This just in: Scientists at the International Association of Human Behavior say that not all Swedes are taciturn, Italians are not universally excitable, and not every Frenchman looks down his nose at you.
If such an organization existed (I made it up), few of us would consider such a pronouncement newsworthy. We’ve all encountered individuals who conform to no stereotype. One of the friendliest, most outgoing people I’ve ever known is a Frenchman I met years ago on a tennis court, although his wife once confided that she always enjoyed our visits because Alain was a much nicer person in English than French.
But that’s a different story.
Experts at the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants Foundation (a real thing) told The Atlantic’s Katherine Wu that people’s beliefs about what to expect from different kinds of dogs cause a lot of problems. “Stereotypes about breed ‘personalities,’” she writes, “are hardwired into almost every interaction people have with dogs: They influence which canines are adopted first, which are routed into service jobs, which are allowed to inhabit apartment buildings.”
A canine behavior expert at the University of Colorado went so far as to tell her, “Any good dog trainer will tell you those stereotypes are a disaster … Breeds don’t have personalities. Individuals do.”
In my experience, this is broadly true of every kind of mammal I’ve encountered — even herd animals like horses and cows. Some are placid and trusting, others suspicious and leery of human contact. Every herd has leaders and followers, friends and not-friends. When you get to know them, cows have very strong individual personalities.
Regarding dogs, however, people’s expectations are often confounded. Although breeds of dogs are among mankind’s oldest and most successful efforts at bioengineering, the results have never been precise. Wu: “There exist border collies who won’t herd, and pugs who will; there exist high-strung Great Pyrenees, and beagles who will obey every command.”
The bravest dog I’ve known was our Great Pyrenees, Jesse, who feared no living thing. I once saw Jesse rout two coyotes who had a neighbor’s goat kid on the ground. He then picked up the baby, carried it to the herd and set it down. Another time, he and his Anatolian companion, Maggie, ran a wandering cougar off our place. The invader ran for the ridge like a house cat.
Then there was the day my wife inadvertently walked between a newborn calf and its mother. The cow charged her. Jesse charged back. That cow wanted no part of him and turned aside. It was probably a bluff charge anyway, but Jesse was prepared to take on all 1,200 pounds of her.
Thunderstorms, however, scared Jesse to death. He knew only one safe place: in Diane’s lap. As he was somewhat larger and much hairier than she is, it made for some funny photos.
Back in town, he was friendly but aloof toward human strangers. If somebody spoke with Diane while she walked him, Jesse would quietly position himself between them. Nobody taught him any of these things; they were just who he was. Pyrenees were bred to guard livestock, and guarding is what he did.
He also ignored commands when he was on duty.
When it comes to ignoring commands, however, there is no dog like a basset hound. Not even beagles, a similarly stubborn member of the hound group. Bred to track game with their prodigious noses, it’s my belief that when their nostrils are engaged, their ears are offline.
At the dog park, our basset, Hank, is called “The Ladies’ Man” due to his fondness for women and girls. Actually, Hank’s never met a stranger, human or canine. Bred to hunt in packs, bassets see other dogs as allies. They’re friendly and optimistic all the time. Also, persistent. If you want them, you’ve pretty much got to go get them.
So one day last month, we were walking our dogs on a golf course that was closed after the Little Rock tornado. A herd of deer appeared, and Hank — a house pet, never a hunting dog — felt a thrill in his blood. The other dogs quit chasing once the deer were out of sight. Hank, however, put his nose to the ground and began baying along the scent line.
My heart sank. As a longtime breeder of beagle rabbit dogs, I knew immediately that Hank had gone native. I heard him cross the road and the railroad tracks, then climb the steep wooded ridge on the other side. I feared we might never see him again.
Except than once he’d reached the residential neighborhood atop the ridge, Hank encountered a group of little kids and reverted to house-pet mode. The children took him to their mommies. His photo appeared on Facebook before I’d even got home from searching.
Hank heard the call of the wild, but he got home for supper.
— Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000).