My best friend Sueshi can attract a lot of attention. She’s super friendly, very cute with an adorable underbite, and she loves meeting new two-legged and four-legged friends.
I’m often asked, “What breed is she?” My reply is always the same — “Fluffy White Dog.” This is usually met with laughter, followed by, “No, really, what do you think she is?”
The truth is, I have no idea what kind of dog Sueshi is. When I first met her at the Virginia Beach SPCA in 2015, I was drawn to her sweet personality. I wasn’t looking for a specific breed; I was looking for a dog I connected with.
The notion of breed has undoubtedly been a hot topic over the years in animal sheltering. At most shelters, a dog’s breed is assigned at intake. It’s a quick visual identification made by a staff member. It’s not scientific or based on a DNA test. It’s a highly subjective guess based on a dog’s presenting features. That’s why you may have heard a story about that now 60-pound dog who was labeled a chihuahua mix as a shelter puppy.
Lots of people interested in animal welfare think that breed labels have done more to hurt dogs in shelters than help them. This is especially true for dogs plagued by negative stereotypes, like pit bull-type dogs, who are often overlooked by potential adopters and restricted in rental housing and homeowner’s insurance policies.
The reality is that most dogs entering shelters are a mix of multiple breeds. It’s estimated that purebred dogs make up just between 5-25% of the shelter population nationwide. Even dogs labeled as pit bulls are often a mix of multiple bully breeds and other types of dogs. Some shelters have begun removing unreliable breed labels altogether, hoping it will help more dogs find homes.
The advantages to adopting mixed breed dogs are many. They are often healthier and less prone to congenital breed ailments due to more genetic variety.
Some people are interested in purebred dogs because of behavior traits and temperaments attributed to certain breeds. But a recent study published in the online journal Science argues that the link between breed and behavior is more tenuous than we may have previously thought.
Researchers surveyed nearly 20,000 pet parents and studied the genome of more than 2,000 dogs. Their conclusion — physical traits are inherited, but breed may not be the best indicator of behavior. On the contrary, each breed has a diverse range of personalities, and behavior is impacted by genetics, environment and other factors.
Yes, the study finds that some breeds are more prone to certain behaviors: huskies who howl, retrievers who retrieve, herding breeds who herd, for example. However, the researchers concluded that “Behavioral factors show high variability within breeds, suggesting that although breed may affect the likelihood of a particular behavior to occur, breed alone is not, contrary to popular belief, informative enough to predict an individual’s disposition.”
In other words, the researchers proved something those of us working in shelters have known for a long time. Just like people, every dog is a unique individual.
When adopting your next best friend, don’t let the breed label get in the way of a genuine connection. Before I met Sueshi, I admired — but did not adopt — many puppies coming into the shelter who had perfect teeth and appeared purebred. It was Sueshi’s uniqueness and the immediate bond between the two of us that drew my heart to her.
At Pasadena Humane and other shelters, many unique and loving dogs are looking for someone to love them back. View our pets available for adoption at pasadenahumane.org/pets
Dia DuVernet is president and CEO of Pasadena Humane.
This blog post originally appeared as a column in the Pasadena Star-News on May 20, 2022.