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Breed-specific canine behavior: Matching breeds with clients (Proceedings)


Virtually all family veterinarians are commonly asked to recommend a breed of dog that is best for a particular client.

Virtually all family veterinarians are commonly asked to recommend a breed of dog that is best for a particular client. This may be a client that already has a dog and wishes to get another one, maybe a client that has recently lost a dog that was under your care and is looking to get another one. They may be asking for a friend and they want to give some advice. Finally it may be a first-time dog owner that wants to venture into this kind of companionship that they heard is so rewarding.

If instead of waiting for a client to ask us for this information we might think about preparing ourselves appropriately as regard to possible breed candidates and gender for clients with different needs or desires, as well as a repertoire of standard advice we can give in terms of raising dogs to prevent problem behaviors. In fact, if clients do ask your input and you give them advice that is suitable for their personality and lifestyle, this can be a much happier long-term client of yours and one that has a dog with fewer problem behaviors than are otherwise likely. Certainly, clients that do not ask will still appreciate your interest in them enough to offer advice.

Typically clients ask about: what are the calmest breeds; what breeds are best for children; what breeds should be avoided because they are aggressive; are there any dogs that are easiest to housetrain; and what are the best breeds for a watchdog? In addition to answering some of these questions we will also delve into gender-specific aspects of behavior that may be used along with recommendations of breeds and we will discuss some important tips that you can pass on to the clients that they will not necessarily find mentioned in the common dog raising books found in book stores and pet shops. But first, a little background.

Advances in Canine Genetics

The unique aspects of the canine genetic background in development with the domestic dog have been the topics of several recent publications. These studies have included the dates and locations of the ancient breeds, domestication and social cognition, and the capacity to learn a couple hundred words. The last decade has seen detailed work on the canine genome with almost a complete mapping of the genome, laying the groundwork for investigation of behavioral differences between breeds.

An important study, published in by Parker and associates in 2004 did genetic structure analyses on 85 breeds. Their analyses revealed that almost all breeds are genetically distinct and the researchers were able to assign, on the basis of genetics alone, 99% of individual dogs to a specific genome. If you have the DNA of almost any dog, and you have the appropriate analytical techniques at your hand, you would be able to identify the breed of that dog, assuming it was a purebred dog. With this information on the genetic make-up of different dog breeds we should expect to find behavioral, as well as physiological and disease susceptibility differences as a function of breed membership.

Breeds could also be grouped according to genetic similarity. The most prominent and closely related group, traced back to wolf ancestry, included the Chow Chow, Shiba Inu, Siberian Husky, Alaskan Malamute, Shar-pei and Akita. There were two other groups that could be put together by genetic similarity. These were guard dogs (Mastiff, Bulldog, Boxer, Rottweiler, German Shepherd Dog and Newfoundland) and herding dogs (Collie, Shetland Sheepdog, Saint Bernard and Irish Wolfhound).

Another landmark genetic study (Lindblad-Toh and colleagues in 2005 compared the genomes of ten different breeds of dogs and uncovered some 2.5 million individual genetic differences among the breeds, referred to as single nucleotide polymorphisms. Selective breeding of dogs, which is the hallmark of canine history, carries large genetic regions of bases of DNA into breeds, making it easy to find genes responsible for physical and behavioral differences more than in any other species.

Breed-specific Behavioral Differences in 80 Breeds

In a recently completed study, conducted with my colleagues, we focused on 80 breeds and 10 behavioral traits of interest to pet owners. In telephone interviews with 168 small animal veterinarians, the authorities were asked to rank a sample of 7 breeds from our master list on each of the 10 characteristics. Computer processing of this data revealed statistically significant differences on each trait. These traits included: activity level; snapping; excessive barking; demand for affection; aggression towards other dogs; aggression towards owners; territorial defense; watchdog barking; trainability; and ease of housetraining. Some traits such as activity level are much better at discriminating between breeds than other traits such as housetraining. All 80 breeds were ranked 1 through 80 on each behavioral trait.

Breeds closely related to wolf ancestors significantly scored at the high end on aggressive characteristics and at the low end on demand for affection. Thus, in those breeds most related to the wolf, wolf-like aggressive behavior was conserved. In other breeds a predisposition towards aggressiveness probably reflected an amplification of aggressive tendencies for guarding territory and for hunting vermin and large prey. In developing dogs for herding, where shepherds worked closely with their dogs during the day and then wanted a companion at night, dogs were selected that showed little aggression and strong demand for affection. Some breeds were selected for being cuddly lap dogs where affection demand was emphasized.

Matching to an Owner's Personality

What is required to give advice as to most appropriate breeds to consider for a client depends on what the client has in mind. A family with children will be particularly interested in a dog that is affectionate, somewhat lively, as well as low on snapping and other aspects of aggression. A family interested in companionship, but with no children, may not care as much about snapping, but many want a dog that is affectionate with a low tendency to be aggressive towards adult people. Other clients could be interested in a dog that combines some hunting prowess with family-friendly traits. Still others want a good solid watch dog. It is suggested that one come up with several breeds to provide some flexibility with regard to size, body shape and hair coat. A sample of some breed profiles will be presented.

Role of Gender

For many people the question of whether to get a male or a female dog is as puzzling as the choice of a breed. Fortunately, the sex of the dog does appear to influence its behavior in a number of predictable ways and you can use gender in the selection process. As a function of gender, dogs vary on the same traits for which breeds were ranked, allowing you to help a client balance a breed characteristic that may be in the wrong direction. Males typically outrank females with regard to the traits dealing with aggressive behavior, including guarding behavior, and females tend to outrank males with regard to trainability and affection to demand. The extent of differences between males and females depends on the particular trait.

Role of Neutering

The question of if, and when, a dog should be spayed or neutered invariably comes up in discussions of adopting a companion dog. There are two issues to be concerned with regard to spaying or neutering. One is whether or not the procedure reduces desirable behaviors such as watchdog barking or housetraining. The other is the degree to which this procedure changes behaviors viewed as undesirable. The traits that may be reduced in males by neutering include various aspects of aggressive behavior and urine marking. There is no evidence of an effect of neutering in reducing desirable behaviors. An important point to be made is that the age at which the animal is neutered, and the experience it already has, are independent of any influence of neutering on those behaviors that tend to be changed.

Advice on Early Training

There are some ideas and tips you can pass along to clients for avoiding problem behaviors. One is housetraining. This is probably the most frequently asked topic in puppy raising. This is covered in a number of books on raising and training dogs. Another topic deals with separation anxiety which can be understood as a normal behavior when puppies are deserted and we will deal with some tips to pass along to clients. Fear of loud noises is a behavioral characteristic that can be attenuated by early experience that the owner provides to the animal. Problems related to aggression can often be avoided by the use of certain techniques in raising. Obnoxious begging, barking and scratching behaviors can be dealt with by certain suggestions you could pass along to clients.

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