Few people have more intimate knowledge of my dog than Dr. John Trujillo does -- he did, after all, relieve Ace of his reproductive bits -- but as far as what Ace might be, breed-wise, Trujillo had never volunteered a guess and didn't particularly care.
He gets the question from many mutt owners.
"Lots of people want to know, but a lot more don't care," he
said. "As long as it's a happy dog, that's all they care about."
"What do I think he is? He looks like shepherd
and Akita," said Trujillo, who runs Light Street
Animal Hospital. "The reason I say Akita is because
his tail is twisted like an Akita, but you
don't see this coat on an Akita; you see this coat
on a German shepherd. But more of what I see is
Dr.Thomas C.Jett, a veterinarian who helps out
at the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter,
known as BARCS and formerly the city animal
shelter, sized up Ace and offered the same
opinion -- shepherd and Akita.
For a third,we went to Dr. Jill Shook at Citypets
Veterinary Care and Wellness.
"I would say, just based on his coloring and the
length of his coat, there's some German shepherd,
probably; possibly, with the tail, a little bit
of chow. But the shape of his head fits in more
with Labrador retriever, or maybe a little bit of
Rottweiler," Shook said.
In the year and a half I've had Ace, I've heard
dozens of other guesses -- Rhodesian Ridgeback,
retriever, collie,chow, Catahoula, Kangal and redbone
coonhound, to name just a few.
There are more than 400 dog breeds, 162 of
which are recognized by the American Kennel
Club; and there were only two ways to find out
how many of those might be in Ace.
One, I could find his parents -- unlikely since
the shelter I got him from knew only the name
of the man who found him wandering the
streets, and it wasn't giving me that. Two was
through his DNA,which I had already harvested
and sent to the lab.
As I waited for the results, I
went from pondering what
breeds are in Ace to the larger
question:What is in a breed?
The answer, when you get right
down to it, is mutts.
With the exception of the wolf,
every breed of dog is, or at least at
one time was, a hybrid of some
sort. The first German shepherd,
the first Doberman pinscher
came from other kinds of dogs--
and most were shaped, if not designed,
primarily by the hand of
"In the beginning, all dogs were
mixed," said Raymond Coppinger,
professor emeritus of biology at
Hampshire College and co-author
of Dogs: A Startling New Understanding
of Canine Origin, Behavior
"Purebred is a terminology that
started off in the end of the 19th
century with the idea that rich
people were better than anyone
else, leading to all the talk of genetic
purity and eugenics," Coppinger
said. "Of course, it was one
of those things that never worked
on people, and efforts to impose it
were all bad news."
After World War II, purebred
dogs surged in popularity, Coppinger
"As a boy growing up,my goal in
life was to be able to get a purebred
dog. Having read Lassie, I
thought that was going to be
something special. We were all
kind of duped into that belief."
Coppinger, in his latest book, cowritten
with his wife, Lorna, criticizes
some breeders, especially
those breeding to win dog shows.
"Breeders and owners forget
what the historical dog looked
like," he wrote. "They select for
the exaggerated form. They select
for the really big ones. They select
for the flattest face. They select
for the longest face.
takes on an unnatural shape, becoming
a freak of nature. They
are loved the way the hunchback
Quasimodo was loved--a dichotomy
between the grotesque form
and the honorable personality.
"I believe the modern household
dog is bred to satisfy human
psychological needs, with little or
no consideration of the consequences
for the dog. These dogs
fill the court-jester model of pet
He was particularly critical of
dog shows: They "are comparable
to human beauty-queen pageants.
Compare each individual
with the others in the show and
see which one comes closest to
some arbitrarily designated, idealistically
As for testing my dog's DNA,
Coppinger didn't have much respect
for that plan, either.
"You're wasting your money,
and somebody out there is
preying upon you to believe in all
this stuff," he said. "Go and have
someone do your genealogy; you
can hire somebody to do that.
What does it mean? It doesn't
mean anything. But if that makes
you happy, do it."
Coppinger's views, cranky as
they might sound, aren't coming
from right field. They are echoed
by James Serpell, associate professor
of humane ethics and animal
welfare at the University of Pennsylvania
and author of In the
Company of Animals: A Study of
"Pedigree dog breeding is an exercise
in eugenics, and the efforts
to maintain racial purity have
had moderately to severely damaging
effects," he said. Many bulldogs,
for example, as a result of efforts
by breeders to produce animals
with even larger heads,
must now be born by Caesarean.
"There's a strange aesthetic going
on here. The strategy is not to
produce healthy dogs, it's for producing
dogs of a uniform physical
It's all about just the
The trend, while driven by
breeders and dog shows, is fed by
consumer demand, he said.
"A lot of people contemplating
getting a dog actively seek out a
particular breed. It's like buying a
car; it's like owning a Corvette.
They have a particular notion of
this particular breed being just
right for them."
Sometimes that's based on
sound reasoning; sometimes it's
based on vanity -- "the breed
may be seen as the perfect accessory,"
Serpell, the owner of a mutt of
undetermined origin, said he, too,
is frequently asked what breed
his dog is. He usually responds
with a made-up breed.
"Bosnian snakehound," he tells
them. If you say it with enough
authority, he has found, people
often accept it.
I've toyed with that idea myself
South Baltimore alleyhound,
Formstone terrier, shorthaired Patapsco
I want the real answer, though,
and impossible as it might be to
find, Ace and I aren't done sniffing
Fourth of a seven-part series
A puzzle even for a pack of experts
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