In June last year, I attended a webinar run by ASAP Labratory run by Dr Jacqui Ley on breeding better dogs. I was particularly excited that ASAP ran a webinar as I missed out on a live seminar in Adelaide a few weeks prior.
The seminar was called, “Behaviour = Genetics + Learning + Environment - raising even better dogs“.
Jacqui wanted to challenge breeders: Can we make improvements to the way we breed dogs?
Jacqui’s personal experience with two dogs (pictured above) with anxiety and aggression problems has lead to her being passionate about breeders producing ‘good’ dogs.
She began the seminar by asking breeders, as professionals, to be open to change. Professionals need to update themselves on information, and be prepared to be challenged and make changes. Breeders should be using the best and latest information to guide decisions.
Dogs are good for the community. Dogs are chiefly acquired to be companions, and they perform this service all across the world. But owning dogs is also good for you! Both physically and psychologically. Children that grow up with dogs are less likely to suffer from allergies and asthma, and more likely to have a positive outlook on life. Dogs also act as catalysts for social interactions.
But not all is well. Dogs get rehomed and surrendered to shelters. Dog bites reach the headlines. Barking dogs result in complaints to councils. Many owners are frustrated and embarassed by their dogs’ behaviours. Is it possible that breeders can reduce some of these problems by supplying “good dogs” to meet the demand?
Well, what is the demand? What do dog owners want? Jacqui Ley used findings from a study from Tammie King (2009) to describe what the average dog owner wants:
- A desexed dog,
- Short/straight hair,
- A medium sized dog (10-20kgs),
- To acquire a puppy,
- Requires between 16-30 minutes exercise a day,
- Requires 1-15 minutes grooming per week,
- Is safe with children,
- Is house trained,
- Is healthy,
- Comes when called,
- Does not escape,
- Is obedient,
- Is friendly, and
- Is affectionate.
Sounds like a lot, eh? But that’s what people are like – and they are normally not prepared to put in much training or socialisation. That is, people want perfect dogs without putting in much effort.
When owners are satisfied with their dogs, they don’t want to get rid of them! An internet survey of 1992 dog owners, using various scales and measurements, determined that:
Dog owners are most satisfied with their pets when they are friendly. That is, dog owners want friendly dogs. It’s hardly surprising, is it?
Aggression is a common reason that pets are surrendered.
Aggressive dogs are a major concern for councils (and governments).
Aggression is the most common reason that owners seek help from dog trainers or behaviourists.
People don’t just want friendly dogs – they safe with children, housetrained, obedient, friendly, does not escape, and affection. Jacqui said, The community wants nice dogs.
Can breeders produce dogs that are what the community wants?
A survey of breeders who were advertising litters in a newspaper found that 55% of breeders thought that temperament of a dog is entirely dependent on its treatment after birth.
But in reality, behaviour is the product of genes and the environment and the animal’s learning.
A lot of what we know about dog behaviour (especially in regard to the nurture vs nature debate) comes from Scott & Fuller’s pivotal research. They found that certain breeds behaved in different ways (e.g. the temperament of a dog depended on its breed).
A 1988 study used pointers that were genetically anxious – that is, dogs that were bred specifically to be anxious, illustrating the inheritability of temperament.
And you need not look any further than working dogs (or the first chapter’s of Coppinger’s book Dogs) to know that a level of dog behaviour is genetic. If you throw livestock guardian dogs and border collies out in a paddock together, you will get two very different sheep-dog interactions.
Clearly, behaviour is at least partly genetic.
And this means: Breeders can breed for behaviour.
Breeders need to acknowledge that most dogs are acquired as companions, and people that owns friendly and relaxed dogs are more satisifed with their dogs. When owners are satisfied with their dog’s behaviour, they are more likely to keep them!
Breeding good companions is not mutually exclusive to other goals. Dogs can be bred as companion, and show dogs. Companions and retrieving dogs. Companions and herding dogs.
It’s hard to measure temperament in dogs. It’s practically impossible to measure temperament in a puppy until they’re around 9 months old.
Ley urges dog breeders to use these temperament tests and use their results to inform dog pairings. Once puppies are achieved from these pairings, they need to be tested to start the process again. Breeding for temperament is a never-ending process.
Beside breeding for temperament, what else can breeders do?
Breeders can also manipulate the environment and experiences of puppies to enhance their ‘niceness’.
They should have opportunities to witness their mother model desirable behaviour.
Puppies need to be raised in an environment that is engaging, challenging, and safe. Complex environments are good for brain development (and good for reducing stress, though mild stress is good in itself).
Professional use complex learning environments for puppies with toys, obstacles, sounds, smells, TV, vacuums, noisy kid toys, and experiences with people.
So what should breeders do?
- Make it a goal to breed nice dogs (physically and mentally sound) that are great pets.
- Reconsider breeding from dogs that you couldn’t live with in the house. If you wouldn’t want to live with any of your dogs in the house, why would you breed them?
- Objectively assess all breeding stock.
- Stay in touch with puppy buyers and take their concerns about temperament seriously. You need to be in touch when they are 1-2 years old to seriously guage the dog’s temperament.
- Provide a complex environment for your puppies.
- Let mum show the puppies how to be ‘good’ – let her be a role model of behaviour.
- Engage in professional conduct. Professionals make changes when new information suggests that they should.
Links of Interest
Jacqui’s slides included a link to the Dog Welfare Campaign.