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The Matter of Breed

Updated: Oct 4, 2021

Nature vs nurture. We’ve all heard of the great debate regarding how much impact nature has vs nurture (your environment and how you’re raised), but, from a behaviourist's perspective, how does this actually play out for our dogs?

"it’s not the dog, it’s how you raise them"

Many will say that it’s not the dog, it’s how you raise them, and that any dog that displays a behaviour problem simply wasn’t raised or trained correctly.

This simply isn’t true. Nature has a massive effect on dog behaviour. While nurture is still incredibly important and how you raise, train and interact with your dog will have an effect on their behaviour, we cannot deny that nature shapes our dog’s behaviour as well.

The biggest, easiest example of this is your dog’s breed. Over the last 10,000 years (approximately how long dogs have been domesticated for!) we have been selectively breeding our dogs for certain traits and behaviours to help us do specific jobs. Let’s take a look at some examples;

- Gun dog breeds like Spaniels, Labradors and Retrievers have been bred to primarily help locate and retrieve fallen game, whereas gun dog breeds like Setters and Pointers have been bred to indicate and flush game out for shooting. Quick, intelligent and loyal, these dogs are staples of the family home.

- Herding breeds like Collies, Kelpies, Aussie Shepherds and Corgis (yes Corgis!) have been bred to help us organise, move, and herd herds of livestock across short and long distances. These guys are blessed with endless energy for a day in the fields and a huge capacity to learn.

- Terriers like the Jack Russell Terrier, West Highland Terrier, Yorkshire Terrier, Border Terrier and Fox Terriers have been bred to dig out and kill animals and rodents. Hunters to this day, they thrive on high stakes games of chase.

- Guarding breeds such as the Rottweiler, German Shepherd, Bullmastiff, Cane Corso (like Artemis our foster hound), Chow Chow’s and Dalmations have been bred to protect property, people and alert their owners to intruders, whereas guarding breeds like the Anatolian Shepherd, Maremma and Bernese Mountain Dog have been bred to travel with and guard flocks of livestock from predators. These are generally big, intimidating dogs but they are phenomenally loyal, protective and confident dogs that, with the right guidance and training, make amazing family pets.

And not an ear crop to be seen, as it should be.

- Hound breeds such as Dachshunds (both Standard and Miniature), Greyhounds, Beagles, Deerhounds and Great Dane's have been bred to track, hunt and bring down both small and large game. Sighthounds like Greyhound, Whippets and Lurchers are quick, lovers of the chase and have huge amounts of energy in short bursts.

I could go on; I find breed origins fascinating as we have bred dogs to do so many different jobs, often not the ones you would think either – who would have thought that corgis were originally bred to herd cattle across the Welsh hills!? Or that Akita’s weren’t traditionally a “fighting” dog, but actually bred to hunt bears in pairs with Samurai. Or that the Tibetan Terrier isn’t actually a terrier and was bred to herd livestock. Or that Poodles are actually bred to retrieve game from waterways! Or that Great Danes were originally bred to hunt Wild Boar and could actually be classified as a hound! Or that the Dalmation is a guard dog, bred to protect and even keep up with horses on the road. I told you … I could go on and on and I usually do...

A Bear hunter?!

My point is, that in order to do these jobs, our dogs have been bred for certain behaviours and traits. These traits are what make up the breed that you love so much. Even the best trained and raised dog is going to show these traits – often in a way that we deem “inappropriate”. That could look like a Dachshund, nose to the ground, charging off after the smell of a rabbit and totally ignoring your recall. It could be a Springer Spaniel startling a pheasant and disappearing into the undergrowth for four hours. Or a Rottweiler barking at people who walk past their house, or the back fence in the garden. Or a Collie charging around and “herding” the kids, nipping their ankles. Or a Labrador guarding the item they are holding, not wanting to give it up. Or a German Shepherd reacting at other dogs on a walk. Or a Jack Russell digging into next door’s garden and terrorising their chickens/rabbits. I could go on.

The fact is that our dogs are naturally going to show these behaviours in some way, shape or form, even if they are trained from an early age and raised in a perfect environment. No amount of training is going to stop your dog from wanting to do those things. So what we can do is give them appropriate outlets for these breed-intrinsic behaviours, use management methods and train them in alternative behaviours for life in the modern world.

Let’s take the Dachshund chasing the smell of rabbits and ignoring a recall as an example. We can practice lots of fun recall exercises in high-distraction areas, teach a “reflexive recall” and use a long line in areas where there are rabbits to help stop them from charging off down a hole after the nearest rabbit. In conjunction with this, we can do Scentwork or Tracking exercises to give them an appropriate outlet for following smells and using their nose. They want to do it, so let's let them, in a way that works for everyone.

So rather than get cross with your dog for doing something you’d rather they didn’t, stop and think, ask yourself; “is this normal dog behaviour? Or is it something that they have been bred to do?" If the answer to either of these is yes, think of a way you can give them an appropriate outlet for it, such as;

- Chasing birds/wildlife/small mammals etc; Try a flirt pole, or a tug-e-nuff to give them something appropriate to chase, tug on and catch!

- Following scents; Find some easy Scentwork games (find a toy, snuffling for treats etc) or join a local Scentwork class. (*Cough coming soon to G&S cough*)

- Herding things; Try sheepballs! A fun activity that teaches your dog to “herd” a ball. Or Treiball.

- Pinching and holding things; Teach them to hold a toy instead, or try some easy gun-dog exercises at home. Again – Scentwork is a GREAT activity for gun dog breeds. (Cough Keep an eye out for G&S Scentwork classes cough)

- Barking at people/noises/disturbances; Let them bark once, then teach them to come away and play a game with you instead. This way they can express that guarding instinct without becoming the neighbourhood nuisance.

- Digging; give them an area in the garden to dig in and hide treats/toys in loose soil to encourage them to dig there.

- Shredding toys / clothes / post; try a destruction box! Fill a cardboard box with smaller boxes, scrunched up paper and treats – let your dog pull that apart instead. This is one I use with Artemis, and she absolutely loves it.

The breed is just one part of the nature that shapes our dogs' behaviour – there are a lot of other things that have an effect (like genetics, parents/grandparents behaviour/temperament, health and epigenetics), but I’ll save those for another day and another blog... Sorry!

So ignore that person in the park that blithely spouts “it’s all about how you raise them” as your dog does something that is probably embarrassing but also totally natural, and remember, that yes we do have a big impact on our dog’s behaviour, but ultimately it is both nature and nurture that create our beloved pets.

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