Take a moment to think about all the people you’ve chosen to be in your life, from your friends to your business partners to your spouse. Did you choose any of these individuals simply based on the way they look? Of course not. You got to know these people and found you were compatible on a deeper level. So why is it that many of us choose our dogs simply based on their physical characteristics?
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 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.
Now, don’t get me wrong, a dog’s breed can give us some ideas about how a dog may look and behave, and knowing the breed can be of value. But it’s important to note that breed alone does not paint the complete picture. 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 have two dogs that are part of the Labrador Retriever breed, they both have the physical traits of a Lab, but one is very different behaviorally from the other. The same way you look like your sibling, but you are two very different people.
On top of differences based on genetic variation, a dog’s behavior and personality is also influenced by his or her upbringing. 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?
The only way to know what a certain dog is like is to get to know that dog as an individual.
Next time you visit a shelter to adopt a new pet, I challenge you to prioritize personality over physical characteristics. When you look at the shelter dogs, I challenge you to look beyond their size, the shapes of their heads and the colors of their fur to what really matters – their unique personalities.
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. 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?”
These days, you can take the How I Met My Dog pet compatibility 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.