I remember the day like it was yesterday… About six years ago I was relaxing on a dock just watching the gulls and the rolling water in the cove as my Jack Russell terriers Rocco and Bailey lay by my feet. Suddenly they both shot up and ran up the dock steps to the precarious cliff face. My eyes caught the flash of a mink scurrying along the cliff face, with my pups in quick pursuit. The next 10 minutes felt like a lifetime as I watched them scream across the cliff face, scrambling for footing – and then falling 15 feet into the chilly water, their little bodies popping against the rocks on the way down – only to climb back out and back up that cliff over and over, their arousal only increasing with each rock they banged against.
They were literally going to kill themselves trying to get that mink. I threw a kayak into the water and paddled to the cliff edge – knowing the only way I was to stop the madness was to wait until they fell and grab them as they next spilled into the water. I saved one at a time, squeezing their soaking wet bodies between my legs as I paddled back to shore – letting go was not an option! Trust me, I did not look like (or sound like) much of an animal behaviorist that afternoon! There are lots of other Jack stories… Another favorite was the time we had to take a shovel to dig Rocco out of the 20-foot-long, 10-foot-deep hole where he had cornered a possum. Let’s forget the stories that involved dog fights while I was in the middle of conference calls or the holes that had skunks in them… But it was that day on the dock that I stated I would never be the pet parent of a Jack Russell terrier again!
Let me make something clear – I am not a breedist. But let’s take a big pause here and acknowledge that breed does matter. Pointers are bred to have physiological traits that make it more likely they will point. Retrievers are bred to have physiological traits that make them more likely to put things in their mouths… Jacks are bred to have physiological traits that make them more likely to give their mothers heart attacks!
Now, when it comes to the individual Jack, retriever or pointer, they may or may not behave as the breed type. Yep, ‘this’ retriever may not retrieve – which is one of the reasons we developed Meet Your Match Canine-ality. If someone comes to a shelter looking for a retriever with the expectation that he will retrieve, their needs may not be met if we simply have them select a retriever without assessing that individual dog’s behavior.
There is a lot of energy right now around the use of DNA breed analysis to help identify what the breed mixes are in the dogs in our shelters that appear to be bully-type. The energy is mostly around showing that just because a dog appears to be of a particular bully breed, he may not be. Very, very important and valuable work that can help save so many lives.
The personal “Aha!” I had with the potential power of the mixed-breed analysis was with my dog Sea. She appeared to be a terrier mix – but her behavior was not at all terrier-like. Sea carefully watches her step as she chases the occasional chipmunk by the bird feeder…When her analysis revealed her to be half Chihuahua and half miniature poodle, it made perfect behavioral sense – even if she did look more like a terrier.
Knowledge of breed traits along with the individual dog’s behavior can help our adopters succeed. If we try to sell a high-arousal bull terrier as just like any other dog, aren’t we depending on that adopter to have had a high-arousal dog in their past to “get” what we mean by “any other dog?” When we make blanket statements that a particular breed is “just like any other dog” – what other dog are we talking about? ‘Cause Rocco sure was nothing like Sea.
Photo credit: Heather Mohan-Gibbons