A puzzle even for a pack of experts

Sun Reporter

Few people have more intimate knowledge of my dog than Dr.John Trujillo does -- he did, after all, relieve Ace of his reproductivebits -- but as far as what Ace might be, breed-wise,Trujillo had never volunteered a guess and didn't particularlycare.

He gets the question from many mutt owners."Lots of people want to know, but a lot more don't care," hesaid. "As long as it's a happy dog, that's all they care about."

It's all I really care about, too. But, being curious-- not to mention being frequently bombardedwith the question myself -- I was on amission to find the answer. So I demanded a diagnosis.

"What do I think he is? He looks like shepherdand Akita," said Trujillo, who runs Light StreetAnimal Hospital. "The reason I say Akita is becausehis tail is twisted like an Akita, but youdon't see this coat on an Akita; you see this coaton a German shepherd. But more of what I see isAkita."

Dr.Thomas C.Jett, a veterinarian who helps outat the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter,known as BARCS and formerly the city animalshelter, sized up Ace and offered the sameopinion -- shepherd and Akita.

For a third,we went to Dr. Jill Shook at CitypetsVeterinary Care and Wellness."I would say, just based on his coloring and thelength of his coat, there's some German shepherd,probably; possibly, with the tail, a little bitof chow. But the shape of his head fits in morewith Labrador retriever, or maybe a little bit ofRottweiler," Shook said.

In the year and a half I've had Ace, I've hearddozens of other guesses -- Rhodesian Ridgeback,retriever, collie,chow, Catahoula, Kangal and redbonecoonhound, to name just a few.

There are more than 400 dog breeds, 162 ofwhich are recognized by the American Kennel Club; and there were only two ways to find outhow many of those might be in Ace.

One, I could find his parents -- unlikely sincethe shelter I got him from knew only the nameof the man who found him wandering thestreets, and it wasn't giving me that. Two wasthrough his DNA,which I had already harvestedand sent to the lab.

As I waited for the results, Iwent from pondering whatbreeds are in Ace to the largerquestion:What is in a breed?The answer, when you get rightdown to it, is mutts.

With the exception of the wolf,every breed of dog is, or at least atone time was, a hybrid of somesort. The first German shepherd,the first Doberman pinschercame from other kinds of dogs--and most were shaped, if not designed,primarily by the hand ofman.

"In the beginning, all dogs weremixed," said Raymond Coppinger,professor emeritus of biology atHampshire College and co-authorof Dogs: A Startling New Understandingof Canine Origin, Behavior& Evolution.

"Purebred is a terminology thatstarted off in the end of the 19thcentury with the idea that richpeople were better than anyoneelse, leading to all the talk of geneticpurity and eugenics," Coppingersaid. "Of course, it was oneof those things that never workedon people, and efforts to impose itwere all bad news."

After World War II, purebreddogs surged in popularity, Coppingersaid.

"As a boy growing up,my goal inlife was to be able to get a purebreddog. Having read Lassie, Ithought that was going to besomething special. We were allkind of duped into that belief."Coppinger, in his latest book, cowrittenwith his wife, Lorna, criticizessome breeders, especiallythose breeding to win dog shows.

"Breeders and owners forgetwhat the historical dog lookedlike," he wrote. "They select forthe exaggerated form. They selectfor the really big ones. They selectfor the flattest face. They selectfor the longest face.…Each breedtakes on an unnatural shape, becominga freak of nature. Theyare loved the way the hunchbackQuasimodo was loved--a dichotomybetween the grotesque formand the honorable personality.

"I believe the modern householddog is bred to satisfy humanpsychological needs, with little orno consideration of the consequencesfor the dog. These dogsfill the court-jester model of petownership."

He was particularly critical ofdog shows: They "are comparableto human beauty-queen pageants.Compare each individualwith the others in the show andsee which one comes closest tosome arbitrarily designated, idealistically'perfect' form."

As for testing my dog's DNA,Coppinger didn't have much respectfor that plan, either.

"You're wasting your money,and somebody out there ispreying upon you to believe in allthis stuff," he said. "Go and havesomeone do your genealogy; youcan hire somebody to do that.What does it mean? It doesn'tmean anything. But if that makesyou happy, do it."

Coppinger's views, cranky asthey might sound, aren't comingfrom right field. They are echoedby James Serpell, associate professorof humane ethics and animalwelfare at the University of Pennsylvaniaand author of In theCompany of Animals: A Study ofHuman-Animal Relationships.

"Pedigree dog breeding is an exercisein eugenics, and the effortsto maintain racial purity havehad moderately to severely damagingeffects," he said. Many bulldogs,for example, as a result of effortsby breeders to produce animalswith even larger heads,must now be born by Caesarean."There's a strange aesthetic goingon here. The strategy is not toproduce healthy dogs, it's for producingdogs of a uniform physicaltype. … It's all about just thelook."

The trend, while driven bybreeders and dog shows, is fed byconsumer demand, he said."A lot of people contemplatinggetting a dog actively seek out aparticular breed. It's like buying acar; it's like owning a Corvette.They have a particular notion ofthis particular breed being justright for them."

Sometimes that's based onsound reasoning; sometimes it'sbased on vanity -- "the breedmay be seen as the perfect accessory,"he said.

Serpell, the owner of a mutt ofundetermined origin, said he, too,is frequently asked what breedhis dog is. He usually respondswith a made-up breed.

"Bosnian snakehound," he tellsthem. If you say it with enoughauthority, he has found, peopleoften accept it.

I've toyed with that idea myself… South Baltimore alleyhound,Formstone terrier, shorthaired Patapscoretriever.

I want the real answer, though,and impossible as it might be tofind, Ace and I aren't done sniffingaround yet.

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