The group of dog trainers was gathered for dinner at a Japanese restaurant in Manhattan when someone suggested they play a canine version of Jeopardy!: Describe a certain dog breed by how it acts in obedience class, and see how many of the canine professionals at the table can identify it.
“Circles a lot and tends to compulsively bark,” offered one diner as her California roll arrived.
“What is a Westie?” shouted her chop-stick-wielding peers in unison.
True, such descriptions are generalizations, but like most stereotypes, they have more than a toehold in reality. It would be silly to say theres no truth to them because we’ve bred these dogs to do specific jobs, says dog trainer Andrea Arden of New York City, owner of a West Highland White Terrier mix.
Bred to Work
Long before humans valued dogs as simply companions, they were our four-legged co-workers. Order-obsessed herding dogs kept livestock from straying; wary guarding breeds eyed the suspicious stranger; and spunky terriers, such as the Westie, followed vermin underground, barking profusely all the while.
“Many of the traits that make dogs useful — such as herding, pointing, digging and running — are indeed hard-wired,” says Susan Crockford, a professor of anthropology at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. In other words, it wasn’t enough to nurture the pointing reflex in a pointer or the protective instinct in a mastiff: Early breeders bred very selectively to isolate and reinforce those traits so they would be passed to subsequent generations.
So, even though today many breeds have retired from their original roles, those ancient instincts still surface with regularity.
Owners complain about Australian Shepherds that herd cocktail-party guests by patrolling the perimeter of the living room, or Greyhounds that chase a piece of paper blowing in the wind, or Golden Retrievers that incessantly retrieve and deposit tennis balls at their owners’ feet. These programmed behaviors are as much the essence of a breed as the spots on a Dalmatian or the mahogany coat of an Irish Setter — and just as non-negotiable.
“The instinctive tendencies that reflect a breeds original purpose are an integral part of a dogs character, and need to be carefully considered by prospective new owners,” warns Claudia Orlandi, a long-time breeder of Basset Hounds. “For people who think they can break their new dog of these tendencies, the result may be tragic.”
Consider the Basset Hound, developed as a canine bulldozer that charged through underbrush in pursuit of rabbits and other game. Bred to follow a scent without heeding his handler, a Basset on the trail will ignore anything — even an oncoming car. His nose simply takes precedence over everything else, Orlandi explains.
Dogs Are Individuals
There is a danger, however, in investing too deeply in the gravitational pull of genetics. “I hear owners say, ‘Well, all Airedales are stubborn,’ so they don’t even try to train their dogs,” Arden says. It does a great disservice to the dog, and ensures that breed stereotypes become self-fulfilling prophecies.
A more constructive approach, Arden says, is to work with a breed’s instinctive urges, not against them. Discover what motivates the dog, such as a game of fetch with a Labrador Retriever or chasing a laser-light for a high-energy German Shepherd Dog.
Reflexive behaviors cannot be erased, but they can often be replaced. “My dog is a good example — she has that Westie circle down pat,” Arden says. “I taught her to do a sit instead. The circling will always be there, but it’s controlled dramatically.” Similarly, a herding-obsessed Border Collie who impatiently nips at the heels of his humans (the way it would an errant sheep) can be taught to pick up an object, such as a toy or ball, instead.
“The bottom line is a breed’s original function will determine its form, instincts and behavior,” Orlandi says. Listen carefully to reputable breeders and follow their recommendations. These are usually based on years of experience.
Such breeders will also recognize that every puppy exists on a continuum in the breed, with some displaying more of these hardwired behaviors than others. One example, Crockford says, is the Border Collies’ use of giving eye, or staring down livestock in order to move them. “They say that a Border Collie who doesn’t display the eye before six months or so is worthless as a herding dog,” she says. “But it might be a good fit in a household seeking an interactive, but not totally intense, family pet.”
What About a Mutt?
Awareness of innate behavior doesn’t just apply to those looking for a purebred puppy. Mixed breeds can also inherit the natures of one or both parents: A Lab-Rottweiler mix might grow up to be a water-loving goofball with a protective streak. Know the tendencies of both breeds, and look to see if they surface in an individual puppy.
In the end, the most important thing to remember is regardless of how attractive a dog appears on the outside, beauty is as beauty does, Arden says. “We all want our dogs to fulfill an aesthetic component, whether they’re classically beautiful or so ugly they’re cute,” she says. “But you need to think carefully about what specific behaviors may make you happy or unhappy. For the next 15 years, do you like a dog that just hangs out, or one that’s go-go-go?”
Looking beyond the packaging, to the jumble of impulses and instincts and historical purpose within, will give you the answer.