As Behavior Program Manager for Willamette Humane Society, I often get asked, “What’s your favorite dog breed?” I usually answer, “For what purpose?” It’s impossible to choose only one favorite, when there are hundreds of breeds, world-wide, that have been spectacularly refined for their intended purpose, whether it be as a lap companion, a working stock dog, a hunting partner or as a family friend. Your typical Maltese isn’t going to do well hunting ducks and your rock-star racing champ isn’t going to succeed in a pen full of cows. I appreciate dogs that can do what they were bred to do. One can make some generalizations about certain breeds of dogs because people have selected dogs to do certain things well and picked puppies for generations who can do that special thing.
Take the sporting breeds for example. Pointers were among the first elite dogs, bred for the specific purpose of hunting with a gunman and competing at hunting trials for fame and prizes. But, they were upland game dogs, known to find the birds and hold point until the hunter flushed and shot. Somebody got the idea that dogs could hunt and flush birds when told and so spaniels were developed for that work. And then it was discovered that a dog with a shorter coat and heartier bones would fair better fishing the fallen birds out of water and so the short-coated retrievers became popular. Dogs were specialized in these tasks and then, due to changes in animal welfare laws, ethical breeders were challenged to develop dogs that would leave no wounded game behind. Suddenly, hunting dogs had to do it all. So versatile sporting breeds gained popularity. You can trace similar stories through any other group of dogs – from stock dogs to lap dogs, from racers to ratters, from the guardians of estates to the guardians of our borders.
The dog’s genetic plasticity fascinates me. Select a group of dogs from any mongrel population, carefully breed them and select for a package of phenotypes you like and within very few generations, you’ve got a recognizable pattern. Interestingly, temperament and sociability follow genetic lines, too.
Even within purpose-bred, recognizable breeds, there is variation. Any reputable breeder of dogs will share lengthy discourse with you on the pluses and minuses of incorporating any other line of dogs (of the same breed) into her own.
Scientists agree on what breeders have known for years- Breeding two dogs together doesn’t make the best of those two dogs, but rather brings both the best and the worst of all of the ancestors of those two dogs into a litter of puppies. Only by careful selection and planning can a breeder work, generation by generation, to isolate the genes desired. Good breeders pay attention to these things. Great breeders include all aspects of health, temperament, breed specific behaviors and phenotype into their decisions. When you find a great breeder, you’ll find someone who has truly done his or her homework and who will be as picky about selling a puppy to you as they have been about bringing that puppy into the world. But what about mixed breed dogs? How can knowing breed-mixes help us make adoption choices?
Learn more next week when we tackle why breed-types matter!
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