More Important: Breed Characteristics or Owner Attitude?

Gus the Golden, Gilbert the Beagle

I’ve noticed that a lot of us who have, or have had different canine companions at the same time have breeds that do not necessarily share the same characteristics: physical appearance; trainability; original breed purposes may vary amongst the canines we do have or haved lived with. Which leads me to the questions I am posing for myself and all of you. Do you think it is the characteristics of a breed that draw us to them; the individual animal’s situation in a particular place and time that puts them in our lives; the expectations of what a person wants from a canine, or even the looks of a breed that draw us to our dogs?
I look at my own three rather different dogs and I see some of each of the above at work.

Jenny and Snuggers

Jenny was headed into Collie Rescue when she diverted to my home. I was looking for a Collie at the time and Jenny was a very deliberate addition. I grew up with a Collie mix and have an emotional soft spot for the breed; visually and esthetically Collie’s are one of my favorites; I love Jenny’s laid back personality and quirky sense of humor. The first time we met she would push my drink closer and closer to the edge of a porch railing just to see how I’d react. She was what I wanted, she needed a home, I love the way she looks.

I also knew, going in, that Collies are not the most trainable of dogs – very average and there are much more trainable breeds out there. I knew Collies shed and required regular grooming. I knew they needed exercise and will wander away if not closely supervised; they also have a tendency towards chasing cars if the chance arises. And I knew as an individual Jenny was afraid of men and would take time and a lot of patience to adjust to the males in my life. None of these were deal breakers for me and while life with Jenny isn’t all smooth sailing – she has wandered off twice when supposedly in the company of people – there have not been any big surprises. I think Jenny may have ended up with me as a combination of all the possible reasons a person can end up with both an individual dog and a particular breed.

Then there is Gracie.

Jenny and Gracie

More compact and shorter haired than Jenny, with a rather different aesthetic going on. I will be the first to admit that Gracie was an impulse addition to my life. I was six weeks out from the death of my Schnauzer Wills when I found out about Gracie. Having become interested in Bull Terriers as a child, having always found their looks attractive – the square muscular build is another one that appeals to me – and knowing that I wasn’t too likely to happen onto a Bull Terrier again in the near future I decided to take Gracie on.

I knew that bullies had a reputation for being stubborn and funny. Gracie has been both. I find her as comical and interesting as expected and her devotion is typical of other terriers I have known. She also has a kind of naivete when it comes to her interactions with the world. Gracie thinks everyone is a potential friend and doesn’t understand the concept of body space when it comes to either people or other dogs. Many others both humane and canine find this rather off-putting.

If you can stand grooming and exercise, you might be able to live with a Collie. Bull Terriers on the other hand, are not a breed that I would recommend too often. While they typically love children, they are not ideal for very young/small children as in their enthusiasm they tend to knock little ones over. Bullies require an experienced owner who can deal with a lot of energy and movement. Breed rescue has to be active for these pups because sometimes people attracted to their looks and personality, find their energy and drive just too much to live with. As much as I love Gracie, I haven’t met too many people I’d recommend the breed to.
Gracie ended up in my life because of the time and place; she’s stayed in my life for two basic reasons. First, I belive in commiting to a dog for a lifetime whenever humanly possible; Second, I find her just too lovable to seriously consider parting with her.

And then there’s Lil the Lab.

Since I grew up with Labs, I used to think that anyone could own one. They are very trainable, generally good natured and forgiving as a breed (some individuals are none of these things.) Lil is the first Lab that I have, however, ever personally owned. Lived around them all my life but never owned one before.

As I’ve mentioned before, Lil is Gracie’s puppy, brought into the family to play with Gracie and respect Jenny. Of course, I’m left to do the training, cleaning up after, feeding, etc. I had not forgotten that Labs shed as much as a Collie, or eat like every meal is their last. Lil now gets fed out of treat toys or a special bowl just to slow her down to the speed of light, and despite daily vacuuming, I can usually find some of her hair somewhere.

 I realize now also, that young Labs have way too much energy for people who do not have experience with enthusiastic big dogs. Lil loves everyone and she wants to be a lap dog. She is still learning that barreling across a room to say hello to someone might intimidate the person; she doesn’t think there should be any difference between the liberties the cats take and the ones she should be allowed. But there’s a difference between how much room a cat and 50 pound puppy with a furiously wagging tail take up. Who are we kidding, size makes a differnce.

Lil was a carefully researched puppy. She came from a reputable breeder and is one of the few non-rescue, non adopted animals I’ve owned. A lot of thought and time went into adding Lil to my family. As an individual human I have come to a realization about my own personality; I’m not necessarily a Lab person. While I appreciate the trainability and gentle nature, I think Labs lack some kind of challenge that I’ve come to expect and even like about winning over a new dog. Lil is just too easy; she could happily live in millions of homes.

What I am growing to appreciate about Lil as an individual is that she is such a kind spirit (not all Labs are.) In a world where rage is becoming an increasingly common reaction to everything from driving to standing in a line waiting for service, there’s something to be said for having a canine companion who lives an example of trust, affection, and foregiveness. While I’m not necessarily an ideal owner for Labradors, Lil and I are working things out just fine. Lil is very forgiving of my shortcomings and terrier tendancies.

Even in the space of this entry, I’m beginning to realize that there have perhaps been as many reasons for the dogs I’ve lived with as there have been dogs. At times I’ve ended up with dogs because they needed a place to go; at times I’ve been looking for a dog and found what I was looking for. What I look for in a dog also varies according to the place I am emtionally and psychologically in, in my life. When I lived in a less savory neighborhood and wanted to adopt, my dog ended up being a Rottweiler mix. When I needed a dog for company and emtional support I ended up with my first Schnauzer.

Then there are people like my Dad. Given a choice he will always pick a Lab over any other breed. For him Labs are the right fit and all the things he likes about a dog can be found within an individual of this breed.
(Ironically, he is currently living with a Boxer – but that’s another story.)

Yuki, a little dog who needed a home

I’m curious about other people’s experiences. If you go out and deliberatly look for a dog, what are your search criteria based on? Have you ever found yourself living with an animal who just happened into your life? (I’ve included a picture of Yuki – a foster who just needed a home and some rehabilitation before moving on with her life.) If you have a picture you would like to share, please email it to me –

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