It’s said that the surest way to insult someone is to slight or insult their dog. This is certainly the case with hunting dogs, whose owners tend easily toward “parental pride,” and often overlook faults in a dog’s performance or behavior.
More subjective—and superficial—are criticisms of a dog’s appearance. For example, long bodies and short legs are not favored in most hunting dog breeds. In some breeds deep muzzles are preferred over pointed ones, the latter sometimes called being “snipey” in a weakly-concealed jab.
But who would have expected the Transportation Security Administration (TSA)—the federal agency that handles baggage and passenger security at our nation’s major airports—to be guilty of being judgmental about a dog’s appearance? This came to light earlier this year, but—late to the party as I often am—I learned about it only recently.
I was filling my car’s gas tank at one of those modern pumps that plays video clips while you wait for the automatic shutoff to be triggered; or to overflow, if it isn’t. The clips you see while you wait are typically a combination of new or “trending” topics, pitches for a super-sized beverage inside or perhaps a tire store just down the street.
One of these news clips described TSA gravitating toward using more sniffer dogs with floppy ears—like Labrador and golden retrievers, and German shorthairs—and fewer dogs of breeds with pointy ears—like German shepherds. And among TSA dogs that interact most with people—versus those sniffing your suitcase or other packages for contraband—the percentage having floppy ears is higher still. For the record, TSA employs more than 1200 of these dogs, from seven breeds.
Why this transition? TSA thinks there is a traveler perception--right or wrong—that floppy-eared dogs are friendlier, calmer and less likely to be aggressive. TSA officials, interviewed in such publications as the New York Times and Washington Post, think this perception of friendliness is even more the case with children. One official stated flatly that a floppy-eared pooch is less likely to scare them. (Of course, this news validated my own judgment, since seven years ago this September we added a chocolate Labrador to our empty nest after a dog-less hiatus of several years.)
On the other side of the fence, those pointy-eared breeds like the German shepherd may be getting a bad rap. A co-worker of mine has a two-year-old toddler and a gentle German Shepherd that tolerates the kind of exploratory pulling and poking—even “horseback” riding—that seems almost innate among very young children when they’re around dogs. Their shepherd is a model of gentleness.
But image is a powerful thing, and German shepherds have an image that has been shaped in no small part by their physical resemblance to wolves, and the Little Red Riding Hood baggage nearly all of us carry from childhood. The German shepherd was once known as the Alsatian wolf dog, Alsace being a territory on the border between France and Germany. But most domestic dogs—not just the German shepherd—are descended from the gray wolf. In fact, other breeds—like the Alaskan malamute and Siberian husky—are considered genetically closer to wolves than are German shepherds.
The pointy-eared German shepherd was developed as a working dog. As the name implies, that work was herding sheep, where imposing looks and protectiveness—including protection from wild predators, like real wolves—would be virtues. In addition, intelligence, trainability and loyalty are considered among the breed’s strongest points.
Beyond Little Red Riding Hood—and the German shepherd’s resemblance to the wolf that stars in it—our expectations of the breed are also shaped by the contemporary roles we’ve seen the breed play. Used by police to apprehend dangerous criminals, by the army and—infamously—by concentration and prison camp guards, we’ve seen the qualities of aggression that the right training could probably bring out in many breeds. The problem is, the public has seen this most with German shepherds.
Despite TSA’s belief that airport travelers will find floppy-eared dogs less intimidating or scary, all security dogs are supposed to be all-business, and are neither to be approached nor petted. They actually wear vests with the words “Do Not Pet” emblazoned on them.
It’s worth noting that TSA officials admit their transition to recruiting more dogs with floppy ears and fewer with pointy ears has less to do with proven canine behavior than with public relations—giving customers what TSA thinks they want: a familiar, friendly pooch that does not make them anxious, during what can be an anxiety-producing process. But advocates for pointy-eared dogs like German shepherds think this is canine racism.
TSA seems to be letting the tail wag the dog, as it were.