It’s the New Year (2014, time marches on!) and it’s feeling like high time for a little less philosipherizing and a little more down to earth dog talk. In particular, I’d like to chat about breeds, and whether a dog can be reasonably said to be a dog like any other in our modern world. Just for the purposes of this narrow conversation, we’ll forget about the 85% of all dogs on the planet (nearly a billion) who live beyond strict breeding control and concentrate on the other 15% that we most commonly encounter and work with.
Some of the former population spills into the latter category simply because some of the dogs that developed in a certain area through natural selection were found to be beneficial to the human population, and continued selection for those desired traits resulted in what was sometimes eventually considered a breed. Part of the appeal and popularity of dogs to us human primates has come in the form of their usefulness to us; certainly it is not any great shock to the psyche that we seek out and care better for those who do something for us in return. Truth be told, the continuation of dogs as a species can be directly linked to their amazing ability to mold into a form that does something, either directly or indirectly, for us. A bit like the subservient individual who ingratiates himself to the all powerful overlord by doing something for him, dogs have made themselves a permanent part of our world. John Bradshaw in his book, Dog Sense, argues that perhaps the time has come for us to look to our more modern needs rather than our historical ones when it comes to purposely breeding them, but the fact remains that our species mucked and mucked until we came up with dogs who look like and act like what we wanted for certain purposes… and that continues to this day. Let’s, for the fun of it, take a look at some of the results of our mucking.
…and oh, yeah, this:
What an amazing job we have done over the years to make so many different breeds with such a wide range of sizes and abilities. Perhaps the greater kudos go to the dogs themselves as they are the ones who have proven to be so amenable to what we wanted from them. In short, it’s clear to see that the purpose of, say, a Siberian Husky is not the same as, say, a Pug – and yet they are both dogs. (If you’re inclined to know more about how this is possible, here’s a bit on it – and for my geekier friends, here .)
So what’s my point? Everyone knows that dogs come in all shapes and sizes. A small child could tell you that some dogs are big, others are tiny, that some dogs have smooshed faces and others have long pointy noses. Not great fodder for a blog post, is it – certainly I must be digging at the bottom of the barrel to come up with this one?
I’m not, and I truly wish I were. One thing that I had hoped wasn’t happening, but clearly is in our pursuit of the “science” in everything, is the rise of the idea that a dog is a dog is a dog. All dog are apparently the same. In the conversations surrounding dog training, the fact that we are dealing with purpose bred breeds more often than not is a simple fact that is far too often overlooked and sometimes blatantly disregarded. While I’m among the first to understand that we cannot attribute a whole set of characteristics to every individual in a breed, I believe there is a bigger reason for it than the one commonly given. It only makes sense that if a certain breed is either a) not well established to type initially or b) becomes very popular and therefore is overbred by less than scrupulous breeders, then of course the resulting dogs will not mostly carry the same indepth qualities. In fact, in practice, we see less larger differences in breed and more smaller differences in individuals, likely because in order to be considered of a certain breed and therefore useful to a market, the dogs will have to at least reasonably be identifiable as that breed. Some traits are harder to retain than others, so there are certainly no hard and fast rules here… but overall, you can reasonably assume at least some common characteristics. So, again, why is this important? To answer that, I’m going to have to back up a bit, so bear with me.
I strongly believe in a holistic view of training, and a relationship approach to living with our dogs. I’ve not been one who has owned only one breed or type of dog, so I have lived with and continue to live with many dogs of different sizes, types and temperaments. Opening your home to any dog in need and subsequently caring for them while they are in bad places in their lives means that you quickly learn that not all dogs are motivated in the same way or by the same things. Living this way and working this way becomes a crash course in doing what works, and doing it quickly and practically. You learn to listen to the dog before you, not the dog that was or could be – just this one, right here, right now. Some of my most challenging dogs have been ones who are of a specific breed, or who are crosses who have more prominent traits from one side or the other (or both), and the way I’ve learned to unlock the best for those dogs is to learn about their breed and act accordingly. While I don’t argue that for the most part, teaching a dog to sit on cue is done the same way in a Golden Retriever as in a Bloodhound, the greater challenges in life don’t lie in teaching a sit. They lie in the communication between us and the dog, the engagement as it were, in the day to day. The traits of a Bloodhound can explain why I might have a harder time retaining his attention when he’s caught a scent, and the traits of a Golden Retriever can help me understand why Goldie tries to “hug” every person who comes in my door. In the same way, breed can help me decide whether a dog is a good fit for my home – a small fact that seems to be lost on some rescuers.
The most concerning thing for me regarding the idea that all dogs are the same is that it’s costing some dogs their lives, and causing others to live in environments completely unsuited to them. Some people seem completely baffled by the breed traits their dogs are displaying, and others seem to respond by setting out to prove that they can usurp the traits and make a dog behave contrarily to their natural predisposition. “I have a such and such type dog and I don’t understand why all my efforts to modify their behavior have come to nothing!”, is a common refrain from dog owners. Certainly they should be able to get help from those of us who say we help with such things, right? Considering the fact that I have seen and heard far too many trainers themselves baffled by what are clearly identifiable breed traits show, I am less than certain of our ability to help effectively. Nowhere is this more evident than in the cases where dogs are behaving aggressively or destructively because they are so misunderstood by their humans. We should never be compounding that issue by failing to understand them ourselves.
The breed of the dog I’m working with can tell me so much about their view on the world – both physically and psychologically. The better I can understand them, the better I can meet their needs and the more effectively I can adjust my communication so it resonates with them and results in what we’re both looking for: a mutually satisfying relationship. Even from a purely cerebral standpoint, it makes no logical sense to conclude that all dogs are the same when we’ve made such efforts to make them so different from each other.
The larger and more appropriate question might be: why and how did this idea gain traction? To answer that properly would take more time than you or I are willing to give in this one sitting, but suffice it to say that strict behaviorism is a very appealing concept to some people. Behaviorism is defined as: “the theory that human and animal behavior can be explained in terms of conditioning, without appeal to thoughts or feelings, and that psychological disorders are best treated by altering behavior patterns.” Addressing behavior in a cookie cutter way can be a useful strategy for some things, and is, but falls woefully short when you get into the complexities of life. Before you bring it up, I’m aware that in some circles this opinion isn’t a popular one, but I have never been one to refrain from saying something that needed to be said out of concern regarding the reaction. My greater concern is for the dogs and the things they are being subjected to because we’re refusing to see the bigger picture.
A final point. There is a badly misconceived notion circulating that because we can use food to have wild animals comply with some of our requests, all beings on the planet learn the same and therefore are the same. This is a larger, more confusing parallel to the “dog is a dog is a dog” hypothesis. What fails to come to light in such conversations is the immense limitations of the successes. Animals are still animals. Feeding wild birds food by hand to make them “less aggressive” can backfire and make them more so when the feeding stops. Clicking and treating a zoo resident to hold still for an injection is still always done with a barrier and at arms length because it doesn’t change who or what that animal is. For more interesting reading on this topic, take the time to read this oldie but goodie from the Brelands, pioneers in operant conditioning and its applications. Taken from the link:
” Three of the most important of these tacit assumptions seem to us to be: that the animal comes to the laboratory as a virtual tabula rasa, that species differences are insignificant, and that all responses are about equally conditionable to all stimuli.
It is obvious, we feel, from the foregoing account, that these assumptions are no longer tenable. After 14 years of continuous conditioning and observation of thousands of animals, it is our reluctant conclusion that the behavior of any species cannot be adequately understood, predicted, or controlled without knowledge of its instinctive patterns, evolutionary history, and ecological niche. ”