Feb 23 / Emma-Jane Lee

These Dogs All have Something in Common

These dogs all have something in common. I’m sure you can spot what it is.

Yes, you’ve guessed it.

They’re all…    


Sagittarians are optimistic souls, convinced that things will get better.
They’re energetic too, and highly active. Nothing is more fun for the average Sagittarian than a white-knuckle ride followed by a 40km bike ride and then a swim. They’re highly effective leaders, able to take charge and get things done.
Sagittarians live their emotions: joys are more joyful, excitement is more exciting and anger is, well, more angry. They’re a fire sign, so they burn on the hot side. Like the flame, they also move and bend, mutable and flexible.
Sagittarians don’t require the same routines as the rest of you miserable earth-bound creatures. They’re also freedom lovers, fighting daily for freedom and rights. They have a strong sense of right and wrong, and they’re loyal to the end. Many have a tendency to work far too hard and they can easily turn to cynicism and anger if their loyalty is not rewarded.
Retirement is not for Sagittarians, many of whom would work until they dropped if they were doing something they loved. Many call them high maintenance, and it’s true that the typical Sagittarian find it hard to rest. Most of them have a silly side and many of them are the class clown in public yet deeply serious and philosophical in private. They love to travel. They’re curious, brave, bold and courageous.
No… Now you know I’m being ridiculous. That one third from the right on the top row? She’s a Libra. And the one second from the bottom on the bottom row? He’s a Scorpio. Silly, right? I mean even if you have a belief that star signs might have some truth to them and perhaps shape us in mysterious ways, you know individuals are more than just some label. You also know better than to write off behaviours because of this label. Oh, he’s sharp and mean because he’s a Scorpio. She loves a slap-up meal because she’s a Taurus. She drinks too much because she’s a Pisces.
I’m sure you don’t really think human beings are that simple that we can be reduced to twelve zodiac signs. And of course we don’t think that dogs have star signs, do we?  We don’t reduce them to twelve neat boxes and stick a label on them, as if they’ve come out of a cookie-cutter mould, identical to the one next to them. I wasn’t talking about Sagittarians, and you know this These dogs are all Malinois.
Some of you Malinois aficionados are going to take issue with this and ask me for DNA tests and pedigrees. In fact, the one I suspect most of you would say was least like a Malinois, mumbling about German shepherd ancestors somewhere back there, are going to be shocked when I say he’s one of the ones whose pedigree I’ve seen and can attest to. He did duty for the French Air Force in La Réunion and has a pedigree that goes back 40 years. Maybe they don’t look the skinny sandy black nosed Malinois you’re used to seeing. But they’re all Malinois. Ok, one of them I know for sure has 12.5% German shepherd, if you believe her DNA and her naughty great grandmother, but you might be looking at all these faces thinking some of them probably aren’t. In France, most working dogs aren’t bred to look like they came from a cookie cutter and winning beauty pageants is not their thing.
A Malinois is what a Malinois does. There are as many variations in their behaviour as there are in how they look. Some of them, it’s true, are gregarious Sagittarians. Others are headstrong and bullish Taureans. You know what they actually, truly have in common? They’re dogs. That’s the first. They do dog stuff like other dogs. Some dig holes. Some are escape artists. All of them like sniffing butts and finding smells and rolling in the grass. Lots like lying with their paws up on the sofa. I can attest to that. Three of these dogs have lived with me. Like other dogs, they have ears and a nose and a heart and legs. They do dog stuff like eating chips left on the floor, looking for mice in the woodshed and playing with their human and canine friends. They have dog feelings and emotions too.

What else these dogs all have in common is that every single one of them is an individual.

They’re a product of the most unique combination of genetic, physiological, developmental, internal and external influences. No other dog is exactly like them. They’re also a social animal, so they’re also a product of the relationships they have. They are also part of an intricate ecological knot. They carry long and deep genetic memories of what it means to be a dog, to be a predator, to be a social animal. They also hold more recent memories like what they need to do when their human companions ask them to. To reduce them to simply ‘a Malinois’ is to reduce me to being Sagittarian. The same is true of any other dog. It forms a circular logic, an explanatory fiction. Why did she lose her temper? Well, because she’s a Sagittarian. They’re fiery and tempestuous. Clearly nothing to do with the idiot who overtook me on a blind bend, or the fact that I’m a woman of a certain age, or the fact that my parents and grandparents encouraged me and my siblings to speak our minds, but kindly, and to be honest and forthright, or the fact I’ve probably had more coffee than I should have, or the fact I’m worried about one of my dogs. No, it’s because I’m a Sagittarian. And why did my neighbour lose her temper? Well, because she’s an Aries and she likes locking horns with people. What about my grandmother? Taureans can be awfully stubborn. My grandfather? You know those Cancerians… crabby to the last.
When we write off behaviour as simply ‘it’s the breed’, we do exactly the same. Why did the dog bite? Well because it’s a Jack Russell… You know terriers… nippy little sods. Because he’s a German Shepherd… You know shepherds… mouthy to the last. Because he’s a cocker spaniel and he’s probably got Cocker Rage. Or is that Springers? Or Goldens? Or St Bernards? To write off behaviour as a breed simply a convenient explanatory fiction that provides no solution for anything.
It’s also to massively misunderstand both dogs and breeds. In work that will most likely never be replicated, John Paul Scott worked on the genetics of behaviour in dogs in Jackson Labs in Bar Harbor. Jackson Labs are one of the world’s largest producers of research rodents and they’ve been looking at the genetics of behaviour since the 1930s. Scott’s work with John Fuller in the 1960s is an insight like no other into the genetics of behaviour. Dog science is lucky they did it on dogs. What they found was so nuanced and complex that the main bits fill 300 pages with data and insights. They focused on five breeds and their hybrids, and much of their data still has huge relevance today. Despite that, there are also limitations to their work. Cross-fostering wasn’t really a focus of their work so they never really explored early developmental processes on behaviour. They looked at hybrids (F1s) and what they found was perhaps not what people would expect: when they bred a cocker spaniel to a Basenji, they didn’t find that the offspring’s behaviours (like barking) were a diluted average of their parents: they found that some of the F1 puppies actually did a lot more of the behaviour than their parent who barked the most, and some did a lot less than their parent who barked the least. Even in a litter of puppies with little genetic variation, there will still be dogs who are ‘good’ at whatever it was they were designed to do, and ones who aren’t. To reduce dogs to simply a label is to completely misunderstand behavioural genetics. If anything, the contribution of the parents will be more important than anything we call ‘breed’. It’s also to misunderstand many other things when we reduce dogs to a breed label.
We see that in the work of Scott and Fuller: theirs is a mainly Eurocentric vision of dog breeds. The basenji can’t possibly represent ancient Asiatic breeds and all land races and Nordic breeds. When we talk about breed, we forget that the majority of dogs bred for papers and genealogies are actually bred for physical conformity, not behavioural conformity. We also forget that most dogs – even in Eurocentric countries and their diaspora – do not have these papers. We forget too the dark and ugly history of breeding for physical conformity, not least the fallout of inbreeding on health. Breed counts to people, not to dogs. In fact, when a British man asked me what my dog was a mix of, perhaps thinking she was a sprollie or a doodle of some kind, I indignantly replied that she was a ‘pure bred’ dog, as if to say inbreeding is somehow inherently pure and as if dogs were all born as different breeds as Ricky Gervais jokes, and forgot that I’m not really a fan of breeding for physical conformity and I don’t even care what she is.
We forget, too, that most dogs are not even slightly a type. I’ve had three dogs whose genetic heritage was simply that of being ‘dog’. Ray Coppinger estimated that there are 2 billion dogs out there on the planet, all being very good at being a dog. My own three without any discernible race were very good at being a dog too. In general, all of my dogs have been 99.9999% the same when it comes to what they did. They eat the same way. They sleep the same way. They pee the same way. This is very much replicated by two huge data projects: Darwin’s Ark and CBARQ. Darwin’s Ark collects data about dog behaviour as well as dog health. CBARQ collects data about dog behaviour. Both have the ability to drill down and look at breed differences for a huge range of behaviours from trainability to toy play to barking at strangers and attempting to catch cats. What have they found? The average chihuahua is pretty much the average dog, just like the average cocker spaniel and the average husky. What they’ve also found also helps us understand that to label dogs as nothing more than ‘X’ breed or ‘Y’ breed is as ridiculous as labelling them a Virgo or a Libra.
To label dogs in such a way is to not only misunderstand the science of behaviour genetics but also to misunderstand mathematics, frequency and range. Darwin’s Ark and CBARQ both show that frequency matters. Compare 1000 Golden Retrievers and 1000 huskies and, on average, their behaviour will be exactly the same. Yet there are certain behaviours that huskies might do more frequently, like that delightful husky yodel. Yet one of my favourite YouTube clips is a Golden retriever yodelling to Pavarotti.
Just because more huskies may yodel and may do it more frequently doesn’t mean that a Golden retriever doesn’t also like singing the song from the soul of his canine genes. Genes are important. Nobody is suggesting that they aren’t.
Breed absolutely matters. But to suggest that breed is divorced from environment and learning, and to disregard history, is also to misunderstand breed completely. If you truly understand a breed, you won’t make simplistic fictional explanations about them. You’ll also understand they are a product of the land and of the animals and humans they worked with, if they’re a breed that was standardised from dogs who’d been selected for behaviours over many hundreds of years. It's too simplistic and dismissive to reduce dogs to a label. To do so is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of both behaviour and the individual in front of us. It’s too simplistic to assume that all dogs within a breed will be cut like cookies from a behavioural and physiological template. In this photo, there are the effects of ageing for some… and the effects of youth for others. There are the effects of female hormones for some… and the effects of male hormones for others. There are the effects of sterilisation, which are nuanced and complex, and also not yet well understood. There are the effects of positive early developmental influences for some… and the effects of negative early developmental influences for others. There are also the effects of reinforcement for some… and the effects of punishment for others. Behaviour is a profoundly, magnificently and chaotically complex manifestation of many, many processes at work. When we bring it down to nothing other than breed, we oversimplify it to such an extent that it becomes meaningless. We also run the risk of fetishising breed without realising the colonial, capitalist and cultural values behind the movement in the last 200 years towards Kennel Club beauty pageants and physical conformity.
Being a Malinois is not about rappelling out of helicopters and taking down terrorists, no matter what the movies say. To understand the Mechelen shepherd dog is to understand the gentle and overpopulated plains of Northern Europe: it’s to understand the nature of the sheep that are kept here, the laws of land use in Belgium, how the constant movement of smaller groups of sheep affected them, how the sheep behave, how the dogs work with the sheep, the relationship between the sheep and the dog, and to understand the other tasks the Mechelen shepherd was required to do. It’s to understand they don’t collect the sheep in the same way as a collie, but that they work both independently, left as a guardian to the sheep to protect them from predators and rustlers. It’s to understand that they are used to form a living boundary, and to understand they also need to work alongside the shepherd. It’s to understand that these behaviours are shaped through learning in this lifetime as well as the lifetimes of their parents and ancestors. It’s to understand how modern selective breeding for appearance and other characteristics such as responsiveness have affected the more ancient behavioural template.
To truly understand the Mechelen shepherd dog is to understand the very tissue that forms them: the organisation of cone cells on their retina, the way the position of the eyes on the skull lends itself to binocular vision, the way the musculature of their ears allows those magnificent radar ears to move… it’s to understand their biology. It’s more than that. It’s to understand the salience of sign stimuli, chemicals, neurotransmitters, hormones, muscles, fascia, blood vessels, skin, genes, history, culture, fashions, society, development, relationships, laws and landscapes shape the dogs in front of us.
Every single dog is both completely dog and completely individual because of this wonderful, infinitely complex tapestry. Let’s celebrate it rather than using folk stories to diagnose problems and use it to predict need.
Only then will we truly understand the marvellous and beautifully complex creature in front of us.
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