Over the weekend at a dog show, I overheard the handler of a Cane Corso tell an inquiring pair of spectators that his dog was an Italian Mastiff. Curious, I asked the handler if this term was what fanciers of the breed preferred over Cane Corso to describe their dogs. “No,” he replied cheerfully, “it’s just easier than repeating “Cane Corso” over and over again until they ‘get it.’” And then the handler leaned into me to say more quietly, “If they ever do.”
I understood. As the owner of another uncommon breed, I’m frequently asked at dog shows what kind of dog I have at the end of my leash, and when I answer, “Puli,” sometimes the next question asked is what kind of dog was bred to a Poodle to create my dog. I smile politely, point out that my dog isn’t a mixed breed, then look away to discourage myself from a primordial urge to shriek. I understand that a spectator at a dog show may never have heard of a Puli, uncommon as it is, but I wonder to myself: Who goes to a dog show expressly to look at mixed breeds?
I made a quick trip to Costco yesterday (what am I saying? There’s no such thing as a quick trip to Costco) and as I crossed the parking lot, I spotted this chap.
When I approached to take a better picture of what I recognized as a Boerboel, I realized that the dog’s owner was sitting in the front seat. “He’s wonderful,” I gushed to the man who smiled, told me his dog was gentle, and that he was an African Mastiff.
“Isn’t that the same thing as a Boerboel?” I asked. “Why yes,” the surprised owner replied. “Not many people know that and it’s just easier to say African Mastiff.”
I was detecting a trend in my week.
Why, I wondered, was it harder to say “Boerboel” than African Mastiff which, when you think about it, has more syllables than Boerboel. And when did we start getting too lazy to work through the initial contact the general public has with our breeds by simplifying their names? There will always be people ignorant of the rich tapestry of dog breeds in the world, especially the rare ones – and that’s understandable – but must we foster ignorance by choosing the easy way out when informing them of their proper names?
We haven’t been telling people since 1931 that the noble black and tan dog they know as a Rottweiler is a German Cattle Dog. It’s a Rottweiler. We may describe the breed’s original purpose as a cattle dog as a means to flesh out information about them, just as I often add, “Hungarian Sheepdog” after I’ve told someone my dog is a Puli, but by golly, I refused to talk down to my children when they were small by using little words, and I’m not going to start now with my dogs. It’s a Puli. It’s a Cane Corso. It’s a Boerboel.
Did we get too lazy to educate the public about the proper name for our dog breeds, or did we just decide the public was too stupid to learn them?
Meanwhile in another part of the world, a different tact is being taken.
Territorio de Zaguates is a private organization in Costa Rica dedicated to the rescue of abandoned dogs. It shelters them, neuters them, and tries to find loving homes for them, but while interest in shelter dogs has grown, the number of adoptions hasn’t. According to this video, adoptions haven’t grown because 94% of the shelter dogs are mutts, and when it comes to adopting a dog, mixed breeds are considered less valuable than purebreds.
The group asked itself what their dogs could offer prospective adoptees that no other dog could, and in what I consider a stroke of brilliant marketing, their answer was that because of its mixed heritage, a mutt is unlike any other dog. Canine experts were brought in to decipher the breeds thought to be present in each shelter dog, and coupled with a dog’s unique phenotype and some very clever name crafting, some unique “breeds” were born: The fire-tailed Cocker Spaniel, Bunny-Tailed Scotch Shepterrier, Marbled English Flilaramaner, Furry Chest Jackbeagle, White Mittenend Pekish, Shaggy Shepherd Dachspaniel, Vampire Pinscherhund, Bobby-tailed German Dobernauzer, Brown Eyed Australian Dalmapointer, Long-legged Irish Schnauzerfox, Freckeled Terrierhuahua, Quasicat German Border Terrier, Pekilion Miniature, Tiger Tekelmutt, White Chested Dachweiler, Chewbacca Pekin Dog, Crazy Terriermauzer, Chewhua Poodle Punky Hair and the Happy Tailed Pikishepherd.
Territoria de Zaguate’s new slogan became, “When you adopt a mutt, you adopt a unique breed,” and press releases touted, “Dog breeds never seen before!…..” and, “Only in our country!” Adoptions grew by 1.4100% and 100% of the shelter’s expenses were covered by sponsor brands.
I don’t know if the people adopting these dogs honestly thought they were getting a rare, or even real “breed,” or if they were “eyes-wide-open” participants happy to participate with a wink and a nod. As a dog lover, I tip my hat to a successful effort to get these dogs into loving homes. There is a part of me, however, that senses something troubling about this and I’m hard-pressed to put my finger on it. Am I bothered by the possibility that an adoptive home was so ignorant and/or gullible as to believe that a Vampire Pinscherhund was a bona-fide breed? Am I concerned that because a Dobernauzer turned out to be a wonderful pet, its owners will seek out another one or try to create it,themselves? Might demand be created for specific mixes?
I shared the video on Facebook to see how others felt about this, and to a person, everyone agreed that the campaign was brilliant and that getting dogs into homes was a wonderful thing. That said, several folks shared my uneasiness. “Jan” wrote, “It’s better that these dogs should be called, ‘One Of A Kind’ so that people don’t get the idea that there should be more of them,” and ”Cindy’s” comment resonated with me. She wrote, “I hate the misuse of language and while each dog may have a name, that is not the same thing as being a representative of a breed.”
And with that, I come full circle. Some of us are creating fictitious names for mutts to make them sound more like purebreds, while some of us with purebreds are dumbing down their names to make them more user-friendly. It seems to me that as our sport faces pressure from animal rights and shelter/rescue groups, now isn’t the time to retreat by lowering expectations of the public, but rather a time to increase the public’s knowledge base of our dogs and elevate its awareness of what we face.
A rose by any other name may still be a rose, but calling it a weed doesn’t help anyone.