Oftentimes, people will call or email me before signing up for class to ask if I have experience with their specific breed. Training dogs professionally for 8 years and working in the shelter and rescue world for 10, there are very few breeds I don’t have direct experience with. It’s true that knowing a dog’s breed can be helpful in training him. However, I think we oftentimes do dogs a huge disservice by focusing on their breed rather than on them as individuals.
Genetics absolutely influence behavior. We know that compulsive behaviors, fear, shyness, reactivity, resource guarding, and dog aggression often appear in certain lines of dogs. In fact, genetics are so important that I advise puppy owners to run away from any breeder who won’t let them meet a puppy’s mother. Furthermore, if mom or dad exhibit any behavioral traits you do not want in your new puppy (perhaps mom is shy, and you have 3 young children, for example), it’s better not to get a puppy from that breeding. Genetics are important.
All that said, genetic predispositions do not create identical dogs. If you have a sibling, do you look and act just like them? Are you an exact replica of your mom or dad? It’s easy to see how ludicrous this idea becomes when we look at human examples. Dogs are no different.
Clients often tell me, “my last [insert breed here] was never like this,” as if stunned that their new puppy isn’t following in their previous dog’s pawsteps. I’ve written before about the myth that certain breeds need to be “shown who’s boss,” and there’s nothing more likely to get my dander up than hearing this harmful lie perpetuated. How would you like it if your school teachers had judged you based on an older sibling’s personality?
I frequently get asked what “kind” of dog my two are. People are impressed by my dogs’ intelligence or abilities, and so want to know where they can get a dog like that. Sometimes I’ll tell them that my dogs are Minnesota White-Toed Chipmunk Dogs, a breed I made up because I hear this question so often. In reality, both of my dogs are mixed breeds, likely descended from a long line of mixes. They may have had a purebred grandparent or great-grandparent, but they’re not anything particular. They’re just dogs. I have no desire to know what breeds may have contributed to their gene pool, because the point is irrelevant. They’re great pets and fun performance dogs. Why should I care who their great-great grandmother was?
It’s time to stop focusing on breeds and start looking at our dogs as individuals. Sure, many Border Collies may tend to be good at agility. But if your Border Collie would prefer to walk in the woods or nap on the couch, there’s nothing wrong with her. Many Bassett Hounds are calm, sedate companions, but if your Bassett loves to play tug and run around with you, there’s no reason you can’t get an OTCH with him or compete in agility.
The take-home message is that dogs, like people, are unique. Choose a dog based on characteristics you want, such as size, energy level, grooming needs, structure, and sociability. However, once you have that dog or puppy in your home, take the time to get to know him. Figure out what he likes and dislikes, and work with him based on the information you’ve discovered. Let him tell you who he is. You may be pleasantly surprised by what you find out.