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UNDERSTANDING YOUR DOG'S GENETICS AND HOW THEY INFLUENCE BEHAVIOUR


Regardless of whether you have just brought a puppy into your home for the first time, or whether you have had many puppies over the years, it is a common fantasy to believe that bringing home a dog to be our companion will be a joyous and simple deed.


We fall in love with an adorable little puppy and imagine that they will grow up into a happy, well-behaved dog naturally. Sometimes this is because we remember other wonderful dogs we have shared our lives with, or because we have a friend or neighbour with a beautifully well-behaved dog that tricks us into believing that all dogs just come naturally pre-programmed with an understanding of the English language, and the ability to know all the rules of how we wish them to behave.


The reality is often very different. As our adorable little puppy begins to grow, he starts behaving in ways that can seem “naughty”– digging holes in our gardens, chewing up our furniture, barking non-stop at every noise, challenging and ignoring us when we ask for certain behaviours, scavenging through the rubbish and surfing counter tops and stealing our dinner.

Many of these behaviours are completely natural instincts for all dogs in general, stemming from their wild ancestors. And some of these behaviours can be very breed-specific, because certain breeds have been bred for generations to display distinct behaviours in order to perform the jobs we wanted them to do for us.


Understanding your own dog’s genetics will give you much insight into their behaviour and how to provide them with the enrichment they need to feel emotionally fulfilled, thus reducing the likelihood that they will become bored, destructive or anxious.


When choosing a dog to join your family, understanding genetics is absolutely vital. As adorable as puppies are, and some breeds are particularly physically attractive, there will be certain breeds which are just not compatible with your lifestyle, and if you insist on adopting them anyway, be prepared for potential trouble in paradise. The jobs each breed were initially bred for will have a tremendous impact on how well they can fit into your lifestyle and home without causing you undue stress. It is important to do your research and read up on the breed traits and characteristics for the breeds you are considering and be very honest with yourself about whether or not you will be able to manage these particular traits, and whether you will be able to provide the home, environment and enrichment that particular breed needs in order to be happy and fulfilled.

For example, Labradors and Golden Retrievers were initially bred to retrieve prey from water or land without damaging it. Humans bred them specifically to keep the wolf’s prey drive of chasing and retrieving prey, but also needed them to be submissive enough to give their high valued possessions to their owners. These dogs have inherited the desire to carry items around in their mouths. You may have met a Labrador or Golden Retriever who constantly carries a soft toy or blanket in their mouth. This is a very common trait in these breeds. If they are wellbred, they will also have a very soft mouth, meaning their bite inhibition is very strong and they are very gentle with any items they pick up or carry.


Thus if you bring a Labrador or Golden Retriever puppy into your home, you need to be prepared for the high likeliness that they will take, chew and hold items that may be valuable to you, including shoes, clothes and bags, or your children's toys. You cannot then get mad at them and punish them for this very instinctive behaviour and it will be up to you to manage your home environment and ensure that any valuable items are kept well out of puppy's reach.

Working dogs such as Border Collies and Kelpies are highly intelligent, have a high energy level, and highly developed stalking and chasing instincts. They like to run and chase and often nip and herd other dogs, cats and even children. They must be carefully supervised, and you should intervene immediately if they are chasing or nipping children, dogs, cats or other animals. These dogs need to work, so if you have a herding dog as a pet living in suburbia, you must make sure you provide them with lots of opportunities to engage their brain, problem-solve, and expend their natural energy with training, games and opportunities to run. You can also fulfill their complex learning needs by teaching them jobs such as retrieving your slippers, finding your car keys, or cleaning up their toys.

Terriers are small to medium sized dogs that were bred to hunt, chase and kill vermin and rabbits. They are very strong hardy dogs who are energetic, independent, predatory, and can tend to get into scraps with other dogs. Some breeds in this group include Jack Russell Terriers, Airedale Terriers, Australian Terriers, Scottish Terriers, Cairn Terriers, West Highland Terriers and Lakeland Terriers. These dogs can be very social and love spending time playing with other dogs, but they can be prone to being snappy and reactive when they feel the need to defend themselves, as this trait was intentionally bred into them to keep them safe when they were hunting.


Terriers tend to have fun and bold personalities. They can be bossy towards other dogs in the family. They are very independent and know how to entertain themselves, so separation anxiety is not common in these breeds. Due to their genetics and the purpose they were bred for, they do have a strong prey drive with small animals so they can be quite dangerous to any animal they consider vermin. They are also prone to digging holes in your garden, as digging for vermin was a character trait they were bred for. These dogs are very energetic and hyperactive, so you will need to provide them with lots of exercise and enrichment to prevent boredom and destructive behaviour.

Toys include Chihuahuas, Brussel Griffons, Maltese, Miniature Pinscher, Papillon, Havanese, Pekingese, Toy Poodle, Shih Tzu, Silky Terriers and Yorkshire Terriers amongst many others. Toy dogs have a long history and may have originally been bred to hunt and control rats and mice in the home, but for many years now have mostly been bred specifically to be companion dogs. These dogs are generally loyal, affectionate, playful, intelligent, and emotional. They love learning tricks and getting lots of attention, and enjoy snuggling up to their humans on the couch.


Toy dogs are great pets for new dog owners because they are small and quite easy to train and manage, but they are known for excessive alarm barking so can be very yappy. Often they are not good with small children as they can be snappy if they get scared or hurt. These breeds have a tendency to be quite dependent and needy, so separation anxiety can be a problem if they are not taught to self-soothe and be independent from a young age.


If you have a mixed-breed dog, remember that he may be genetically predisposed to traits from all the different breeds in his genetic make-up, sometimes going back generations. Or he may display strong characteristics of one breed and none at all of the other. Each dog is an individual, and with mixed-breeds dogs especially, traits and characteristics can be difficult to predict. But learning about the breed specific traits of all the breeds that make up your dog’s genetic lineage can certainly be helpful in understanding your dog’s behaviour.


Remember though that breed descriptions are a general guide only and it is very possible for dogs from these breed groups to be completely different to the descriptions listed. A dog’s personality and behavioural traits may be influenced by genetics, environment, stress factors that may be present for pup or mother during the early weeks, poor socialisation, punishment or fear experienced and more. And this is all before they have even made it to their new home. They are still a useful indication when looking for a new puppy to join your family though. Understanding breed characteristics in general will help you find a puppy that will fit into your home, lifestyle and family and that can grow into a beloved companion without too much undue stress on either of you.



Why Understanding Breed Characteristics is Important

Knowing which specific breed characteristics will contribute to the specific traits our own dogs display is very helpful in understanding why our dogs behave in certain ways, and in deciding which training and enrichment activities our dogs will enjoy, which will also fulfill their innate behavioural needs.


Scent dogs will obviously thrive when given the opportunity to do nosework and scent work, or go on Sniffing Safaris. Herders often excel at agility and other activities that target their athletic ability, and they love a good game of chase. Retrieving breeds often enjoy swimming and other water activities, and tend to excel at games of “Find” and “Fetch”.


However, it is important to remember that every dog is an individual, and whilst genetics are an important contributing factor into personality, it is not entirely unusual to find a Border Collie with no interest in herding, a Retriever with no interest in retrieving anything, or a Terrier who thinks rabbits are friends instead of prey. This is an important consideration when you are researching a new dog to join your family.


Be prepared for the possibility that the dog you bring home may not display any of the breed traits you were looking for. Accept your dog for who he is, love him quirks and all, and always work with the dog in front of you.


All dogs respond well to positive reinforcement, reward based training. Learning new skills and tricks helps to engage their brain and teaches them to problem solve. For food motivated dogs, treat hunts, scatter feeding and food puzzles are incredibly enriching. Regardless of the activity you plan for your dog, the one thing all dogs will enjoy the most is having your full undivided attention during your Enrichment and Training Sessions.


©Rebeca Mas 2021


For more information on understanding Breed Specific Traits and fulfilling your dog's specific innate needs with suitable enrichment activities, read Sniff Play Bark - Your Essential Guide to a Happier Dog






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