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Instincts & Breed Traits (LONG)

04 Aug

Sorry this is so long, I got carried away.

Recently I posted a link to this article, and if you haven’t read it yet you should: Nuisance Behaviors and “Naughty” Dogs: Who Problem Is It, Really? In essence the article reminds us that dogs don’t inherently know human rules and it’s our responsibility to teach them. There are no bad dogs; there is only poor communication and unrealistic expectations.

It brought to mind another point that’s dear to me: respecting the natural instincts of dogs. As a species canines possess certain instincts and humans have artificially strengthened some of them. Humans developed each breed for a specific beneficial function and the traits that enhanced the dogs’ ability to perform that function were selected for. Mixed breeds inherit all the possibilities of their ancestry, so knowing the breeds involved can provide a broadly painted picture of possible behavior traits.

As I am wont to do, I geeked out. Keep in mind that these are general observations applied to broad categories.

  • Terriers (hunt burrowing small prey): high pain tolerance, little human input needed to get job done, “fight” fear response stronger than “flight”, high environmental curiosity, highly attuned to movement/sound/scent and environmental changes, work at a variable pace with moderate to high energy output, highly persistent, typically work alone rather than in a pack, actively seek prey, more focused on environment and prey than on humans, live and work in rural areas
  • Guarding (protect people/property/animals): high pain tolerance, no human input needed to get job done, “fight” fear response much stronger than “flight”, highly attuned to changes in the environment, work at a constant pace with low energy output, highly suspicious of unknown humans/animals, warn intruders prior to engagement, typically works alone rather than in a pack, constantly scanning environment, property/animal guardians typically don’t leave their own property and work in rural areas, human guardians typically do leave their property and live in urban/suburban areas
  • Fighting (other dogs/animals for human sport): very high pain tolerance, some guidance needed to get job done, social toward people with excellent bite inhibition, low tolerance for other animals, square head and short muzzle for optimal jaw strength, low center of gravity, tenacious, works in short bursts with high energy output but has stamina, strong “fight” fear response for animals, “flight” fear response for people, more focused on humans or dogs than on the environment, live and work in urban/suburban areas
  • Sighthounds (hunt prey in high-visibility environments): pain tolerance dependent on typical prey, no human input needed to get job done, “flight” fear response stronger than “fight”, highly attuned to movement, work in short bursts with high energy output, aerodynamic, often developed in resource-poor areas and have low food motivation, more focused on environment and prey than on humans, typically hunt large game and takes down the animal, usually does not hunt in packs, live and work in rural areas
  • Scenthounds (hunt prey in vegetation): high pain tolerance, no human input needed to get job done, “fight” fear response stronger than “flight”, highly attuned to scent, works at a constant pace with bursts of moderate energy output, more focused on environment and prey than on humans, typically hunts small game and does not take down the animal, often hunts in packs, live and work in rural areas
  • Herding (gather and move livestock): cattle dogs might have a higher pain tolerance than sheep dogs, high human input needed to complete job, “flight” response stronger than “fight” response, highly attuned to movement, works at a constant pace with occasional bursts of speed, uses strong body language (e.g. hard eye or stalking) to move animals rather than physical contact, more focused on humans than on the environment, seldom leave their own property and work in rural areas
  • Toys (hang out with people): traits will vary depending on the breeds used to develop the toy breed; low pain tolerance, job is to be friendly and tolerant of adult humans (specifically their own humans), fight/flight response varies but usually flight due to small size, energy levels vary, highly attuned to people and movement, may leave their property and live in urban areas
  • Sporting (locate/indicate/retrieve birds and small game in water or field): high pain tolerance, high noise tolerance, moderate human input needed to complete job, fight/flight response balanced but likely not easily startled, highly attuned to movement, works at a constant pace with endurance and stamina, excellent bite inhibition, balance of focus on humans and environment, typically works alone with their human but travels with other dogs/humans, often leave their own property and work in rural areas, live in suburban/rural areas

This gives you a general idea of what, say, an Irish Wolfhound would be like to live with versus an Irish Terrier or an Irish Water Spaniel.

Since I have terriers I’ll continue with that line of thought. If you consider all the things that terriers were bred for you can easily paint a picture of what it would be like to live with one. Maybe more than any other group, terriers bring to mind specific stereotypes: hyper, scrappy, not great with kids, hard to train, unreliable off leash, can’t be trusted with cats, bark a lot, mouthy, etc. Alas, these are just labels applied by humans who didn’t do their research.

Here’s my analysis:

What did people want out of a terrier? A dog who would search out and gleefully dive into small spaces after angry prey that might be his same size, not coming back until the critter is dead.

As a result terriers act first and think later, jumping confidently over a wall before finding out if it’s really a well. People couldn’t use a dog who cringed away from the things that scared him, they needed one who came back for more; hence their scrappiness and tendency toward “fight” rather than “flight. And of course angry critters in tunnels frequently lead to injuries, thus the high pain tolerance.

Critters cause lost profits and property damage, so no surprise that land owners wanted a dog who would always be on the look out and ready to hunt. These dogs were constantly scanning the environment looking for signs of prey: movement, scents, sounds. When they did find prey they had to dispatch it, which takes a lot of effort. They had only one job and the last thing a farmer needs is to micromanage their dog; that dog better be able to work independently or he has limited usefulness. This means the dog had to be an elite problem solver and incredibly persistent.

With such a specialized job there wouldn’t be a need for numerous terriers, so most terriers probably didn’t live with many other terriers. They probably lived with herding, guarding, hound, or sporting breeds, most of whom are much bigger and less scrappy. They also lived in rural areas, so they didn’t spend a lot of time in confined spaces, large groups, or surrounded by artificial environmental stimuli.

Now all those labels make a lot more sense, right? Hyper, scrappy, not great with kids, hard to train, unreliable off leash, can’t be trusted with cats, bark a lot, mouthy, etc. These are just negative perceptions of the things that humans selected terriers to be good at.

My point is this: while there is always variation between and within breeds/types, you can guess at what it would be like to live with a particular dog based on it’s breed(s). Armed with that knowledge you can compare that prediction to your actual lifestyle and see if that dog is really a good fit. If you frequently host large parties and have a small lot on a busy street, a guardian mix would have a hard time with that lifestyle. Is it possible? Sure. Will it be easy? Probably not. Just remember that you chose to bring your dog into your life, so it’s on you to make it work.

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Posted by on August 4, 2017 in Other Stuff

 

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