When I am out about town running errands or getting coffee, I sometimes wonder what sorts of judgments other folks are making about me based on how I look or what I’m wearing. Do people perceive me as intimidating or non-threatening? Do I seem like someone who is energetic or lazy? While it would be amusing to find out what people think about me just based on my physical appearance, in reality my appearance doesn’t provide any concrete information about my personality.
So of course I hope the people I meet will get to know me before making any determinations about my positive traits and my flaws. Don’t we all? That’s why it seems so odd that many of us pass judgement on the dogs we meet just based on how they look.
I’m guilty of this sort of subconscious bias as well. I’ll catch myself making a determination about a dog without ever having met the dog! Crazy, I know. That dog looks like a yellow Labrador Retriever so she must be friendly and safe to approach. That dog looks like a Jack Russell so he probably barks a lot and has tons of energy. That dog looks like an American Staffordshire Terrier so he might not be dog-friendly. In reality there are plenty of unsociable Labs, easygoing Jack Russells, and dog-friendly “pitbulls” in our world.
As much as we would like to think that every dog of a certain breed will behave the same way, it’s simply not the case. Just like human siblings, dogs of the same breed and even the same litter can have very different personalities.
In fact, “when we look at a dog and see breed, we are seeing only roughly 50 of their nearly 20,000 genes.”  It’s those 20,000 genes that we cannot see, which don’t affect physical appearance, that are actually responsible for brain development and function. That’s why you can have two dogs that are part of the same breed, they both have the same physical characteristics, but one is very different behaviorally from the other.
On top of differences based on genetic variation, a dog’s behavior and personality are also influenced by his or her environment and upbringing. So both nature and nurture are at play. 
Shelter dogs are also often mixed-breed, and this makes judgement based on physical appearance even more misleading. A dog that’s a mix of two or more breeds may look like one breed while exhibiting some behavior traits of the other. Or perhaps they’ll exhibit a mix of both, but which breed characteristics will this dog take from each parent? And that assumes we can guess the correct breed make-up based on appearance at all! One study found that most people tested "including breeders, exhibitors, trainers, groomers, behaviorists, rescuers, shelter staff, veterinarians, and veterinary technicians" cannot correctly guess the breed make-up of a mixed-breed dog. Other studies have been conducted that found the same result.
The only way to know what a certain dog is like is to get to know that dog as an individual.
Next time you’re visiting your local shelter to find a new furry friend, look beyond their size, the shapes of their heads and the colors of their fur to what really matters – their unique personality. And remember not to expect a dog to behave a certain way just because they look a certain way.
Take time to visit with each dog before making your determination. Who knows, maybe you’ll come in looking for a small-breed and wind up finding your perfect match in a large-breed. Maybe you never expected to fall in love with a beagle, but that's the dog that will be your perfect fit.
Our staff is always happy to answer any questions you may have, and perhaps the better question is not “what breed is she?” but rather “what is her personality like?”
In fact, you can now take a quiz to find a dog that’s compatible with you! Instead of matching you to a specific breed, it matches you to individual dogs near you who would be a good fit for you based on a variety of lifestyle-factors and other preferences. Visit howimetmydog.com to find your match! You just might be matched to one of the many friendly dogs awaiting adoption at the SPCA Albrecht Center.
Jessica Gladkowski is the Director of Community Relations at the SPCA Albrecht Center for Animal Welfare. Jessica received her Bachelor of Arts in Japanese from The University of Vermont, and over the next several years she traveled to Japan and South Korea where she taught English and immersed herself in different cultures. Jessica is inspired to combine her passion for helping animals, teaching, and serving a diverse community through a career in animal welfare. Jessica lives in Aiken with her husband David and their rescue dogs Django and Ollie.