I was sitting in my backyard the other day and I gazed about looking at my 3 pups. Que, my English pointer, was stealthily pointing lizards, sniffing them out from great distance, approaching and hitting a hard point. Bailey, our old but still spry Jack Russell terrier, had her nose deep in a hole she had dug under the stair, sniffing heartily as a rodent of some sort has been active some evenings there. My Sea, our Chihuahua/miniature poodle mix, was stretched out sunning herself, half an ear to Que and Bailey just in case something easy to chase might come along…
My dogs have behaviors that are classic for their breeds. Que points, Bailey hunts for rodents and, when she was younger, would put her life in peril with her tenacious focus. Sea lacks the hard drive but has learned that Que pointing means he is likely pointing at something fun, so she bum rushes in and chases off his prey.
While we stress the importance of individual behavior in all dogs, we cannot eliminate the powerful traits that individual breeds – and even within breeds, e.g. real working dogs vs. pet breeding – have. By doing so we are setting our adopters and even ourselves up for unrealistic expectations and missed opportunities.
While I recently resurfaced a blog post where I clearly state that we should not set dogs up for a lower likelihood to exit our shelters with increased policies and restrictions, and I stand 100% behind that, I also think it is very important for us to make clear the breed traits of the dogs when we can identify the breed or breed mix.
We can share both individual dog behavior as identified in the shelter, as well as breed traits – the fact is, if someone wants a dog who points, what would we guide them to – a pointer or a Chihuahua? While we can probably teach that Chi to point, the adopter would be less likely to leave with unrealistic expectations if we sent him home with a pointer. Breed does matter. Physical characteristics lead to increased likelihood of particular behaviors and lines bred specifically for work likely being more pronounced – be it pointing, chasing or even arousal when feeling discomfort.
Ignoring breed can lead us to set dogs up for failure. Recently an individual from a shelter reached out to me for advice after a dog fight. Two, let’s say, JRT-type dogs were introduced for a play group, and while they did well together for the first few minutes, inappropriate behavior of one led to a significant fight that was quite difficult to end. Dogs who tend to grab, hold and not let go in fights with other dogs might not be the best candidates for play groups in shelters with limited resources and limited training. Obviously many JRTs will greatly benefit from play groups, and by noting both the individual behavior and, when possible, the breed, we can assure we apply the right programs for each dog. Now, let’s replace JRT with pit bull terrier in the story above and we may raise a few more eyebrows – but we are not maligning a breed, we are supporting them! When I see Labs and pitty types in shelters, you can bet I will be recommending oral enrichment and read-and-relax programs to support the strong needs for oral stimulation and human social interactions these guys tend to need. I am recommending burrowing (under covers) opportunities for the Chihuahuas, and opportunities for nose use for the beagles… At the same time I would recommend identifying the behaviors in that individual… Combined, we have a powerful combination to set these guys up for success!
ASPCA Vice President, Equine Welfare
Dr. Emily Weiss, PhD, CAAB, oversees strategic direction of the ASPCA Equine Welfare program, a part of the ASPCA's Anti-Cruelty Group. Weiss is a lifelong horse owner and trainer and has conducted research regarding adoption and rehoming of horses. Recently, she began leading the ASPCA's collaboration with The Right Horse Initiative, a collective of industry professionals and equine welfare advocates working to improve the lives of horses in transition by increasing training opportunities for horses and promoting adoption. Weiss leads efforts such as a pilot program with veterinarians and global animal health company Zoetis to provide access to vital veterinary care and increase the likelihood horses can remain in their homes. She also served as the ASPCA’s VP of Research & Development, overseeing research related to the animal sheltering field and developing assessment tools for shelter animals, including the SAFER assessment and Meet Your Match Canine-ality, Puppy-ality and Feline-ality. Before that she created training programs to improve husbandry and decrease stress for many zoo animals. Weiss is co-editor of the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science and has published and lectured extensively in the field of applied animal behavior.
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