredibly low chance that it might encounter abuse. 

“The natural end to keeping animals away from people is that they will be euthanized.”

Not only that, your assumption that dogs adopted from these events are more likely to suffer abuse is based entirely in classism. You are assuming that people who cannot afford to pay an adoption fee are more likely to abuse animals. You may not realize that’s the subtext, but it is.

The truth is that you can do all of the home visits and reference checks you want, very few people advertise that they abuse animals and it is highly unlikely that they’ll give you references of people who would out them as perpetrators.

Anyone can neglect or abuse an animal, regardless of whether or not they pay an adoption fee, regardless of their income level, age, health, race or cultural background. Plus, we all know this is a rare occurrence. We all know that the majority of people are good and want nothing more than to love their pet. 

No matter whom you adopt a pet to there is always a chance the dog will return to the shelter or rescue. This happens regardless of whether or not your adoptions are closed or open. In fact, research shows that pets adopted as gifts around the holidays have the same return rate as dogs adopted during other times of the year.

“We need to believe in people and believe in the community and that members of the community can be trusted to love animals”

If someone wants a pet, they are going to get a pet. If they don’t adopt a dog from a shelter, they’ll probably go to a breeder, and odds are it won’t be a responsible one. And if your assumptions about them are correct, that they aren’t ready to adopt one of your dogs, then they aren’t ready to have any dog and they’ll eventually surrender the dog they adopted from a puppy mill/pet store to a shelter. That only adds to the existing problem of overcrowding.

We also know that dogs who leave shelters for a short time tend to be happier. This is why we love short-term foster programs. 

Studies show that dogs aren’t sadder when they leave the shelter for a few days and then come back. All of those Facebook posts to the contrary may tug on your emotions, but they aren’t based in reality.

What the dog knows is that he was away from the shelter for a short time and had a, hopefully, good experience during that time. If we all laud short term foster programs, then why do we tug on everyone’s heartstrings about how sad a dog is to be returned to a shelter? Dogs don’t know the difference.

Again, we’re letting our emotions get in the way. Dogs deserve for us to be logical and truly think about what is best for them vs that raw emotional hysteria that we can be swept up into because we love animals so much.

Whether you disagree or agree, we hope you’ll listen to the episode and give us feedback on why you feel the way you do about free and open adoptions.

Want to be on our podcast to talk about the intersection of animal welfare and social justice? Want to yell at us for our opinions? Email us!

The Individual Animal is available on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, Google Play, and wherever you listen to podcasts.

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Breed Discrimination Is Serious and We’re Working to End It

Breed Discrimination Is Serious and We’re Working to End It

Breed discrimination is serious and we’re working to end it


December, 2018

In Sioux City, Iowa, officials can take your dog regardless of how well behaved they are. In Sioux City, someone can decide your dog is a “pit bull” and take it from you and kill it. And you have no recourse. We not only call that unscientific bullshit, we also call it unconstitutional. We’ve taken this case to court.

This isn’t the only time we’ve worked to end breed-discriminatory laws or policies. But we don’t talk about that part of our work much, so you probably don’t know all of the cases or situations to which we’ve contributed legal help or research and consultation. 

This week’s podcast episode is a bit of a behind-the-scenes experience. We (Nikki and Regina) had a call with our Executive Director (Stacey) about what we do to effect change and help end discrimination for dog owners. 

There’s some helpful information for advocates here, like the difference between laws and policy. We also talk about why lobbying isn’t a part of what we do.

Plus, we talk about Virginia spiced wine and mystery beer! So, settle on in and listen to AFF staff chat about BSL.

Visit Sioux City Lawsuit for information on our current legal efforts to seek justice for local dog owners.

Want to be on our podcast to talk about the intersection of animal welfare and social justice? Want to yell at us for our opinions? Email us!

The Individual Animal is available on iTunes, Stitcher, and wherever you listen to podcasts.

Listen to the episode

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Community Focused Ideas to Help Shelter Pets Find Homes for the Holidays

Community Focused Ideas to Help Shelter Pets Find Homes for the Holidays

Community focused ideas to help shelter pets find homes for the holidays


November, 2018

It’s that time of year again! TIme for Jingle Paw Rock! Never heard of Jingle Paw Rock? We haven’t either. Literally just made it up. We make up a lot of wacko ideas for adoption promotions in this podcast. We even got some inspiration from 1960s/1970s key parties – Yes, we’re talking about swingers. Confused and possibly disturbed? Listen to the episode to find out what we mean!

We also chat about our some of our favorite things we’ve seen this year, like the viral Grown Ass Adult Dog campaign and a pupper and her human dressed as Taco Bell.

We also tackle the semi-controversial topic of “are pets presents?” (We’re prepared for hate-mail. Come at us, ‘bro.)

All of the ideas in the podcast have one thing in common: They are all community focused. They’re about making your shelter an integral part of your community and a place people love to go.

Got other ideas? Let us know! Oh, and take a shot every time Regina says “like” and you’ll be drunk before the 15-minute mark.

Want to be on our podcast to talk about the intersection of animal welfare and social justice? Want to yell at us for our opinions? Email us!

The Individual Animal is available on iTunes, Stitcher, and wherever you listen to podcasts.

Listen to the episode

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