“Why do you want me dead? What did I ever do to you?” , or, A Personal Experience Based Guide to the Fallacious Appeal to Nature

I admit I don’t always have the greatest amount of patience when it comes to encountering the appeal to nature. A great deal has been written concerning this most common of human logical errors. In case you’re not familiar with the term, the appeal to nature is the generalised assumption that something that is natural (term poorly defined) is always going to be better (term poorly defined – better for physical health? For mental health? For long-term job security? For basic rhythm? For syncopated rhythm and a 3/4 time signature?) than something that is unnatural (term poorly defined).

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not just a scientist – I’m a marine biologist. I have a deep love for the natural world. I love bushwalking. I love watching David Attenborough documentaries. I am a fan of the carefully-researched-for-appropriate-ethical-practices eco-tourism par excellence. I am quite happy to spend several hours underwater with a tank of air (although for reasons of not wanting to die, I’ll have to take a few breaks throughout that period). I am sometimes slack on my slacktivism, but I do care, and nature is important.

I just don’t happen to think that that nature is there to help me personally. As glorious as nature is, it’s glorious in a terribly chaotic and amoral way; or, to put it another way:

Study evolution for five minutes and you quickly realise that Nature Is A Douche.

And as a consequence of this, the “appeal to nature” is pretty easy to knock over.

When the home birthing crowd start crowing about how medical intervention in childbirth is unnecessary because women have been doing it for millennia, just point out maternal and neonatal mortality rates over recorded history, i.e., say, “Yes! We’ve been doing it for millennia. We’ve also been dying the whole freaking time.

When people start blathering about chemicals as ingredients in food, it’s a quick moment only to point out that water is a chemical. As is oxygen. And sugar. And, alright, every molecular structure ever. This is how we define chemicals: “a distinct compound or substance.” Then people say, “I mean unnatural chemicals. That didn’t come from nature.” And then you have to point out that all chemicals ultimately came from this poorly defined concept of nature. Even if the end product was synthesised under laboratory conditions, the ingredients were no doubt extracted and refined from natural resources. Or perhaps the ingredients were synthesised from other ingredients extracted and refined from natural resources… and then we quickly run into definitional problems. Yes, to a certain extent, that’s a naive argument from the other end as well – but we really need to address why some additives could be a problem without saying “They’re unnatural!” because that misses the point entirely.

But that’s all fine. Really. It’s when we start to get into the anti-vaccine, anti-medications-especially-antibiotics crowd that I start to take the whole thing very personally indeed.

And I start to ask, why do you want me dead?

When I was about eighteen months old, my mother noticed that I was having difficulty breathing. I don’t have any more details about how the rest of that day went because she flatly refuses to talk about it. My mother loves drama, so this is very telling. My father gets very grim as well, and my father doesn’t generally do grim, as a concept. He runs the emotional gamut from jolly to furious, but grim is not in his repertoire. The memory of that day still apparently scares them both shitless.

This is because I nearly died.

Here’s how: we have a little flap of flesh in our throats that stops us from inhaling our food. It divides your oesophagus (stomach tube) from your trachea (breathing tube) and is called the epiglottis. When functioning correctly, it’s a nifty little structure. Mine was swelling up and blocking my throat, essentially choking me, and it wasn’t just doing this for shits and giggles. In 95% of cases, this response (epiglottitis) is caused by a bacterial disease called Haemophilus influenzae B. Surgical medical intervention was required to stop me from essentially choking on my own throat.

This particular disease has a high mortality rate in children. If epiglottitis is not caught in time, it is generally lethal. Then a vaccine was developed, and in 1993, it became part of the regular schedule of vaccines for infants in Australia. Then – and this may shock you – children stopped dying from it. There was a 95% reduction in reported infections, meaning that less children died from epiglottitis and other resulting complications like meningitis and pneumonia.

I know. Colour me stunned. If there had been a vaccine when I was a baby, I wouldn’t have nearly died. And if I hadn’t had surgical medical intervention as a choking infant, I would have died. Guaranteed. To paraphrase Dr House, “Oxygen is so important to a developing brain, don’t you think?”

So when people talk about how bad and evil and poisonous vaccines are, I want to ask them if they prefer that doctors have to cut into the throat of an 18 month old infant to save their life, or, if they’re really not a fan of that level of medical intervention, if they wouldn’t perhaps prefer the aforementioned infant to choke to fucking death.

And then I want to say, “So that infant was me. Why do you want me dead?”

Not long after that, I developed juvenile asthma – I never actually suffered a wheezing attack and was always able to get the minimal air in, but my asthma attacks presented as severe coughing fits and often led the way to secondary lung infections. Bronchitis episodes were scattered regularly throughout my childhood, and were best treated with antibiotics. Without these, I would quite likely have ended up with scarring in my lungs. There’s a lot that I wouldn’t have been able to do, not the least of which is SCUBA diving.

And it’s even possible that, again, I would be dead.

When I was fifteen, I began to present symptoms of a very unpleasant condition called hidradenitis suppurativa. It’s a pretty unattractive thing, so don’t click the link unless you have a really strong tolerance for pus. It’s a poorly understood autoimmune condition with a genetic component, and I have perhaps the mildest possible presentation of it.

This means I am only hospitalised for it – on average – once every two years. And I probably need medical treatment for it in a GP clinic about – rough guesstimate – once a year. Regardless of whether I end up being surgically treated or whether we can avoid this with the application of copious amounts of broad-spectrum antibiotics supplied in pills the size of which would send your average donkey wandering off for a large glass of water, intervention of some sort is ultimately required.

It’s not a lethal condition. Really, it isn’t. It can be excruciatingly painful, really exhausting (a massive infection site puts a drain on the immune system), extremely gross, and quite embarrassing to deal with, but it won’t kill you… not now, anyway.

However, the main symptom is abscess formation. If an abscess is untreated, then it could burst outwardly and leak infected pus everywhere – which is painful and gross, but manageable – or it could break internally and then you end up with septicaemia, a.k.a. sepsis, i.e. blood poisoning, and you die in considerable pain.

Wow. Guess we hate those evil antibiotics. Guess those bastards are just sooooo bad to have because they’re unnatural. Guess I should have just taken some fucking echinacea.

And died of sepsis.

Here’s another one! A few years ago, I managed to slip on a wet floor, go flying through the air, and land spectacularly on my back. It was hilarious and sore and a bit embarrassing, but I wasn’t worried until the next afternoon when I started peeing blood and passing out.

Lo and behold, someone (who may have been me) thumped their kidney, busted something, and ended up with a kidney infection. I spent the night in hospital on intravenous antibiotics and heavy painkillers, vowing never again to run across a wet kitchen floor, no matter how much I might want to get the shampoo from the shopping bag and then get back in the shower.

But a kidney infection without antibiotics? Why, it’s your old pal sepsis again!

I honestly could not tell you how many times I’ve been on antibiotics for a condition that might otherwise have killed me, but it’s at least fifteen.

I don’t have a genetic predisposition to any of these things other than the HS. They were just bad freaking luck. They couldn’t be prevented with echinacea, St Johns wort, or a few more gallons of breastmilk. This is real shit that happens, and before we had the antibiotics and other various medications, we died from these things. We died in large numbers, and we died in pain.

People who subscribe to these appeals to nature and natural treatment seem to believe that none of these bad things could ever happen to them, because they’re just so very healthy. These diseases don’t happen to them, or anyone down the street. No-one gets sick. No-one needs antibiotics or vaccines, according to them, because they’re so healthy.

I assure you, measles can cause encephalitis in very healthy people, and then they are not healthy anymore. There’s a cause and effect problem here: you are healthy because you lack disease. You don’t lack disease because you’re so healthy. It’s the wrong way around. It’s true that there are some less robust pathogens that are opportunistic and will only really get on board if you’re immunocompromised or a little bit run down, but we don’t vaccinate against those. Measles, pertussis (whooping cough), chicken pox – these are not those diseases. Those can and will kill formerly healthy adults, children and babies, no matter how much breastmilk was provided in childhood.

I’m here now because of these unnatural interventions. I’m here, and I’m relatively healthy. I like to go to gym five or six days a week. I do weights. I run (admittedly not well). I swim. I SCUBA dive. I’m an active person in spite of all those things I’ve been through, and it’s due solely to the wide availability of basic medical care.

Nature is a beautiful, amoral killing machine. It is not better for us. It’s been trying to kill us for a very long time, and we’ve been simultaneously trying to thwart it. So when I run into someone who doesn’t believe in vaccinations or antibiotics, I take it personally. I want to know what I ever did to them, and why they want me dead.

And if they don’t want me dead, and they don’t want other people who get sick to die, maybe a little more thought is in order.

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You are not stupid. Please stop saying that you are.

A personal tale of stereotype threat

One of our collection managers was showing me how to use the digital camera. We’re not talking a point-and-click here; this was some sort of Nikon, with a herd, maybe even a plethora, of lenses; this was shades and remote flashes set up in the photography room for the purpose of documenting specimens.

I’d been shown how to use the setup a few years previously, but since I hadn’t used it in the intervening time, my memory of the appropriate settings and icons had faded somewhat, and I’d asked Dave to take me through the basics again. He kindly found time to do so.

I felt guilty, since the collection managers are always busy, and I dislike interrupting people, especially very busy people. So I babbled. Like an idiot.

“Sorry about this,” I babbled, “I’m just really stupid with cameras.”

Dave just smiled and shook his head, and after he’d left the room I stared at my tray of specimens and I had a moment. A capitalised Moment. A goddamn epiphany.

What. The. Fuck. Kate. I snapped at myself. What the fuck did you just say?

I did a media production subject in undergrad. I’ve developed black and white film. Silver nitrate and I have hung out like buddies, if one of those buddies can permanently stain the skin of the other. I didn’t pursue media production (although it did play an indirect role in me switching from Creative Arts to Science, but that’s another story). I didn’t reveal a heretofore unknown talent for the captured image like a beautiful photographer butterfly emerging from a wannabe novelist coccoon.

But I know how a camera works. I’m not stupid with cameras. Apertures, exposure time, depth of field – all those concepts make perfect sense to me. It’s just that I don’t remember what the icons on the dial represent relative to the kind of photos I would like to take, and that’s an issue of memory, not an issue of stupidity.

In fact, even if I hadn’t previously been taught about those concepts, that would be a case of ignorance, not stupidity.

This wasn’t the first time I’d had such a moment, but it was the first time I’d really, really noticed myself doing it.

I’ve noticed other women doing it.

I did my PhD in a university lab that, during my time there, was comprised entirely of women. Apart from some teething issues with a bullying R.A., it was a great work environment, and I still consider them close friends and some of the best people I have ever worked with.

Let us be clear. These are all highly intelligent women. They were all doing PhDs in science. They were all capable in a laboratory environment.

There was so much apology, so much self-deprecation in regards to their abilities, that it was no wonder a bully found fertile ground to play with it all in those early days.

I’m finding it a little hard to write about real people without making generalisations and naming names, so understand that the following stories are broad strokes.

I used to think I was dreadfully stupid at chemistry. I managed to scrape an H1 in the last required chemistry subject for my degree, so clearly this wasn’t a logical position. It took four months of work as an analytical chemist at CSL Pharmaceuticals (I was temping between finishing my Honours project and starting my PhD) to realise that the chemistry I was doing was just some basic maths and measurements, and once I realised that, suddenly it got easy. Chemistry is – or can be – an extremely complex discipline, but I wasn’t doing it at that level. My first year undergrad was actually sufficient to get by for the tests I was running.

This meant that by the time I started my PhD, making basic stock solutions held no fear for me. It took the uncertainty in the eyes of a colleague to remind me that, prior to working at CSL, I would have been really nervous even about putting together TE buffer (dead easy to make), let alone the phenol-chloroform-isoamyl mix (even easier to make, technically speaking, but with a significantly higher chance of burning and fuming and generally doing oneself harm).

It was really common for my colleagues to constantly put themselves down and second guess what they were doing – but they knew how to do these things. They never actually screwed it up. It’s one thing to get confused about picomoles vs nanomoles (10,000 pmol is the same as 10 nmol, but given the price of the fluorescently labelled primers and how rarely I use units with “pico” and “nano” in front of them, I do double-check), when tired after a couple of twelve hour work days. It’s another thing to panic and decide that you can’t deal with it, when demonstrably you can.

Since the branch of genetics that I work in is heavier on analysis than it is on lab work, we would spend some time over coffee musing over analytical options and approaches. There was often a chorus of, “I have no idea about some of that stuff,” and for the first year or so I was just as guilty as everyone else. And yet, a few sips into the first cappucino, we’d be tossing alternative approaches and limitations back and forth like pros. Which we were. Pros. And then I got some confidence. I looked around me, and realised that I actually seemed to know what I was talking about a good portion of the time, and I stopped apologising. I was willing to be corrected on analytical questions, but I stopped apologising for not knowing everything, and I stopped acting as though I knew less than I did.

I bought a textbook at a conference a few years ago: Wakeley’s Coalescent Theory. I understand the basics of coalescence, but I wanted to really get my head around the nuances of it. I got through about a chapter and a half and gave up, since one summary integration formula followed by pages of “As you can see from this summary formula” made me feel stupid and miserable.

It wasn’t until last year that an expert in this field mentioned the book, and said that, as an introduction for biologists, it wasn’t one, and really it was something to read through after you’d gone through this other book. I just didn’t have the background skills to get through Wakeley, and since the blurb raved about what a wonderful introduction it was to the subject, I decided I must be stupid.

Why is that the first option? Why isn’t the first option that perhaps you lack the background knowledge – or even that you have the background knowledge, and you actually know what you’re doing, but that society has told you for so long that women don’t do maths and chemistry, and the moment you hit a wall, your determination falters for a moment, because what if you really are trying to fit the round peg in a square hole, what if you really shouldn’t be doing this?

And even if you know better – you know that there’s really no gender in how this is done, and honestly, you get furious at feeling this way, because you know what you know, but the minute there’s someone in the room who might stereotype you, you start to falter and panic – because you’ve heard how some men talk about the women they work with, and you know how easy it is for you to end up in a box for one slip-up, one mistake, one faulty assertion – and you panic, and now you’re more likely to make those mistakes.

It’s called stereotype threat.

I am demonstrably not stupid. I actually have a pile of evidence, on hand, that I can supply to prove my lack of stupidity. I have no idea how intelligent other people will be, and I can’t make any assumptions as to where I fit relatively speaking when I meet someone (and it’s best not to do that sort of thing anyway), but having that evidence there reminds me that I am actually not stupid.

None of the women that I worked with were stupid. Most of them, at some point, said that they were. I ranted about the issue one time over coffee with one friend. She went quiet and thoughtful. The next time I saw her, she said, “I’ve been paying attention. I do that all the time.”

Do what?

Apologise. Tell yourself you’re stupid. Tell yourself you don’t understand those things anyway. Because it’s perhaps easier to lower all expectations – within a conversation, or within yourself – than to try, and have some trouble, and then feel like everyone who told you that you couldn’t do science because you were a girl was right.

And it’s not just the scientists that I’ve worked with in the lab. It’s the older women, family and friends of the family, that I know, who back away and say, “You’re so smart. I could never understand all that stuff.”

Yes. Yes, you could. Stop selling yourself short. You are more than this.

But how do you fight a message that someone’s been getting their whole lives? You can’t. You just have to wait, and watch until they challenge themselves. Watch that delight as they realise, in some shock, that they are actually not stupid. Sure, it would have been nice to realise that forty years ago, but better late than never.

 

 

Red Rottweilers and “Unethical” Breeders

I am genuinely torn on the issue of dog breeders. On the one hand, I love dogs, and I have a fondness for particular dog breeds, and it’s the responsibility of breeders to produce more of those dogs so people like me can take a puppy home to treasure and train. Many breeders are lovely, responsible people even if they don’t know enough about population genetics to prevent inbreeding. While some breeders may view their studs as assembly lines, many do genuinely love their charges and take care to properly house and socialise their dogs and puppies.

I’ve put that disclaimer there. There it is. See that disclaimer? If you’re a dog breeder who loves your dogs, takes good care of their health and their need for companionship, and values the health of your dogs over their appearance, then you need not take the following rant personally in any way.

You might do so anyway, but as far as I’m concerned, I’ve covered my arse.

The adorable 9-month old rescue Rottweiler girl that we just adopted (blog post and pictures to follow) has slightly longer hair than Amos does, and it reminded me that there are long-haired Rottweilers in the world. Curious, I did a little research. It turns out that the long hair is a rare, recessive gene; it is not linked to any health issues.

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How cute is this guy? Photo from Molosserdogs.com

It is considered a “fault”. In show-breeding, that means the breed does not meet the standard. You really can’t show that dog, and most breeders will insist that if you take a long-haired rottie pup, you desex that dog when it comes of age so that it does not breed.

Let’s recap, because these concepts will return:

(a) long hair is part of the natural variation in the breed, i.e. it is not caused by outbreeding.

(b) long hair is not linked with poor health on the part of the animal.

(c)  For a recessive trait (like long hair) to express, you need two copies of the relevant allele, meaning one from each parent.

While apologists may argue that long hair is not necessarily very practical in a “working dog”, this can easily be rebutted by pointing out the numerous working dog breeds with long hair (oh, so many: border collies, long-haired german shepherds, mountain dogs, Old English sheepdogs…) and the fact that show dogs don’t tend to do a lot of work requiring a neat army buzz cut.

The production of long-haired rottweiler puppies means that both the parents have one copy of the long-haired allele. The breeder might decide not to repeat that cross, but they’re generally going to keep breeding those specific dogs to other dogs. This means that the carriers are still going to pass on that long-haired allele (50% chance per pup per parent with the allele).

This in turn means that not breeding the long-haired rotties does absolutely nothing to reduce the frequency of the allele in the population; it simply fails to increase it. As an attempt to remove genetic diversity from the population, it is both misguided and astonishingly ineffective. Even if it were effective, you would not only be removing that cosmetic change, but all the other genetic diversity linked to it, and purebred dogs can’t afford to lose any genetic diversity that doesn’t have a health cost.

So at this point I’m wondering why anyone – anyone – gives a crap if a rottie has long hair. They can still have the physique preferred for the dog. They’re still intelligent and loyal and strong. They still look like a rottie. Most importantly, they are healthy. It might be a bit tricker to comb for ticks and remove burrs, but otherwise, I’m drawing a blank. Maybe it makes it harder for judges to give points to a dog if there’s too much variation in the breed and they have to pick one variant over another.

I’m starting to take issue with the word “fault”.

The long-haired issue, however, is dwarfed by the issue of “red Rottweilers.”

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Another gorgeous one. Photo from the Rested Dog Inn at http://www.resteddoginn.ca/redrescue.php

These guys are fricking gorgeous, and they are, if anyone is curious, purebred rotties. Coat colour is a very complex polygenic trait. “Black with tan points”, the colour pattern one finds in rottweilers, is in itself the product of homozygous recessive genes that are fixed in the rottweiler population. All rotties have two copies of that allele.

In order to produce the “red” rottie (although I’d argue that’s more of a brown or liver colour), another gene needs to be altered. Once again, the alteration resulting in this colour is recessive and, much like the alleles for long hair, it’s quite rare in the population.

Again, the red coat is considered a fault. I curiously read more on this and came upon a rabid drool-flecked mouth-foaming rant on the subject by someone associated with the American Rottweiler Club, who used the phrase “corrupt the purity of our breed.”

They also stated that a breeder who sells a “red rottie” is to be considered “unethical,” because that dog can’t be shown and that such dogs should never, ever be bred. Furthermore, they said it was a sign of inbreeding.

Well… sort of. That’s hard to argue if you don’t know the incidence of the gene in the population. The best way to see if your dog is inbred as hell (other than assuming that purebreds are always inbred as hell, which is true to a point) is to look at the pedigree. If you can, go back more than the standard three to five generations. The only differences between a red or long-haired coat and a congenital internal recessive defect are that you can see the cosmetic changes and they’re not unhealthy. It is true that if you tried to breed for long hair or recessive coat colour, you would eventually create a highly inbred line. As the occasional result of a mating, it’s not a problem.

Then they tried to argue that this coat pigmentation is linked to problems in cardiac, eye and skin health.

“Gosh,” I thought to myself, “that sounds dire.”

Given that I still possess access to the university library, I signed onto Web of Science to do a little bit of a literature search for any studies showing a link between this particular pigmentation and any health problems.

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Curious.

Nothing.

Problems with white pigmentation have been heavily documented and researched elsewhere. A dog being brown instead of black… not so much. I tried every variation of keywords I could think of, and still…

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Zip. Nada. Nothing.

“Hrm,” I thought to myself, “that coat colouring looks familiar.”

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(Red and tan kelpie! photo from Noonbarra, kelpie breeders)

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A photo from a nice website on coat colour genetics in this breed. http://daminidachshunds.weebly.com/dachshund-color-genetics.html

“I wonder if it’s linked to health problems in those breeds? It’s clearly considered not a fault in those.”

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(look, I was getting tired of orthopteran insects, but the principle remains)

Now, in the interests of genetic honesty, it is possible that a particular condition might be linked to a health problem in one breed and not another, given how rapidly genes become fixed in these very small populations. It is possible.

But it’s not damn likely.

That makes it recap time!

(a) The red coat is part of the natural variation in the breed, i.e. it is not caused by outbreeding.

(b) The red hair is not linked with poor health on the part of the animal, and any attempts to state otherwise are clearly apologetics based on zero goddamn evidence and very likely confirmation bias (cf. confirmation bias: “This particular red rottweiler has a skin condition! I knew they were unhealthy!”).

(c)  For a recessive trait (like the red coat) to express, you need two copies of the relevant allele, meaning one from each parent.

The closest possibility is that the red coat appears to be strongly associated with lighter-coloured eyes, which are a bit more sensitive to sunlight. I have blue eyes. I relate. It’s really not something that affects my life in any major way.

In the cases of long hair and red coat, which are purely cosmetic differences as far as the dog is concerned and do not affect the strength, health, or conformation* of the animal, it is not possible to remove that diversity from the population without a genetic test to see if a parent dog carries the gene (except to, perhaps, make a note of it when these bundles of joy do turn up).

Labelling a breeder “unethical” for selling a perfectly healthy fucking dog?

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Trying to remove an allele from the population without having the faintest idea how to do it?

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Referring to the presence of a slightly different coat colour as a corruption as though it was best cast into the fires of Mount Doom? (“One phenotype to rule them all…”)

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This does not make sense. Breed standards exist for a reason, but they have gone well beyond that at this stage. I think it’s exceptionally telling that kelpie breeders in the U.S. refuse to allow their breed to be registered because they are concerned that their breed will be destroyed by show breeding. That is an entirely fair concern. I think it’s telling that the U.K. German Shepherd breed standards have been altered to consider that horrific sloping back a fault rather than a desirable trait.

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You have got to be fucking kidding me.

 

 

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See? That looks sensible. Photo taken from http://thegermanshepherddogbreed.blogspot.com.au/

Apparently it’s controversial.

Emphasising the health of the animal should never be controversial.

People who are selling red rotties and long-haired rotties as “rare rotties” might be accused of taking advantage of a genetic quirk and promoting aesthetics over temperament (although it’s a bit late to worry about that latter point), but they are hardly unethical. The only way it could be unethical would be if the breeder did not tell the buyer that the dog can’t be shown. Since I tend to consider dog shows somewhat in the light of obsessive public masturbation, this wouldn’t bother me (yes, yes, that’s just my opinion).

So if you see a long-haired or red rottie pup for sale and you melt into a pile of dog-adoring goo, be dissauded perhaps by the enormous responsibility of owning a large dog, or a dog at all; by the huge amount of work they are; by the possible vet bills you may be signing up for; but don’t, even for a second, be dissuaded by the mouth-breathing rants of breed purists.

*(don’t get me started on conformation; it’s like the word “holistic” – it has an actual, useful meaning, but mostly people who use it don’t mean it that way at all)

—-
P.S. When we got Amos as a puppy, I used to spend some time reading and researching things on a rottie enthusiast forum in a search for behavioural tips, until we found our current trainers. I’ve since stopped reading this forum because I am so tired of people talking about “For the BREED!” without actually meaning anything when they say this.