One of the most common complaints among dog trainers is that many clients choose breeds of dogs whose innate behavior and temperament are totally inappropriate for their lifestyles. In fact, many people don’t even consider innate behavior or temperament when choosing dogs at all. “He has such beautiful blue eyes,” or “he looked just like a bear in the picture online,” or even, “the one on that TV show is just so cute!” are typical of the many reasons people offer when asked why they chose their breed of dog.
People are under the impression that any dog, regardless of breed, can be trained to fit any circumstance or situation and they discount the fact that many breeds carry with them traits and behavioral tendencies that cannot “be trained out of them.” Even the late Barbara Woodhouse, in the epilogue of “Dog Training My Way,” states that, when asked which breed someone should choose, she advises, “choose whatever dog you fancy, for it will be the one you fancy that is the easiest for you to train.” She couldn’t have been more wrong.
When was the last time someone saw a seeing-eye Chow? Or a police K-9 force of Golden retrievers? Or a Malamute herding sheep? The answer is never, of course. And that’s not because trainers don’t choose to train these particular dogs for those jobs. It is the very real fact that these breeds cannot do those jobs! Genetically, these dogs have behavior and temperament traits that make them unable to respond to certain types of training, no matter how hard someone tries. And, yes, there are wonderful exceptions to every rule, but as much as we can predict the size, shape, and coat of a Chow, we can also predict that practically no Chow would be able to meet the requirements of a seeing-eye dog.
Many breed characteristics may actually be assets when one considers the original purpose of the breed. The indefatigable energy of a Labrador, the protectiveness of a Doberman pinscher, even the nipping of a Border collie are really talents that have been selectively bred for generations but that can cause frustration for the unprepared dog owner. Other traits, such as the submissive urinating of Cocker spaniels or the excessive shyness of Shetland sheepdogs were obviously not traits that were actively encouraged but nonetheless come with the contract, so to speak.
So, doing research about a particular breed has always been the rallying cry of trainers and behaviorists, hoping that clients could therefore avoid certain problems before bringing a dog into their homes; however, there are problems with that well intentioned suggestion.
Very simply, the books describing the traits of specific breeds are written by breeders and other enthusiasts who rarely write bluntly of a breed’s shortcomings. And, even when they do, the statements are couched in euphemisms, much like reading the promotional material of cars. Only those who can read between the lines of car magazines understand that the term “high performance” really means 11 miles to the gallon of gas. With dogs, it is much the same.
Take the phrase, “loves exercise” or the slightly more honest, “needs exercise.” Those statements would be much more effective if there were an accompanying photograph of the destruction done to the home of an under-exercised Weimaraner, for example. Or the term “independent;” in “dog speak” that simply means he won’t come when called.
This isn’t meant to stereotype all dogs into rigid categories or to imply that nothing can be done to train or change behavior. Being informed and prepared will, however, certainly help in avoiding certain pitfalls or discovering months after bringing a dog home that his or her behavior is simply not compatible with your lifestyle. Even mixed breed dogs can carry the genetic tendencies of the predominant breed, so keep that in mind when rescuing a pet.
Where is the best source of information when considering purchasing or adopting a specific breed or mixed breed of dog? Rescuers, lists of whom can be found on the web, through the AKC, and at animal shelters. Many of these rescuers possess an incredible wealth of knowledge of their breeds of choice. There is no one more knowledgeable, more objective, or more dedicated to these dogs than a rescue person. There is also no one more willing to educate and even discourage someone from adopting a dog than they are. There is no reason to place a dog in a home knowing that that same dog will be returned due to incompatibilities with the needs of the potential new family.
Michael Chill is a nationally renowned dog trainer.