Sunday, October 25, 2009

Breed Specific Behaviors

Cesar Millan says that dogs should be regarded as species dog first, then breed, then individual. As it is often the case when it comes to Millan, I disagree. Sure, dogs have common species-specific behaviors, but because they live in a complex human society and are exposed to a diverse environment, they have almost as many different individual personalities as their owners, sometimes with strange quirks and extreme behaviors.
I also disagree with Millan that the dog’s name doesn’t matter. It does. Not because the dog intellectually knows that a certain arrangement of letters is his identity, but because a name reflects expectations and intentions the owner has, and that influences behavior.

Having said all that, there is no denying that dogs specifically bred for generations for one or the other purpose have breed specific, hardwired tendencies to live out what they were bred to do. There is a reason why shepherds and ranchers don’t own English bulldogs to round up the sheep or drive the cattle. A golden retriever is not the first choice for Schutzhund training, and Greyhounds are rarely involved in water rescue.
There is one category of dogs whose breed specific behaviors are not as obvious as such. The group I am talking about are lap dogs, bred to be very close to people to take over their fleas and lice, or to warm the bed. Nowadays most of us live in a warm house and don’t have nasty bugs on us, but the desire of lap dogs to Velcro themselves to the owner is still there. Being spatially above, on the pillow in bed or claiming higher space on the sofa, is a no-no for trainers who follow the alpha doctrine. The top dog is the dog on top in their opinion, which also goes for lap dogs.
Is the pooch being dominant? Or just displaying an instinctive behavior? It can be very confusing for layowners, especially since the revival of all that “dominance” babble.

One might think that if the person researches purebred dogs and purposes, chooses a breed that complements his own interests and a puppy that matches his personality, they’ll have a wonderful life together. Although it indeed increases the chances of a great interspecies' relationship, even the smartest owner is sometimes overwhelmed by his or her dog’s intensity, which can lead to friction, conflict and sometimes confrontation, and that creates even more problems.
Genetic drives such herding in shepherd dogs; the nose permanently to the ground in scent hounds; soliciting to be picked up and on the lap, or the protective drive in dogs bred to guard house and home is not easy to undo, and if undone forcefully, it always comes at the expense of the relationship. An unfulfilled dog is as unhappy as an unfulfilled human, and we all know that if the dog’s not happy, nobody is. The good news is that “the nature of the beast” doesn’t mean that the dog has to be unruly, obnoxious or dangerous. All ingrained behaviors can be channeled into acceptable ones. Herding the children is not the problem; nipping them is. Scenting is fine; blowing the owner off isn’t. Cuddling is why many people choose lap dogs, claiming space rudely or guarding it, is not okay. Any driven dog can use his talents to do things people like, but the onus is on the person to teach it, and that can take some effort and know-how.

There is no problem with a dog in the bed or on the pillow, or one who gets more affection than discipline. There is a problem if the dog is rude, demanding and impolite, and if that is reinforced he becomes bratty and entitled and very frustrated when ignored.
For all lap dog owners my advice is to ensure that they don’t allow the pooch to get close and personal unless he/she asked permission. A dog’s way to say please is to lower the body and tail, offer soft eye contact, doesn’t bark or whine or scratches legs trying to climb up, and waits for the invitation command, like "close" or "snuggle-up". Humans communicate clearly to other humans that a hug is wanted - or not, and we expect our conspecific members to respect that. I request no less from the dog, even if she has a hardwired desire to be on top of me. Like everything else, that is also up to the owner to teach.


  1. Hi Silvia

    I'm so glad you did this article. It has been very confusing having a breed that is known to be very emotionally sensitive and known as the "comfort/companion spaniel" and having so much alpha info floating about that really can damage the relationship with such a dog.

    When I first got my dog I looked to a traner to help with some nervous agression and the trainer told me to growl at my dog to stop her from following me everywhere. In my ingorance I listened to the trainer instead of to my gut instinct telling me that I shouldn't and even though I only did it once, I ended up regretting it for many, many months. Not only is my dog a little insecure, she has also been bred to be a "companion" and wants to be where ever I am. I so happy to have a serious trainer agree that it is OK for lap dogs to be lap dogs. I'm so tired of people trying to make my "little dog" a "Big dog."

    As for names I also agree that they have an energy and should be chosen with care. I didn't name my dog, but it sure fits... "Taffy" as she is sweet and sticky.


  2. Thank you for your comment, Marjorie. I don't envy dog owners who have to sort out through all that conflicting information out there and never blame them if they make, what are in my opinion, mistakes.

    Growling at a dog who seeks closeness and companionship is like slapping a child for wanting to be with the parent. I commend you for searching for a better way.