I Am Not a Breedist…
I have always said I am not a “breedist.” By this I mean that I do not make assumptions about an individual dog based on breed tendencies. While I recognize that breed tendencies absolutely exist, when working on adoption and matching in shelters, we need to use that information to help inform how we will best learn about this individual dog as opposed to lumping him or her into a particular category.
Yes – it is easier to teach an English pointer how to point than it is to teach a Jack Russell to do so – they are simply built to have more sensitive pathways for visual and olfactory stimuli. Does that mean that every pointer will point? Certainly not – but they are more likely to. Given the right experiences, those behaviors are quickly learned and reinforced. This holds true for a spectrum of behaviors – from predatory behavior, social interactions, and more.
Recently published in Applied Animal Behavior Science, an article by Duffy, Hsu and Serpell titled “Breed Differences in Canine Aggression” is of great interest to behaviorists, vets and others in the field. The researchers used a tool called C-BARQ for the research. C-BARQ, developed by Dr. James Serpell at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine’s Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society, is a validated and reliable survey instrument for assessing dogs’ typical and recent responses to a variety of common stimuli and situations.
The authors surveyed owners of more than 30 breeds of dogs and found that certain breeds had a higher percentage of reports of certain types of aggression – specifically aggression toward strangers, aggression toward owners, or aggression toward other dogs. They found that breeds with the greatest percentage of dogs exhibiting serious aggression (bites or bite attempts) toward humans included dachshunds, Chihuahuas and Jack Russell terriers (toward strangers and owners); Australian cattle dogs (toward strangers); and American cocker spaniels and beagles (toward owners). Author’s note: I should point out that 2 of the Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists at the ASPCA have great affinity for a couple of these breeds – Dr. Stephen Zawistowski is a beagle fan, I a Jack Russell freak…). Regarding aggression toward other dogs, the breeds with the highest percentage of reported serious aggression were akitas and pit bull terriers.
So what do we do with this information? First, see the authors’ caution regarding interpretation of the results: “The present findings should be interpreted with caution. The substantial within-breed variation [meaning that not all individuals of a particular breed behave the same] in C-BARQ scores observed in this study suggests that it is inappropriate to make predictions about a given dog’s propensity for aggressive behavior based solely on its breed.” Certainly this information should be used to help inform us in developing an individual behavioral profile. By noting the potential for breed differences, we can use individual behavioral assessments to assess the likelihood for an individual of a particular breed to behave in a particular way.
Unrealistic expectations about a pet are a big risk to the bond between animal and human. If we can better set up our adopters for success by acknowledging breed tendencies and also assessing the behavior of the individual dog they are choosing to bring into their lives, we can better set them up for success.
Have you had experience with dogs not behaving within their breed description? How have you handled the expectations of your adopters who are interested in adopting Sassy – the Labrador retriever who has no interest in retrieving? Please share your experiences.