As a dog behaviourist, I obviously deal with a lot of different dog behaviour problems across a large selection of different breeds. The first question I ask is “What is the breed?” Quite often, people seem taken aback. Oftentimes, people have already seen another dog behaviourist who told them that breed, and history didn’t matter because “dogs live in the moment” (they don’t, by the way). So, why do I want to know the breed?
There is no doubt that our domesticated dog originally descended from wolf species. Since being domesticated, humans have had a profound effect on dogs as we have selectively bred them for different traits to meet our needs. Dogs are now about as genetically close to the wolf of humans are to the ape.
The Kennel Club has 7 different categories:
These groups represent, to a large degree, behavioural traits. Behavioural traits affect the way dogs behave because these behaviours are genetically coded into them. Therefore, breeds within these groups will have a tendency towards certain behaviours:
Pastoral – moving livestock
Toy – bred as small companion dogs
Working – guarding, search and rescue
Terrier – tenacity, rodent killing
Utility – multi taskers, a little bit of this and a little bit of that not included in other categories
Hound – scenters and hunters
Gundog – working closely with humans, hunting, pointing, retrieving
Before choosing your breed, you MUST research their ancestry (what they were bred for). Humans tend to be driven towards what dogs look like; this is only natural. But we need to consider more carefully.
We also tend towards cognitive bias. This bias makes us listen more to what we WANT to hear rather than what we might NEED to hear. Go on, be honest - I know this is true of myself, so we have to try hard to be rational in making decisions that are going to be life changing for us and the dog we acquire.
Take the dalmatian for example. A beautiful breed. Dog owners have been drawn towards them because they are seen as cute and intelligent puppies and dogs on the film 101 Dalmatians. They are often seen as a dog that goes well with children. Yet, if you delve back into the breed, the history says differently.
Dalmatians were originally a hunting dog, and at one time were in the gundog group. However, in the 17th century, they were used to run alongside carriages and guard the contents. They performed this role without human direction. They would run for tens of miles keeping pace with the horses, so have amazing endurance.
How could this influence the traits and temperament of this breed? What we often see with this breed is huge endurance, a need for a great deal of exercise, independence (less so for liver spotted ones though) and a capacity for guarding. In fact, these traits are part of the breed standard and define conformation of the breed, such as gait. These attributes do not always make for a good family dog. Don’t get me wrong, not all are like this as the sensible companion dog breeder selects against these traits. But I still do see a lot of guarding in the Dalmatian breed as it is deeply rooted through history.
Think about the working guarders. These dogs as puppies will tend to sit and watch everything around them, rather than concentrate on their owner. The reason for this is that guarding breeds are selected for being fearful and watchful but with a bold disposition. Watchful to look for threats and take action to repeal the threat. They also need to be independent. Most people try to move them on and try to get their attention and this leads to frustration both sides. When we really just need to work very carefully to ensure the puppy can assess things, register them as safe, and move on. It’s very important to ensure careful socialisation of these breeds. With varied social exposure with the puppy feeling safe, these dogs are less likely to guard as they mature. BUT, remember, they are bred for guarding, so guard they will at some point if they are frightened enough and have a bold disposition.
The sensible breeder will select against the bold traits. But the bold traits are likely to affect the way the dog looks. For example, they are likely to have floppier ears, and even colour can be affected (read up about the silver fox experiments - Balayaev, 1959). So, dogs that are bred to meet show standards may not be able to breed for a soft temperament as this would affect conformation and they wouldn’t win shows.
ALL dogs can and should be trained using positive and kind methods of training. We know this because there is now about 40 years worth of research showing us this; however, these breeds are seen as strong and are very often subjected to rather forceful methods of training to compel them to comply. These methods INCREASE fear for the dog and make aggression MORE likely. Even those whose aggressive responses have been suppressed by using force (prong collar, shock collar, pinning, hanging on cheese wire type collars etc) are likely to spontaneously recover, unless that force is maintained forever, and show spectacular aggression at some point in the future. These dogs are ticking time bombs.
Hunting breeds have a tendency to run off and hunt for things whilst retrieving breeds pick up everything. Pastoral breeds tend to chase everything. It goes on. Dogs do what they were bred for. These behaviours are often annoying for the human, but are genetically coded into the dog.
Many of the behaviour problems people see me about, are not behaviour problems for the dog, because these behaviours are wired into them genetically. Such cases often respond very well to putting the behaviours on cue (such as fetching the remote control, chasing the ball not the car, find the hiding child, toy, treat etc), but guarding is not culturally permissible. Guarding breeds are more problematic and , in some cases, are not suitable for domestic home. Choose your breeder with great care and only have a home reared one, not kennel bred. This way they can learn that humans and being touched is safe, because they will experience this from birth, not 8 weeks old when they go to their new homes when their sensitive socialisation window has already closed (yes, this varies by breed).
So, before you choose your puppy, decide what behaviours will not be acceptable to you. If you really do not want a dog picking up the children’s’ toys and taking things off surfaces, you may need to think carefully about choosing any of the gun dog breeds. Or decide how you will channel this natural behaviour. Whilst you do not need to work your dog to the gun, you can replicate these natural behaviours to work for you both.
Breed traits do not necessarily mean you cannot have a dog of a certain breed, it just means that you need to plan carefully how you will manage these behaviours whilst ensuring your dog’s welfare. If in doubt, consult a professional and ask for guidance. A short consultation before purchasing a dog should help form your thoughts and help you to ensure you will be able to enjoy living with the dog breed of your choice.