Can breeders breed better?

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?

Screenshot from Breeding Better Dogs webinar.

Screenshot from Breeding Better Dogs webinar.

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 dogsIt’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.

Or read our whole series on the Belyaev Fox Experiment!

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.

But impressions on temperament can be made by behavioural tests (like the Canine Good Citizen test and the Swedish Dog Mentation test), or questionnaire tests (like C-BARQ and MCPQ-R).

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.

A screenshot from the webinar showing an optimum, complex environment for running young puppies.

A screenshot from the webinar showing an optimum, complex environment for running young puppies.


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

Click here for a .pdf of slides from this webinar.

Jacqui’s slides included a link to the Dog Welfare Campaign.

11 thoughts on “Can breeders breed better?

  1. I think history has shown that breeders likely can breed a dog to conform to a specific list of characteristics and attributes. But honestly it’s the ways that our dogs are different that make them so special. I don’t want a perfect dog and I surely don’t want all dogs to have short straight hair, be medium sized, need minimal exercise etc…..

    What a sad world that would be.

    • I think the study quoted only showed what the ‘average’ dog owners like – of course, some people want big dogs, or small dogs, or bald(!) dogs, or wirey dogs, or dogs with long coats. I’m sure they were only included for inclusively sake, and not because Jacqui actually thinks all dogs should be the same!

  2. Behavior defiantly needs to be a major part of a breeding program!!! But trying to breed for that public want list that is very unrealistic. People need to understand that dogs are not robots you can exercise for 15min a day and then store away until needed!
    Actually, people should own more greyhounds :)

  3. Ha ha, I posted that list snippet before I looked at who commented above me! Of course no dog meets that robot image, but I really do believe that greyhounds are such great dogs for many people. Happy to run, but also happy to be perfect couch potatoes :)

    • I love greyhounds too – and I think if greyhounds looked different, they might be more popular. Unfortunately many people don’t think they look appealing and that puts them off – despite the fact that they’re pretty much the perfect dog in every other way!

      Laura, I think your ongoing issues with Vito really show why we need to ‘breed better dogs’. Of course, there will always be anomalies in any breeding program, and I don’t know where Vito came from and if he is one! But I have owned a dog that is (I believe) genetically nervous which has led to dog aggression. In hindsight, when I purchased him, I should’ve been more concerned that the dogs were kept in runs and not all together… (There were not a lot of dogs on the property, only about 5!)

      • While I do believe Vito’s issues are genetically based as he had major SA from 7wks of age when I visited the litter for testing (although I of course excused it as puppy tantrums!) I can’t say that it is a fault of the breeder. I’ve met both Mom, Dad, full siblings from his litter, full siblings from a repeat breeding, and other relatives and all seem to be very normal dogs on the surface. They compete and do well in a variety of sports and I haven’t heard any negative issues about them. I know several other neurotic tollers, but none from his breeder. Genetics are weird. Of course when the time comes when I can finally afford to get my next toller you better believe that I will be heavily quizzing breeders about their lines!

        I do think many breeders put way too much emphasis on the show ring vs temperament for both conformation breeders and performance breeders.

        • Yep, genetics are weird. There’s plenty of dogs out there that are anomalies in contrast to their families.

          To me, the show ring is almost a temperament test in itself… It’s hard to do well in the ring with a nervous or fearful dog, as it won’t show as well. It’s not impossible, but the ‘showy’ dogs are normally the confident and happy dogs. I personally think that more judges should be heavier handed on non-awarding dogs with fearful temperaments (though, on the other hand, it’s the most common thing I see dogs non-awarded for!).

          • I used to think that way about show dogs but then at the service organization I work for we had several 6-10mo old show goldens donated 2 years ago and then a 1.5yr show yorkie donated this past year. Of the goldens only one of them made it through the program, all the others were freaks outside of the show environment and horribly socialized with life. The yorkie is also extremely under socialized although he’s been slowly coming along so we will see.

            Of course that’s not the case with many show dogs, but I do think there are way too many breeders who don’t do much at all with their “stock.”

  4. I agree – many show people don’t do enough with their dogs in terms of socialisation. That being said, I’m not sure if all that many dogs would make the cut as service dogs, anyway! Show or otherwise.

  5. I really, really like this post and think there definitely needs to be a focus on behaviour when deciding to breed one’s dogs. Obviously I am not an expert but if the breeder intends to sell the puppies to families as companions then some work should be done to ensure the puppies are going to the right home for their temperament. I realize this is difficult, as you say, it’s impossible to know a dog’s temperament at a young age. But I do think it should be at least as important as health, appearance, and all the other factors that go into the process. I like the second point in the final section: if you wouldn’t want to live with a particular dog in the house, it’s probably not a good idea to breed him/her.

    Thanks for sharing all of this!

    • Glad you liked this post, Kristine. It’s one of many posts that I’ve had sitting on the back burner.

      I agree – if most puppies in a litter are going to a pet home, then surely they should be ideally bred and socialised for the majority. I think breeders are lucky that our ‘surplus’ animals can go into pet homes (unlike chicken breeders where there are no options for roosters), but that also comes with a responsibility to make these puppies are suitable as possible for these homes.

      Ian Dunbar said that socialisation should take place to counteract any deficiencies in genetic temperament, and that’s the approach I take. Sure, my puppies are probably genetically sound – but if they’re not, I still want to make them the best dogs possible.

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