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They’re all the same, but different…

Today I saw a Facebook post that took issue with trainers and behaviourists who recommend that people should not own certain breeds of dogs because they come with difficult behavioural traits. There were many comments on it, both challenging and in support.

It reminded me of a conversation I had with a mountain man and a rock guitarist some years ago, (I’m not sure where the kiwi was, probably lost astride a big KTM somewhere). We were pondering the pronouncement of a wise man from Lincoln that, ‘The variability within a breed is nearly always greater than the variability between breeds for behavioural traits…  …meaning when it comes to assessing the likelihood that a particular individual will behave in a certain way generalisations are often unsound.’

After much to-ing and fro-ing, the mountain man worked out the answer was ‘skewed distribution curve’ (it’s all that time in the fresh air that allows for deep thinking).

For those of us who aren’t rock guitarists or mountain men (or lost kiwis) it means ‘Don’t rely on generalising behaviours based on breeds because occasionally you will be wrong.’ Not always, but occasionally.

It’s the reason I won’t recommend one when people ask, ‘what breed of dog should I get?’ Because if I do recommend that Labradors are good pets they will obviously find themselves the worst monster Labrador that ever walked the earth.

‘Don’t get a border collie if you live in a flat’ and ‘Don’t get a Mali unless you’re going to work it,’ IS good advice, but there are collies living happily in flats and there are lazy laid-back Malis with no work ethic.

The more dogs you see, the more you see that fit the stereotypes. But you occasionally see one that doesn’t, and that’s the problem. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been told, ‘I’ve had (fill in breed) all my life, but never one like this!’ It’s usually in an exasperated tone because they are having problems, but the opposite applies at the other end of the spectrum too.

So, ‘Don’t get a (fill in breed) because they (fill in perceived problem)’, is right. And it is wrong. Some will be problematic; but others won’t.

What to do when you want to choose a pet then? Research. Research the breed’s behavioural traits. Look on the breed rescue webpages and see what they say. If you see twenty examples of, ‘must not be rehomed with cats’, take that on board. Look at the differences within breeds. If you’d like a cocker spaniel, do you want working stock or show stock? Same for border collies, same for Malis, same for GSDs. Working and show are not the same animal.

Then do some research at rehoming centres. If they have one of a breed of your choice, ask them about it. Then listen to what they say. Do not expect it to be like the last eleven of the breed you had, because it might not be. But they will know because they’ve been looking after it. Listen to them. If they can’t tell you, walk away and delete their number from your phone because they are not up to the job.

If you have to have a pup, research breeders. Don’t assume a breed is a breed is a breed. There is huge variation in temperaments. Ask about previous matings and if you can speak to owners of those dogs. How have they turned out? Are they what you want? If not walk away and look elsewhere.

If you want a laid back Mali, or a border collie that can cope with life in a flat, there is one out there somewhere. You just need to find it. But for heaven’s sake don’t just grab the first one you see. Because they are all individuals.

2 replies on “They’re all the same, but different…”

Does this apply to behaviours as well , i have a neighbour who owns a male dalmatian and when it greets you it wags its tail and raises its top lip to show clenched teeth at the same time , i always expect a wagging tail tail to be a welcome response from a dog that is happy to meet me and i always expect a dog showing a top raised lip and clenched teeth to be doing so as a warning to me that it is ready to bite me .It just seems odd that this dog is giving me the happy and unhappy vibes at the same time.Am i missing something here or misinterpreting the signals.Confused.

Hi Terry,
You make an interesting point, but I would need to see the Dalmatian’s behaviour in context to interpret it properly. Certainly in general dogs provide behaviours on several levels. The first is simply a reflexion of their emotion – they feel happy, they look happy and provide ‘happy’ behaviours. The second is they use what has worked before; ‘head on the knee’ isn’t necessarily an attention-seeking behaviour but can become one, if, like my old Lab learned, it worked to get your head stroked. They can also combine the two – ‘how I feel + what worked before’, big puppy eyes get me the cuddle I need.
Then we have our interpretation of their expression – wagging tail can mean lots of things, but the only reliable take-away message is ‘look at me, I’m trying to tell you something’. High wagging tail can mean they are trying to be assertive, low wagging tail can mean they are worried, slow generally means tentative and fast can mean aroused (although high slow, ‘flag-waving’ can also signal high arousal) – it’s all about context and what else is happening.
Teeth-baring, as you describe, is generally a warning, ‘look what I have and I’m not afraid to use them’, but there is also what is described by some as an, ‘appeasement grin’, which is a slightly stylised tight pulling back of the teeth. This may be what your neighbouring Dally is doing. It signals, ‘I mean you no harm’.
So an appeasement grin and low-ish wagging tail could be an appropriate greeting. It could be emotionally generated or learned (‘people are nice to me when I do this’) or a combination – started emotionally and moved to learned as it worked.
Then there is the possibility that it is outright low-level aggression, ‘go away’, signalling, but seeing as it has not escalated this is unlikely – because it’s not working to fulfil its purpose.
Finally we could have a combination signal – the so-called ‘approach/avoid’ conflict. Some dogs want to be friends but find close contact stressful. That could be genetic (inherited low-confidence) or learned through previous stressful experiences – or a combination of the two.
So you could actually have a back end that is saying, ‘I’m pleased to see you’ and a front end that is saying, ‘but please don’t come too close’. And if it works for the dog to achieve its desire, ie people not coming too close, could become a learned greeting.
Of course this could or could not have anything to do with you personally – it could have learned it from by interacting with other people long ago, or it could be specific only to you because of how it feels about you.
I hope that goes some way to helping answer your question, but as they say, ‘it’s complicated’.


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