What Can Affect Our Dog’s Behavior?
I am often asked, “How do I get the perfect dog?” I always start by asking for clarification, “How do you define “perfect”? Typical responses are: I want a dog that will: have good manners, NEVER bite, NEVER growl, like ALL people, like ALL dogs, like ALL of our current pets, will NEVER chase cars, will ALWAYS stay in an unfenced yard, will NEVER jump on people, will ALWAYS alert me when someone “sketchy” is
in the yard but will NEVER bark at people I like, will NEVER kill a squirrel, will ALWAYS be safe around ALL kids, will ALWAYS come when called and will stay close to me but will not hang around me when I don’t want it to, and so on. At its most extreme, that sounds like “I want a dog that will do anything I want, whenever I want, and will do nothing and be content if I don’t want it to do anything.” That is not a realistic expectation and is failing to meet some of our dog's most basic welfare requirements.
I often wonder where people get their expectations of what constitutes a “perfect” dog. Unfortunately, not all but some of the people selling dogs such as breeders, shelters/rescues, pet shops, set us up to think the dog they want us to go home with is “perfect” because they know if we think otherwise, they may lose a sale. Selling a dog is not unlike most other things for sale. We typically want the best we can get. In some cases, those selling the dog even go so far as to use puppy temperament tests and shelter behavior assessments to convince us this is the right dog for us. Unfortunately, these tests may be misrepresented and presented to us as a predictor of future behavior. If we interpret that as a guarantee, they may or may not try to dissuade us from that impression. Temperament
and shelter assessment tests are nothing more than a snapshot of a dog’s behavior in a specific scenario at a single moment in time. They are not predictive of nor are they a guarantee of future “perfect” behavior.
In some cases, our expectations of a “perfect” dog are the result of memories of dogs popularized through the mass media like Lassie or Air Bud. As endearing as those stories are, they are fictional accounts of dogs. Assumptions about certain breeds, usually based on an opinion that may not be supported by data, such as “Schnockelfensters are ALWAYS great with children!” can also bias our opinion inappropriately. I cannot tell you how many different individual dogs and breeds I have met over the past 25 years, but I do know I have seen extremes in behavior in all breeds.
If we look at the list of the characteristics many want in a “perfect” dog, most of those characteristics focus on a dog’s behavior, what it will or will not do. Also I want to point out that people often use lots of absolutes with words like: ‘NEVER,’ ‘ALWAYS,’ and ‘ALL.’ The problem with using absolutes when discussing the behavior of a dog, or any animal, even human behavior, is that behavior can change and often does change and, like most of life, is seldom absolute.
Many things can affect behavior. Genetics play a major role in future behavior. If either parent had certain genetic traits such as shyness, the puppies will probably also be shy.
We have many different breeds of dogs because they were selectively bred for certain traits. Dogs come preprogrammed with certain species-specific behavior motor patterns based on what they were bred to do. The dog is a predator, and as such has a motor pattern sequence to ORIENT > EYE > STALK
> CHASE > GRAB-BITE > KILL-BITE
> DISSECT > CONSUME prey. That does not mean every dog will be an efficient predator, but it may
still have a strong instinct to go through all or part of this sequence. This pattern of behaviors is what makes retrievers retrieve and what allows herding breeds to move livestock successfully. Unfortunately, a working herding dog with strong instincts to stalk, chase, and grab- bite is probably not a desirable trait for a dog that will be living with children. It is something we need to consider when searching for the “perfect” dog for our family today and what it will look like throughout the dog’s expected life. A herding breed may be a perfect companion for a young couple who likes to hike but may not be the best choice if two years later they have twin infants.
What happens during a puppy’s critical developmental period from birth to 16 weeks of age also has
a great influence on behavior. If a puppy is a singleton, that puppy will not have an opportunity to experience social interactions with littermates unless it is placed in another litter where it can gain the social skills it will need to interact with other dogs successfully.
Next month I will discuss other factors which can influence our dog's behavior.