Most people can name a dozen different dog breeds. Yet most people cannot name what those dog breeds were bred to do- or indeed, why different breeds exist at all.
For over two decades I have been transfixed by genetics; particularly the manifestations present within domesticated dogs. More than any other species, the domestic dog has been honed into hundreds of breeds with distinct traits.
I began teaching canine training classes when I was fourteen. Many clients expressed surprise or frustration their dog behaves so differently than their last. This is, I believe, due to an innate human belief that dogs are dogs are dogs, and that breeds are variations primarily of appearance, rather than function. While the reasons dogs end up in shelters are diverse, I believe a lack of education on the traits, temperaments, and needs of breeds are one of the leading factors.
Consider a genetic span; two years for a dog, twenty for a human. For over ten-thousand years we have lived alongside dogs, and bred them, and many modern breeds- particularly sheepdogs- can trace their lineage to herding dogs bred thousands of years ago. Dogs selected for their ability to gather livestock, yet devoid of the instinct to kill livestock. Generation after generation, honed to a particular role. Watch videos of dogs herding online. Now consider your dog- or any dog. If your dog is not a herding breed, in all likelihood she will find a herd of sheep fascinating to sniff and bother, yet it will virtually never occur to her to gather or herd them anywhere. Yet for thousands of years- including today- the instinct of a sheepdog to move livestock is essential to countless farmers.
It is, then, inborn traits, drives, and temperament which make a breed a breed. Aesthetic appearance is functional- consider the webbed feet of a Retriever- yet aside from the role it plays in assisting the dog in performing his job, it is merely window-dressing.
There is reason sighthounds chase small prey, Retrievers will drop dead before giving up on the tennis ball, and terriers will burrow below a shed and wait out a mouse for days. It’s instinct. And dogs were bred for a job because they loved it- and most continue to love it- to this day. Nearly all problems dog owners encounter relating to behavior have some basis in breeding- aggression is a byproduct of inadequate socialization and genes, as is barking, as even is the tendency to jump six feet in the air and accidentally kill grandma.
When visiting a rescue, or considering a potential breed for your family, it’s useful to know you prefer a small, longhaired dog. It’s even more helpful to know what will make you hang yourself off the freeway. If you live in an apartment, a dog that barks incessantly probably isn’t wise. If your weight makes you liable to blow away in a strong breeze, a dog bred to pull sleds is not a great pick. All dogs require training and socialization, and yes, there are aggressive dogs in every breed, and any dog can be aggressive, but as a general rule of thumb, if you want a dog who will be friendly to everyone and can visit a nursing home or preschool, certain breeds are better than others.
So when choosing a dog, consider not form but function. While one follows the other, reversing the two, when choosing a dog, can lead to a sticky situation.
Stay tuned for the next article in the series- whether a dog is right for you (at least, for now), and how to find the breed(s) that are right for your family.