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Does Your Dog's Breed Matter?

I remember reading long ago that there are more differences within a dog breed from one individual to the next than there is between breeds. The argument the author (Ceasar Milan?) was trying to make was to train the dog you're presented with, rather than focusing on breed traits.

I also recently read a study that seemed to imply that there were no behavioral differences between breeds (since the rest of the study seemed equally invalid, I am afraid I do not know the name and cannot provide a link to it.)

I also got into a Facebook fight (a regrettable hobby) with someone who believed that breeds were simply window dressing and all dogs are essentially the same.

On the other hand, ask your insurance company or some towns in Canada about their feelings about certain breeds and you'll get a very serious answer. Ask anyone working in a veterinary hospital if there are certain breeds that they prefer over others and prepare to hear a great deal about certain breeds, and the phrase, 'Land Shark' may come up more than once.

So, what's the real story? Are dog breeds more alike than they are different? Is it a matter of bias or opinion, or biology, or breeding?

First, all dogs are dogs. They come with the same basic set of behaviors. All dogs dig, roll in gross stuff, like to sniff their environment, and all dogs respond to rewards and punishers the same way.

Having said all that, if you wanted a dog to play ball with would you get a pug or a labrador retriever? Both breeds - in fact almost all breeds of dogs - will retrieve a thrown item, but for the obsessive desire to catch it again and again, you'll do better with a dog who has retriever as part of it's name. Take a look at the next disc dog championship. While the dogs may not represent the same breeds, they will likely be represented by dogs that come out of the working groups (bird dogs and herding dogs).

And while many breeds are permitted to herd in AKC trials, when you get out into the big open trials where the sheep are far away and the dog's instincts are mandatory, the pack gets winnowed down to but a few breeds.

A labrador is not a bloodhound, which is not a toy poodle, which in turn is not a Belgian Malanois. All of these breeds were bred to perform certain tasks and those tasks demanded both physical and behavioral changes.

So, are there good breeds, and bad breeds? No, but there are definitely bad for your needs breeds! Most purebred dogs that are rehomed, I would contend, are rehomed because people bought the wrong breed for their lifestyle.

Now, before we dive into this in more depth, be aware that for every 100 dogs that follow breed standards, there will be the rare few that do not. All too often I see folks get a second dog of an inappropriate for them breed because the first dog was atypical. When faced with this new, typical, dog, owners get frustrated and upset that the dog isn't acting like their other beloved pet.

Ok, let's dive in.

Livestock guardian puppies are the cutest things on earth!

This was Billy at nine weeks. I just wanted to cuddle and squeeze her! But dogs like Billy were bred for a purpose. Thousands of generations of carefully honed behaviors run through her veins. Most dogs like Billy are rehomed because they bark too much, or they break out of their yard. Billy, a maremma sheepdog, closely related to the Great Pyrenees, was bred to guard the huge flocks of sheep that traveled the countrysides with their shepherds. They were bred to guard their sheep from predators, and at night, to warn off those same unseen predators by barking. During the day they ranged for miles with their flock and shepherd.

Billy's hobbies are: barking for hours 3 nights out of 10 at 'monsters' that she smells on the wind, watching her sheep from various high points on the property, digging huge spacious caverns, and patrolling her territory for interlopers. Fences are made to do battle with and eventually breech at all costs.

These behaviors are born in. They are desired in dogs like her. They are not desired in a household pet, when that pet, frustrated by the small yard climbs fences to have a better viewpoint, barks the night away because the air is filled with the sight and sound of neighborhood dogs (predators), and when unable to find sheep to protect and satisfy her need to guard, she guards her food bowl from all comers.

Asking a dog to stop behaviors bred in for centuries is unfair to everyone.

Of my four current border collies, three were rehomed to me due to their former owners' inability to adequately address their energy (both mental and physical) needs.

It is also important to understand that breeding for instinctive traits is like sharpening a pencil. Only dogs showing the best instincts, bred to other dogs showing the same (the sharp end of the pencil) will retain the desired traits. Once effort is removed from the breeding program, the pencil begins to dull, and the traits begin to slip away. Two great examples of this in America are the Great Pyrenees, and the Shetland Sheepdog (sheltie). The Pyrenees has become a fairly common family pet, as has the sheltie. The movement towards AKC standards, or pet dog living inevitably dull the instinctive point of the pencil. Dogs bred to herd all day are tough to live with, as are dogs bred to live outside with the freedom to move at will on tens of millions of acres. Because of this many Pyrenees are no longer reliable working dogs unless they come from working dog homes, and shelties rarely have all the necessary components necessary to move stock.

Dogs at the pointy end are constantly being sharpened against performance. Agility, conformation, herding, protection sports, or even dock diving; the dogs who tend to do the best most often come from the best.

Why this is important is that dogs at the pointy end are rarely bred to be great house pets. They may make great house pets in addition to spending five days a week at their sport, but not instead of. House pets, the dogs that normal people want to live with, are best obtained from breeders who are not breeding from the pointy end of the stick.

Dogs have needs that are bred in. They are hardwired, and they drive behaviors good and bad. Whenever we are faced with a behavior issue, we must first ask ourselves: Is the dog bred to do this? If the answer is yes, then first and foremost, you must channel that intrinsic drive into appropriate behaviors. The dog deserves an outlet for her natural, inborn drives. To simply quash behavior because it does not fit our lifestyle is the height of arrogant cruelty. Our dogs deserve the best from us. They deserve care in the choices we make in acquiring them, and respect for the generations of careful sharpening that have honed their instincts into the amazing, diverse, and wonderful breeds that we share our lives and homes with.

Billy protects the neighbor's stuffed snow leopard

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