Does Breed Matter?

Last week I revealed the results of Trout’s Wisdom Panel DNA analysis. So, what good does it do us to know the breed or breed mix that makes up our dogs?

I personally think it can be quite helpful to know the breed mix of a dog I’m working with. But I also know from extensive experience that focusing on a dog’s breed can get people in a lot of trouble. Let’s discuss why it might be helpful to know your dog’s genetic background… and why it doesn’t always matter as much as you think.

Photo by Laura Caldwell

Photo by Laura Caldwell

Firstly, the benefits: Knowing a bit more about what your dog’s ancestors were bred for can give you special insight into what makes your dog tick. Quite a lot of behavior is driven (at least in part) by genetics. If you want a dog to move your flock of sheep, you’re going to have a higher likelihood of success using a Border Collie than a Bloodhound. If you want a dog to catch and kill rats in your barn, starting with a Patterdale Terrier will give you a greater likelihood of success than if you brought home a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.

While Trout is usually quite biddable, she becomes very independent and more likely to ignore me when she’s chasing critters off leash. That makes sense with her breed background: both working hounds and terriers were originally bred to have greater-than-average focus on prey animals of various types. Trout also bays loudly when she’s chasing another animal, a trait that her hound ancestors would have been selected for.

So, knowing what to expect can be an important facet that your dog’s breed brings to the way you care for and train that dog. Knowing which motor patterns a dog is likely to display may change the way I initially work with that dog. I’m much more likely to offer a chase game to a sighthound, a tug game to a terrier, and a piece of food to a Labrador in the beginning stages of training. That hound may really enjoy tugging and the terrier may love to chase, but it helps to stack the deck in my favor if I start with the knowledge of that breed’s typical tendencies (such as most Labs’ desire to eat anything remotely resembling food). Once I’ve gotten to know the dog as an individual I will adjust each training program to perfectly suit that dog, but in the beginning stages it’s a good idea to start with offering rewards the dog is likely to find appealing based on his ancestry.

Knowing a dog’s breed background can also give us important insights about areas where we should exercise caution. If Trout’s results had come back with strong herding breed heritage, my vet and I may have used that information in formulating her heartworm preventative program because we know that some collie-type dogs are sensitive to Ivermectin (a common ingredient in heartworm meds). Had she come back as a Flatcoated Retriever, I would be very aware of the risk of cancer. If she had a long back I would be more cautious about activities that could result in a herniated disc. Since she has the floppy ears of a hound, I’ll be careful to clean her ears after she swims or gets bathed since I know that floppy-eared dogs are more prone to ear infections than those with erect ears.

Behaviorally, we can also use general breed knowledge to avoid issues. My dogs are both terrier mixes, a breed type that tends to be more aggressive towards other animals than, say, retrievers or toy breeds. Knowing this, I choose not to leave the two girls unsupervised together. Even though they generally get along beautifully, the risk of a dog fight happening when I’m not home to do something about it is higher than if they were both Maltese. Owners of German Shepherds, Cane Corsos, and other guardian breeds should not be surprised if their dog begins to display suspicion of strangers between 6-18 months of age, any more than the owner of an Australian Shepherd or Corgi should be surprised if their dog nips at their children’s heels when they run or the owner of a Husky or Jindo should be taken aback when their dog repeatedly escapes their fenced-in yard to run about the neighborhood.

So, knowing your dog’s breed can be helpful. However, focusing on your dog’s breed without first looking at your dog as an individual can do an enormous amount of damage.

I’m frequently educated about breeds by my students. Having fostered over 100 dogs of various breeds and worked with everything from Dogo Argentinos to Coton de Tular, I’m very familiar with most breed traits. And I can tell you that while breed is important, it is much less important than many people think.

It can be helpful to think of your dog’s breed in the same way that you think of your human family. Genetics influences behavior, but so does environment. Furthermore, individuals within a breed will each receive slightly different genetic packages, even if certain genetic markers remain constant within that breed. Think of it this way: you and your siblings are not carbon copies, and neither are dogs. Your family probably has a few commonalities, but judging your new dog based on your previous dog is every bit as unfair as your kindergarten teacher judging you based on your older brother’s behavior in her class last year.

Dogs are individuals, and we need to look at them first as individuals. Making excuses based on your dog’s breed is every bit as misguided a generalization as saying that children from bad homes can never amount to anything.  If your Golden Retriever hates the water or your Malinois is totally uninterested in toys there’s nothing wrong with them, just as there’s nothing wrong with me for not liking spicy food even though my mother and brother both love it. While hounds and terriers are both high-energy dogs, Trout is much calmer than her ancestry would suggest – a trait that’s quite individual to her own unique personality.

In the end, dogs’ breeds can give us helpful insights into what behaviors and health issues to expect. However, these are just generalities which may or may not apply to your individual dog. The best service you can do your dog is to view him or her as an individual. Spend time getting to know your dog and enjoy those unique quirks that make your dog who they are.

8 responses to “Does Breed Matter?

  1. great information. thanks for sharing. i have a yellow female Labrador service dog. read 3 books on them. it is truly amazing way dogs do something. it is part of their dna. much appreciate the insight.

  2. I have a Border Collie/German Shepherd + a who knows what else mix. She came from Georgia near the Tennessee border, so I am sure there is some sort of hunting dog in her. She will not chase a ball or frisbee but is super smart. As near I can tell, she is essentially a German Shepherd wearing a Border Collie jacket ;) She thinks she’s an undercover police K9. I can’t wait to get a dna test done on her.

  3. I could not agree MORE! One of the things I find among owners of Working/Guardian breeds (my breed is rottweilers) is the inability to distinguish between a dog displaying protective instinct and one displaying fear. If you confuse those two behaviors you can land yourself (and your dog) into a whole HEAP of trouble!

  4. I would have loved to have known more about my old dog Mollie’s heritage. She was some kind of terrier but quite a mix. She was very strongly motivated to hunt small creatures like lizards and also seemed to be able to manipulate other dogs into doing her bidding just by staring at them (eg, could get our other dog to give up her bone etc). Not sure if that latter ‘talent’ is a terrier characteristic or came from somewhere else. Here is a picture of Mollie in her twilight years: http://empressnasigoreng.files.wordpress.com/2009/05/6a00e3989f7c4d00050110181e7075860f.jpg

  5. Great information thank you for sharing is good to have in mind whenever we finally addopt a dog of our own.

  6. Pingback: What Kind of Dog do you Drive? | Paws Abilities

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