Last Friday night I walked up to the check-out line at the grocery store with a bottle of wine and the latest copy of BARK magazine, wondering if I would inspire a friendly jab from whomever happened to be working the register. Hot date tonight, eh? Whoa, gettin’ wild and crazy on a Friday night aren’t we? Husband out of town? Or maybe even just something like, I love the articles in this magazine! Just so I could reply with, “Oh, I just buy it for the naked dog pictures.”
But that was not the question the very friendly clerk asked me when she rang me up for my booze and my dog porn. What she did ask me was the same universal question that I get asked anytime and any place the subject of dogs comes up: What kind of dog you have?
Of course this question makes the following assumptions: 1) that I have a dog, and 2) that the kind or breed of dog I have is the most relevant or obvious point of discussion available between two strangers. Maybe I’m just a cat owner buying the magazine to spite my cat. Perhaps I’m thinking about getting a dog and actually doing my research before obtaining one (as totally unlikely a possibility as that typically is). Would I sound like a sarcastic jerk if I had sincerely answered, I don’t know? After all, my dogs didn’t come with a label. Just some adoption paperwork and vaccinations.
Of course the intent behind this question and its larger cultural significance are two completely different things. The girl at the market who rung me up was doing exactly what every fabulous customer service representative learns to do their first week on the job: Be friendly and show the customer you care. Someone using this question as a way to connect and be friendly is not what I find noteworthy here. I seriously dig friendly retail workers and love it when people bother to say hello, smile and find a way to connect with me. What I do find interesting, and ultimately problematic, is the fact that, culturally, we have decided that THIS is the default question to ask when you’re trying to be friendly and chat with a dog owner.
When a mom walks up to the check out counter with diapers and a few boxes of lunch snacks and popsicles, do you think the clerk asks “what kind of children” she has? “Um, I don’t know, the two-legged kind.” No, she’s more likely to ask something like . . . How many kids do you have? How old are your kids? What are their names? What do you and your family have planned for the weekend? Do you have kids or are you buying for someone else?
Coincidentally, these are the questions that I always ask when I talk to other people about dogs: Do you have pets at home? How many? Are they young or old? What are their names? Are they big, needy babies like mine? Any fun walks or outings planned for the weekend? Sometimes I ask if they’re big dogs or little dogs or long-haired or short-haired because the answers to those questions often prove to be rather fruitful conversation starters. (Seriously, try to get a word in edgewise between two long-haired dog owners swapping stories about Dyson vacuum cleaners.)
Why do we still care about what “kind” of dog we have? That is, other than the fact that breeders and breed registries like the American Kennel Club keep telling us we should. I think the answer to this question has a lot to do with identity. At the end of the day, our poor little language-driven brains are exhausted, and the only way to make sense of the world is to quickly organize it into categories with labels in order to minimize complexity. After all, this is why Betty Friedan paused in 1963 to consider why she told a census taker she was a housewife instead of a writer. God forbid we find a way to collect data that allows us to be two things at once. It’s no wonder we focus so much on breed when we talk about dogs.
In the book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell recounts a story about a particular failed episode of the show Sesame Street, in which the character of Big Bird decides that he wants a “real name” like Oscar or Snuffy. Even though the episode ended with Big Bird ultimately deciding to keep his “Big Bird” label rather than pursue a new name, the storyline completely bombed with the test group of children viewers. Because the kids couldn’t understand how Big Bird could ever be anything else, other than “Big Bird.” Gladwell explains:
Preschoolers make a number of assumptions about words and their meaning as they acquire language, one of the most important of which is what the psychologist Ellen Markman calls the principle of mutual exclusivity. Simply put, this means that small children have difficulty believing that any one object can have two different names.
He then continues with the following:
A child who learns the word “elephant” knows, with absolute certainty, that it is something different from a dog. Each new word makes the child’s knowledge of the world more precise. Without mutual exclusivity, by contrast, if a child thought that elephant could simply be another label for dog, then each new word would make the world seem more complicated.
So are we trying to make our world more precise by asking what “kind” of dog someone has? Will that information tell us more about the person we’re talking to or the dog they have at home?
Depending on how you view the world, I’d argue that adults struggle just as much with mutual exclusivity as three-year olds do. Like in the “Fun Run” episode in Season 4 of The Office, when Michael Scott convenes an office meeting to find out what everyone’s religious beliefs are and asks the distinctly brown-skinned, turban-clad I.T. Guy the following:
Michael Scott: What about you?
I.T. Guy: Well if you’re going to reduce my identity to my religion, then I’m Sikh. But I also like hiphop and NPR. And I’m restoring a 1967 Corvette in my spare time.
Michael Scott: Okay. So, one Sikh.
Whether we’re talking about racial and ethnic composition, religious beliefs, occupation, marital or parental status, family history, what “kind” of pets we own, or just personal interests and activities, our identities are multifaceted. And yet at every turn we’re doing our best to slap a label on complexity and call it a day: I’m a lawyer. He’s a teacher. I’m a Muslim. She’s an Atheist. I’m a Republican. He’s a Democrat. This is a German Shepherd. That’s a “pit bull.” She’s a mother, therefore she can’t be a writer, an accountant, a dancer, or a beer drinker who enjoys Jazz and ethology all at the same time.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that we find a way to work all that into a resume or fit it on a name tag. I’m just suggesting that we re-evaluate the questions we’re asking that inspire us to think in terms of “I am a _______” in the first place.
Until then, I think I’ll learn to have a little more fun with my answer to that question:
Clerk: What kind of dog do you have?
Me: Oh, I have four dogs. Two black pagans. A friendly foodie skilled in the demolition arts, and a Unitarian Feminist Bedwetter who enjoys hugs and carrots. Oh, and our cat is a secular terrorist. Do you have pets?
Seriously though, what do you think the new default question should be when someone is trying to make small talk with a dog owner?
. . . there is no one-to-one relationship between personality characteristics and breed; personalities can vary within a particular breed based on the experiences of individual dogs. . . . Rachel L., who lives with Piper, reminds us exactly why personality is so important. “I hope people really enjoy their dogs being more than just amicable, and give their dogs more leeway to be multi-dimensional beings. I think they might enjoy their dogs more, and I think it would create more space for the dog and owner to be happy together.”
And from Janis Bradley and the National Canine Research Council: The Relevance of Breed in Selecting a Companion Dog