Judging Books by Covers

Ragdoll cats are known for their sweet, docile personality. Our vet describes our Ragdoll as “spirited”, despite her pedigree. A note for technicians on her file warns to take care, as she “will lunge at face”. She appears sweet and can be cuddly, but when miffed, she packs a punch.

Conversely, our dog, despite claiming lineage from several restricted breeds, has been known as the friendliest dog on the block. There is one hound in our neighborhood that he barks at ferociously. Hackles up and pulling like a freight train, he looks and sounds as if he’s about to eat her for lunch. It’s very stressful for us and the other owners. Once he caught me unaware and literally dragged me across pavement to get to her. I looked up from the ground horrified, expecting to see a blood bath, and confused by the quiet. He was licking her with his tail wagging a mile a minute. We didn’t know what he was when we adopted him at 7 weeks, but now we know he’s 80 pounds of love.

The rescue group said Cooper was a shepherd mix, but his adoption paperwork pronounced him a lab/boxer/hound mix. Two veterinarians thought he looked to have Great Dane in him. We weren’t sure what he was, but we knew it was awesome. He learned sit and down commands immediately. He would fetch through obstacles – including a beagle twice his size – and protect the ball until he could return it to me. He was handsome, sweet, and the most social dog we’d ever met. He loved people and pets equally. When we brought him to puppy day camp for evaluations, we were told he was exceptionally well socialized. He grew cuter each day. Cuter and bigger.

To get more insight for future health choices, our vet recommended a doggy DNA kit. The results were surprising. My super-retriever was, in fact, not a lab. My Dane-y looking pup had no Great Dane, either. He was 37.5% American Staffordshire Terrier, 25% German Shepherd, 12.5% Boxer, 12.5% Chow Chow, and 12.5% mixed breeds. The American Staffordshire Terrier is a “bully breed”, like a pit bull, known to be either a viscious toddler mauler or a great family pet like Spanky’s childhood companion, depending upon which side of the controversy you lean. German Shepherds and Chow Chows are also considered restricted breeds.

I was surprised, but unphased. As a child I heard my dad talk about his childhood bull terrier on rare occasions. You could hear he was choked up on the inside, even into his 40’s when he spoke of this dog, who he said was the best dog ever. She had run into the road to push him out of the way of an oncoming car. He was saved. She was not. I learned that people that train pit bulls to be bloodthirsty killers were a problem. Pits and bull terrier breeds in their entirety were not.

Cooper spent two to three days each week at a wonderful dog day care in his early life. He was well-played and well-loved. Occasionally on a weekend, I’d bring him to a near-by dog park, but sometimes it wasn’t a great experience. On one particularly grueling dog park visit, two aggressive dogs had been seeking Cooper out and nipping, and their owners couldn’t have cared less. Looking for a safer space for him, we drove directly to a nearby PetSmart to find out whether that might be a fit for a few hours of playtime at their Doggy Day Camp.

The woman at the front came around the desk, looked at him for about 3 seconds, and rejected us. She said she definitely saw pit in him, and if a bully breed is dominant, they couldn’t have him playing with other dogs. I looked down at the love bug next to me and couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

For a long time I didn’t return to PetSmart. I was so offended at the idea that a corporate policy would literally reject customers based on the way they looked. It felt too close to the offensive biases that keep people from having equal opportunities, equal access, social justice and social equity, and more. I still don’t like it as a policy.

“Furthermore, for the safety of all animals and associates, we cannot accept dogs of the “bully breed” classification or wolves/wolf hybrids including American Pit Bull Terriers, Miniature Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, American Bull Dogs, Bull Terriers or mixed breeds that have the appearance or characteristics of one of these breeds.”

PetSmart Doggy Day Camp policy, https://services.petsmart.com/content/daycamp-requirements?origin=DDCPage&type=DDCRequirements&desc=LearnMore

I recently came into some information that helped me understand what may have shaped that PetSmart’s poor policy. “Restricted Breeds” are a term used to describe breeds of dogs (or mixes with quantities of a particular breed) that are considered high risk in terms of liability. In fact, if you own a dog with a fair amount of restricted breeds, your homeowner’s and umbrella policies probably don’t cover you in any way for events involving these dogs. The same holds true for dogs who have a bite history.

Policies that do cover liability related to these dogs generally appear to be offered as standalone policies, or reinsurance offerings that are tough to access, expensive to maintain, and fraught with potential fraud. Coverage options do exist, as some states require proof of coverage, for example, in order to avoid euthanizing your pet after a bite incident. But there are stories of insurance representatives taking policy funds and not actually insuring the dogs or paying out when an incident does occur. Yet according to one insurer’s site, the average claim for a dog bite is around $30k, so going without the coverage is a risk for anyone.

I could understand that, from a business perspective, it would be desirable to limit exposures involving restricted breeds. Still, I don’t respect PetSmart’s “looks like” method, where an employee could simply look at my dog and determine whether they are restricted. I have been at reputable, successful dog daycares that have different but effective methods for determining whether a dog could play safely, or potentially getting them there if they’re not. Here are some examples of alternative vetting options:

  • Introductions to your dog with staff, then with other dogs of different sizes and temperaments to ensure they are able to play safely with others and are a good candidate for interactive play. Not all dogs are good candidates. In that case, a rejection is fair and appropriate.
  • Employing and appropriately staffing play spaces with dedicated and knowledgeable staff who monitor dog activity and know how to spot potential issues and react.
  • Requesting proof of breed makeup from the owner, such as dog DNA results.
  • Offering a series of training sessions for your dog prior to becoming a candidate for playing with others; this makes them more comfortable and confident, and social play can be introduced gradually. While more expensive, this is an option for some.

Why do I feel so sure that the “looks like” method should be ditched? Well, I recently worked on getting insurance coverage for my restricted breed dog for my own sanity. For each potential insurer, I had to answer reasonable questions about my dog, as expected. Oddly, no one in the insurance industry has asked me to send a picture of my dog so they could make a premium assessment just by judging the book by the cover. Go figure.

Note: The featured photo of me and Cooper is by Matt Mendelsohn. It was taken outside, and no – there were no fans blowing! Matt is just magical at capturing moments. You can read more about him and see examples of his amazing work at his site, https://www.mattmendelsohn.com.

3 thoughts on “Judging Books by Covers

  1. I believe it was the last chapter in Malcolm Gladwell’s “What the Dog Saw” that provided some interesting information and perspective on ‘dangerous’ dog breeds. Cooper is so handsome and absolutely looks like love!

    Liked by 1 person

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