How many dogs does it take to change a lightbulb?
By Doris Dressler, CPDT-KA
The canine version of the lightbulb joke is an excellent lead-in to this month’s topic, breeds and instincts.
Oxforddictionaries.com defines instinct as “an innate, typically fixed pattern of behavior in animals in response to certain stimuli.” Understanding the concept of instinct is important because many behaviors dogs exhibit have been bred into the dog and are often behaviors that cannot easily be “trained” away.
Humans and dogs teamed up at least 15,000 years ago, possibly longer. Scientists speculate that tamer wolf/dogs were the first to frequent human camps looking for food. Humans began altering these canines, breeding one to another in an attempt to maintain desirable traits and inhibit less desirable traits. This process is called neoteny, where an animal’s development is arrested to retain juvenile traits even as an adult.
Wolves stalk, chase and encircle game. They will bite and slash the game to weaken it and then pull it down to kill and eat. The process of neoteny has resulted in dogs that no longer slash, kill and eat game but still may stalk and chase game. Labrador and golden retrievers retrieve but do not kill or eat the game.
|Belle is a 4-month-old miniature Australian shepherd. Working Australian shepherds are bred to herd sheep and are wonderful additions to active families. Photos of dogs by Doris Dressler|
Breed groupings and traits
The American Kennel Club recognizes seven different breed groups: sporting, hounds, working, terriers, toys, non-sporting and herding.
The sporting group consists of pointers, retrievers, setters and spaniels. These dogs were bred not only to detect and alert their human to game but also retrieve it. Many dogs in the grouping have soft, round mouths. This explains why pet retrievers, for example, often mouth when excited and always seem to be carrying something in their mouth.
Hounds are the oldest of the breeds and consist of basset hounds, bloodhounds and greyhounds. These breeds find and pursue game by sight and sound. Sight dogs are typically tall and fast (greyhounds or Afghans) where scent hounds (bloodhounds, basset hounds) are slower and have shorter legs, so their nose is closer to the ground. This is why beagles are often more interested in smelling than walking nicely next to you.
The word terrier is derived from “terrain” or “tera,” which means earth. Terrier ancestors were bred to hunt and kill vermin, explaining why dogs in the terrier group typically like to dig after and chase small animals.
|Leaps is a 1-year-old golden retriever. As a breeding dog for Canine Assistants, Leaps’ propensity to carry objects in his mouth will make his offspring excellent service dogs.|
Herding dogs fall into two categories: herders and heelers. Herders (such as border collies) were bred to circle, gather, hold and direct the herd using their eyes. Heelers (such as the Australian cattle dog) were bred to nip and push at the herd’s heels to guide them in the proper direction. This is why non-working herding dogs often create a job for themselves by attempting to herd the family children.
Working dogs include sled dogs (malamute), guard dogs (Doberman pinscher), livestock guarding dogs (Great Pyrenees) and rescue dogs (St. Bernard). It’s not uncommon for dogs bred to be guard dogs to become overly protective of their homes and family members.
Toy breeds were bred to be “pocket pets” for royalty, which explains their inclination to be lap dogs. The non-sporting group – whose members include the chow, Dalmatian, French bulldog and poodle—is a catchall category whose members exhibit their own unique instinctual behaviors.
How to deal with instinctual behaviors
The key is to be aware of instinctual behaviors with which your breed (or mixed-breed) dog was born. Herding dogs will nip; guarding dogs will protect; and hunting dogs will chase. Anticipating the behavior and being proactive by developing a plan of action is helpful in managing most of these behaviors.
|Willie is a 4-year-old Great Pyrenees who takes his job guarding the homestead seriously.|
If your retriever mouths visitors’ arms in excitement when they first enter your home, consider teaching your dog to retrieve a toy out of his toy box to carry in his mouth when the doorbell rings. If your guard dog becomes overly protective of you, make sure you have established yourself as the benevolent leader, so your dog doesn’t feel the need to be so protective. If your herding dog attempts to herd your running grandchildren into the kitchen, set your dog up for success by discouraging running in the house and redirecting his chase behavior to something more appropriate, like chasing a ball.
Doris Dressler is a CPDT-KA (certified professional dog trainer, knowledge assessed) with over 16 years’ experience training service dogs and family pet dogs. She also volunteers her time training rescued dogs at Big Canoe Animal Rescue.