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Veterinary geneticist Jessica Hekman joins us for this episode of the Individual Animal to talk about breed traits and how they affect a dog’s personality. She answers the question of whether or not they dictate personality and behavior (spoiler: they don’t).
It’s important that individuals and companies who set the tone for how society views dogs look to actual experts on dog genetics and behavior for their information. PetSmart’s breed ban (applied subjectively through visual identification) at their daycares and playgroups is prime example of this. They claim to have experts that say banning dogs labeled “pit bull.” But canine science isn’t on their side.
As we’ve said before, dog behavior is complicated and is the result of an incredible amount of variables – all which lead to the science that dogs are individuals. You’ve heard us say it and you’ve seen our infographic, but we know the topic can be confusing, especially with all of the misinformation out there on what contributes to an individual canine personality.
We cover a lot of things in the episode. We talk about the role things like a dog’s early environment play in who the dog becomes, the role of responsible breeders, how individual circumstances can change how a dog sees the world, and of course, we discuss how breed traits fit into all of this.
We address the role breeding plays in selecting service dogs, and whether or not it’s a guarantee that the majority of dogs from a program will make the cut. Jessica, who works with a guide dog program, says the average washout rate is 50%. It’s all about the individual dog.
We also talk about the fox domestication project and what that says about the evolution of dogs and their behavior. (another spoiler: It’s not a clear cut answer.)
We all like simple and predictable answers. It’s human nature to want those things. But science tells us that predicting who a dog will become or who a dog is based on one, or even on two, set of criteria is a fool’s errand – and even if you do take into consideration every knowable aspect of a dog’s genetics, history, and experiences, you still have no way of predicting how all of those things will translate into a dog’s personality.
But this is all better said in Jessica’s own words, so have a listen to the episode, or read the transcript below.
*note that we have edited the transcript for clarity and removed repeated words and “umms…” Please excuse any missing punctuation or typos we may have missed!
Regina: Hi and welcome to the Individual Animal a podcast about animal welfare and discrimination. I’m Regina.
Nikki: And I’m Nikki.
Regina: And today we have Jessica Heckman on as our guest to discuss breed traits and what they are and whether or not they affect a dog’s personality. Jessica I do want to introduce yourself. Tell us about yourself.
Jessica: Well first of all thanks so much for inviting me. This is super cool and I’m really looking forward to it. So I’m a veterinarian and then after getting my veterinary degree I went and got a PhD studying the genetics of… I like to say it was the genetics of dog behavior, but I was actually studying foxes at the time. I was using them sort of as a model for dogs. But I’m now a postdoc working at the Broad Institute of M.I.T. and Harvard. Back home in Massachusetts, I’m working for a lab that actually does study dogs directly which is super nice. We study pet dogs in the home. People come and fill out surveys and answer questions about their dog’s personality and then they also send us some DNA and we take a look at the genetics of their dog’s personality that way.
Regina: Well I think we should maybe also talk about the the domestication of foxes in that program. That’s in Russia right.
Jessica: Correct. Yes.
Regina: Because I think a lot of people use that as an example of how breed traits definitely are real and affect everything about a dog and connect to everything about a dog. So I think that’s really relevant to the conversation we’re about to have. I’m talking about the foxes. I’m going to start us off by saying let’s just get to the point. Do you breed traits exist and what are they.
Jessica: Yes. So I mean I think it depends on what you mean by breed traits, right. And so when I think about genetics, I always think about it in terms of risk. And so I don’t think about it in terms of black and white. So if you’re saying that a breed trait is something that tells you that a dog of a particular breed is going to be a particular way for sure 100 percent then no, those don’t exist. There aren’t there aren’t any… not in terms of personality, right. There might be in terms of physiology, like all corgis have short legs or else they’re not corgis, right. But in terms of personality there is no 100 percent.
If you’re talking about in terms of risk, then sure that there are some breeds that they have higher risk of developing certain certain traits. And I say risk not just in terms of bad things, I would say golden retrievers have higher risk of developing extreme friendliness than other breeds. But it doesn’t mean that every golden retriever is friendly right.
So there was one time, was walking my dog I actually had the dog I was walking at the time wasn’t golden by some other woman with a golden and she started yelling from like an eighth of a mile away, “My dog’s not friendly!!” And I could just see her life of no one believing her that her golden retriever didn’t like other dogs. This poor woman was struggling with the preconceived notions about her dog.
Regina: That’s interesting. You know I think people don’t think of it that way. I mean I know we do and we think about adopting dogs but I’ve never really thought about how it could affect people when they’re just walking with their dog and that could create a really dangerous situation.
Jessica: Yeah! I imagine that this woman had people just letting their dogs run right up to her dog without asking, right. if you have a German shepherd, people are much more likely to ask… if you the golden people… and I’m guilty of this too, right. Like, I judge based on looks and I know it’s not scientific and I shouldn’t do it but we all do it and I’ll be like, “oh that’s a golden I’m sure it’ll be fine.” And you really need to ask because it’s the you know dogs are individuals.
Nikki: How much can we guarantee the dog of a specific breed is going to have a certain trait.
Jessica: Well it depends on the trait. I mean there’s no guarantees. I would say rather than looking at a whole breed, I would look at the individual dog and where it comes from.
So within a breed you have a lot of different types of dogs. Som sticking with the goldens, right , you can divide goldens into working dogs, field line dogs who are really bred for trials, and then you can also alternatively have the show goldens – who are bred to be pretty and those are the ones that more often are seen as pets, but you get the field dogs as pets, as well. They look pretty different and they have somewhat different personalities as well. So you’re going to have different sort of spectrums of traits right. Again, not 100 percent that one is only one way or another one’s going to be the other way. But, you know, you’re more likely to have the field ones be high energy and pretty smart, and the confirmation ones to be a bit lower energy and perhaps not quite such intellectual giants.
But then if you start narrowing down even more… if you go narrowing down into those field breedlines, well some of them are bred for hunting and some of them are bred for agility and so you see differences there. And then if you start going and talking to the individual breeder, she’ll say, “you know this particular part of personality is really important for me, so I really focused on breeding my dogs to have a whole lot of interest in toys” … maybe an agility breeder might tell you. So then your your risk of getting a dog who’s really interested in toys is pretty high from that particular population that you’re looking at when you look at the breed as a whole.
Goldens do tend to really like toys, but some of them don’t. And it just really depends on the population the subpopulation that you’re looking at.
I hate talking about breeds as a whole because there’s there’s still populations within breeds.
Regina: Well so this is a question I was going to ask a little bit later. But I think it’s relevant right now. You know a lot of the dogs out there at least my understanding is, you know, they come from puppy mills or backyard breeders or accidental litters… and these are a lot of the dogs that people have as pets. You know, I would say the average person doesn’t go to a reputable breeder to get their dog, more than likely. So then how can you know these dogs are not bred with any kind of intention, like what you were just talking about. There’s no intention. So then how can we even say that a dog from a puppy mill or a backyard breeder or whatever regardless whether or not it’s quote unquote “purebred” will have breed traits at all because there’s no intention
Jessica: Right for sure. And so, if I were to acquire a golden retriever that I got out of a shelter or or that I got from a puppy mill rescue, I would have very few preconceived notions about a dog like that. And again I might think this dog would be a little bit more likely to be interested in water and toys and things like that. But I would I would be less confident that the dog was going to grow up to be like that versus a dog that I knew a lot more about its background.
Nikki: So I want to backup to the dogs that are bred for intention that also doesn’t… so go back to the woman with the hypothetical woman with the retrievers that’s breeding to really want them to like toys. That doesn’t mean that she’s going to get a dog all of her dogs and all of her litters to have that likeness for toys, right?
Jessica: Correct, for sure. And it’s one of those things that people who are breeding and really trying to select hard for particular traits are balancing right now, where there’s this balance between where you can start breeding stronger and stronger selective pressure for a particular trait that you’re really interested in… and as you do that you end up inbreeding.
And so you get these purebred dog populations right now that come from breeders who we think of as responsible breeders and we’re certainly putting a lot of thought into it, but there’s really this tradeoff at this point between …. Well you can have these dogs where you breed more and more carefully to have them more and more to almost like clones of each other…. But then, you’re going to start having health problems and inbreeding problems.
So I’ve actually been working with schools that breed and train guide dogs recently and that’s been really eye opening. They obviously have a particular suite of behaviors and personalities that it’s really important for them to have. And they absolutely, despite the fact that they have, you know people with PhDs in animal breeding, you know, managing how these dogs are bred… they still aren’t breeding 100 percent of dogs that can go on to become guide dogs. And they even so are being very careful to keep bringing in from the outside. And in dealing with that tradeoff, well you know… We don’t want our group to be inbred and so we bring dogs in from the outside and then we see a bit of a dip in what we’re breeding for. And it’s, you know, that next generation isn’t exactly what we want, maybe, but you have to keep doing that to get back to keeping the population healthy. So even people who are breeding so carefully like that have had trouble. They don’t get all of their dogs being what they want.
Regina: Do you know what they flunk out rate is? What the washout rate is?
Jessica: It’s a really hard question, actually. So, a lot of it depends on how you measure it and you think it would be really easy to measure, right? Because it’s like pass/fail. How hard can it be? It’s a lot of questions.
So the number that gets kicked around a lot is 50 percent and then you’ll talk to some schools that will be like, “Oh no no! 90 percent of our dogs pass!” But then you’ll find out that program isn’t quite so rigorous or that they start measuring after the dogs have already had a couple of chances to fail. They start measuring later on.
But then the other thing with the 50 percent is that some of the schools that you talk to breed a certain number of dogs a year in order to have extras. Then they take sort of the top 50 percent and so maybe of the 50 percent that fail you know maybe the bottom 10 percent really truly couldn’t ever have been guide dogs and others of them maybe could have managed it but they weren’t so confident.
Also failing doesn’t necessarily mean they go off to be pets. It might mean that they do what they call a career change. They end up going, instead of working for a blind person which is one of the very hardest jobs they can do, they might end up being an assistance dog working for somebody needs help with picking stuff up… or you know a balance dog or that kind of work – which is still challenging but not quite as top tier being a guide dog for the blind. So it ends up being a fairly complicated question. But 50 percent is a number that gets kicked around a lot.
Regina: I think this is a point that we try to make with our service dog program. It’s that because people have this big misconception that if a dog is born and is purpose bred then that dog is guaranteed or maybe the washout rate is 1 percent or something like that. And so for us, with our service dogs, you know, we’re showing that it is up to the individual dog and even in these programs it’s still up to the individual dog. I’m going to take a second to talk about my dog, which is my favorite thing to do. So I am legally blind and he’s a guide dog but he’s a shiba. So talk about breaking like major stereotypes there, right?!
Regina: But then we could say maybe he does have that breed trait of being stubborn, right? So let’s say maybe he has that which, I mean he is stubborn, but I don’t know if that’s because that’s something he inherited or if he’s just stubborn because some dogs are just stubborn. But that helps because really I didn’t have to teach him intelligent disobedience. He’s just like, “no we’re not going to do that.” And I think that’s part of the thing though about breed traits especially. He was a rescue. And I know he was not carefully bred or anything like that. I have no idea if his behaviors are ticking boxes from breed traits or if it’s just who he is. There is no way for me to know that.
Jessica: Well… I would also push back on saying that those are two different things – ticking boxes for breed traits versus is how the dog is. I mean, how the dog is a combination of genetics and environment working together to sort of mold his personality, right.
And so breed traits are basically the genetics that you get based on the fact that you are part of a particular breed, which is a closed breeding population. We don’t let dogs in that can’t trace back to those founding dogs, theoretically. So breed traits are genetics. And then how the dog is, is genetics…. and so, you know, did he get some genetics that made him stubborn and was it also part of, you know, part of his or early life that shaped in that way? Yes, it was both things. Absolutely was both things.
And then the genetics that he got that made him stubborn… were those sort of from the gene versions… the alleles that are very common for shibas? Or were they part of you know some variation that’s unique to him? I don’t know. I think probably both.
But I just I guess I would say that I don’t like thinking of genetics in such a black and white way. That it is very much this really fluid interaction between the environment and genetics… and there’s…. you can’t just say these traits are due to genetics and these traits are due to environment. And and you know split them off and these traits are due to being part of a breed and these traits are not. You can’t put them in boxes like that.
Regina: And that’s one thing that, so you know, there was the this study that went viral… It wasn’t really the study that went viral, it was just the article that went viral. It was titled “Breeds really do have distinct personalities. And it comes from their DNA.” And that really… people’s response to that, even though the article and certainly the study, were not black and white, the title made it black and white and people responded to it in such a black and white way. Saying yes it proves… and I think one of the things about breed traits that I see especially in the dog community that I’m a part of is that these distinct traits…. they make them feel special. Their dogs don’t care. Dogs don’t need to feel special. But it makes them feel special that they own such a dog with such a distinct personality.
And I think that’s one of the reasons why people really latch on to titles like that and one of the reasons why it went viral. It just made everybody feel special about their dog.
Jessica: Yeah. Which which we all love to do. I think the other part of it, too, though is that we really like predictability.
I mean I think that’s why chain restaurants do so well because when you’re traveling, you like to know what you’re going to eat, right? And I think you know when you bring a dog home. When I brought…. So, I am I’m right now rubbing the belly of my two year old English Shepherd, Dash. And when I brought him home, I really wanted a dog to do agility with. And it was really important to me to get a dog that fit into my life in certain ways that was going to get along with my other dog. And even if people don’t have, you know, goals like specific dog sports, you definitely want a dog who’s going to get along with all the humans in the house, with all the other animals in the house, and have the energy level that you expect.
We have a lot of things that we want from a dog and we don’t get to date dogs in the same way, like my husband. I got to date him for a while and decide and I could have kicked him to the curb at some point if he didn’t…. I’m saying this all with him in the room, by the way! I could have kicked him to the curb if he didn’t measure up, if he wasn’t what I wanted. But with a dog you bring the dog home and that is it. You can’t…. you don’t… we don’t generally date dogs for two weeks or six months and say, “oh you aren’t really what I wanted.”
So people really, really want to know when they bring a dog home that’s going to be what they want. And, the number of questions I get as a veterinary geneticist, and where people come to me and say basically, “how can I guarantee that I’m going to get this puppy or this dog from a shelter and have that dog turn out to fit into my household and exactly the way I want?” It’s like you can’t. It’s a living being, unfortunately.
But there’s this hope that if you get a dog from a particular breed, that it will conform to the expectations of that breed and that you’ll be able to predict what you’re getting and it’ll be exactly like that last dog that you had. It was so wonderful of that same breed. Or that it will be you know the next agility champion or that it will be a dog that you can do therapy work with that you can take anywhere with you know. And it’s unfortunate that that’s not the case. I totally sympathize with people wanting predictability.
Nikki: So we talked about working dog dog aspect of breeding and breeding. Service dogs to get specific behaviors. I know that breeding for behavior is a lot different from breeding for looks and I would say the majority of pet dogs that are in people’s homes are coming from breeders who breed for looks. Can you talk about the difference between the two?
Jessica: So breeding for looks and if you if you talk to someone who breeds dogs for the show ring, they’ll all tell you that they don’t breed just for showing. They do breed for personality, as well. And I think that is true. They’re breeding for a dog is gonna do well in the show ring, but they they certainly don’t want to breed a dog that’s not going to do well in their home… or not that, you know, is going to produce puppies that they can’t place in pet homes.
But what’s really hard is trying to do both at once. So, if you try to, you know, if you have too many criteria that you’re selecting on, you can’t efficiently select on all of them.
So, looking at, again going back to talking about these people who breed guide dogs, they do it very mathematically. It’s lovely. At least, at the school that I’ve been working with most closely does it very mathematically. And so they have a list of characteristics that they care about and it’s things like you know “is the dog able to do some intelligent disobedience?” and “is the dog too sensitive to body handling?” “Is a dog able to have a harness on them?” “Is the dog afraid of weird things under its feet?” … So all those behavioral things that you want, but then they’re also breeding for health. So, they are also looking to see if a dog comes from a line of dogs that had cancer and such like. And it’s really hard for them to balance all of those things. So, if you’re also balancing in addition, you know… for example, if they breed too hard in one direction, then they’ll start seeing stuff pop up in the other direction they’ll find, “OK. Well we weren’t paying attention to this particular type of cancer because we hadn’t seen it for a while. And so we’re just sort of letting it go because we were more interested in the dogs being really good at being guide dogs and then all of a sudden it got into the population and now you know more and more dogs are being diagnosed with this particular cancer and so we have to start paying attention to that again.”
So it’s this constant push/pull of trying to to balance all of the different things that you’re breeding for. So putting… in breeding for as few things as possible makes you better at getting where you want to go for those few things. And so, if you add in having a particular coat color and having a particular head shape and having a particular white coat color patternings, and having particular ear position… on top of all of that on top of health and on top of personality… it just makes it so so much harder to get there.
So I do believe people who say that they take into account health and personality in addition to breeding for confirmation in the show ring. But the fact is you can’t… the more things you breed for the harder it is to get to where you want to go. And I think that health and personality should be prioritized so, so much higher than winning in the show ring.
That is what I had to say about that. And it might be actually a good time… we had talked about possibly coming back to the foxes because they are fabulous example of breeding for just one thing.
Nikki: That’s where I was getting to.
Jessica: Oh, I looked ahead too far?
Nikki: Oh, you’re good. If you want to talk a little bit about the fox thing that you worked on I think it’s a really amazing study.
Jessica: Yes, I should probably provide the background in case there are a few remaining people out there who are interested in dogs and animals and haven’t heard of the foxes.
It’s the study that started in the 1960s in Siberia. Dr. Dimitri Belyaev started it. And the hypothesis was that if you take foxes who are… they were farmed foxes, so they were being kept by humans. They weren’t technically wild, but they were certainly not tame or domesticated and they were very afraid of an aggressive towards humans. So, if you take foxes like that and start selectively breeding them where you take the least wild of them and breed those together and you just keep doing that, would you be able to basically replicate what happened with the wolf turning into the dog? And would you be able to create some foxes that are super tame? So they have been doing that for about 60 years now. And in fact, they have generated this line of foxes that they refer to as the tame foxes. These foxes are incredibly tame.
So, they will… I actually did get to go to Siberia to visit the foxes for one week. Where I did my PhD was in Illinois and we did not have foxes there on site. We worked with samples and with data from Siberia. But, I did get to go and meet them.
And on the one hand the foxes are super tame. So, even though they haven’t been formally socialized to humans… they have been fed by humans twice a day their whole lives… but they haven’t been formally socialized, but they will come want to interact with you. They’ll enjoy being held by you. They’re very, very friendly.
And then there’s another line of foxes that they bred for aggressiveness. And those foxes are pretty scary. So, on the one hand breeding for just the one thing got them pretty far. On the other hand, what the popular press doesn’t tell you is… the popular press loves writing about the tame foxes. And there’s this nuance that’s hard to come across in a short magazine story…. And so when I met them, I was really surprised to discover that there’s still a lot of variation in their personalities even though they’d been bred for 60 years to have very particular personalities.
The only thing they’d been selected on was basically their reaction to humans during a very specific short test. But, there were still some foxes that would really want to come up and swarm all over you. Some of the tame foxes that were sort of like, “oh I’m not sure I’m going to hang back and sniff you and think about it.”
The line of foxes that were bred to be more aggressive, my guide took me too to meet those and she took me to meet the first one and we watched it to the cage and the fox hid in the back of the cage and she said, “well he’s a bad example.” So we went to meet the next one and he hid in the back of the cage. She said, “Oh he’s not a great example either.” We went to meet the third one and he started slamming himself against the front of the cage trying to kill us. And she’s like, “there’s a good example of an aggressive fox!”
But again, there’s this still pretty impressive behavioral variation within the lines. So what’s really interesting about taming the aggressive foxes is that the most aggressive of the tame foxes is still more tame than the least aggressive of the aggressive foxes. Did I say that right? So there’s no overlap between the populations. However, there’s a lot of variation within the populations.
Regina: But they’re also bred in an extremely strict environment that I that I don’t think any dog breeder… well I mean except for maybe puppy mills… but that’s unintentional. But I mean they’re bred… I mean I wouldn’t say it’s an ideal environment humanely probably…
Jessica: No. Right so I’ve only been talking about genetics. But yeah. So the environment for sure is not the kind of environment that we bring dogs up in. So, a couple of ways in which they differ from dogs… one way is that they’ve been very, very strictly selected for just for personality for 60 years. And we don’t see any dog breeds where that’s true. Right? We don’t see any that have been selected only for personality for that long.
So you certainly wouldn’t expect ,even based just on that you, wouldn’t expect to see any dog breed to have as little variation as the foxes. You expect all dog breeds to have more personality variation just based on the fact that they haven’t been selectively bred as rigorously. Then secondl, as you make the excellent point, the environment’s very different.
So the foxes are raised in a very sterile, basically laboratory environment. They’re basically a fur farm and that is so that they can make sure that they all have very similar environments, so that when they compare the tame to the aggressive foxes, they really know that what they’re seeing is a difference in genetics and not a difference in environment. And that again, not at all true of dogs.
And when you look at the influence that environment has on dogs personality… it’s really massive. So that in some ways the foxes are really interesting examples for dogs, but there this example sort of distilled down to the sort of sort of perfect very small model. And there is so much else going on with dogs. So I guess what I want to say is that if you were to selectively breed dogs that rigorously, you might be able to change their personalities that much, but no one has done it yet –
Regina: nor probably should anyone…
Jessica: Yeah, I would not want anyone to do that.
Regina: Yeah. I’m gonna skip ahead a little. But going back to breed traits and people assuming that breed traits equal personality or outright equal behavior… There are so many quizzes out there now. I know Petfinder has one. Animal Planet, I think used to have one. And then there are just all those like BuzzFeed quizzes.. “what dog are you?” or “what dog best suits your personality?” And I think the Petfinder one is really… dangerous is the wrong word… but maybe irresponsible… because that’s where you go to adopt dogs. So then you take a quiz on what breed is right for you…. And so then you’ll go look for a dog and have these expectations for the dog you adopt may not have.
I don’t remember if the one that I took when I got my dog many years ago… seven years ago… was on Petfinder on Animal Planet, but that is how I started looking for a shiba because that was my number one match. And it turned out that, yeah I got a dog that is pretty much my exact personality, but I didn’t just walk away with any dog. Like it took me a long time to get a dog. I got him from a rescue and they matched me with one that fit my personality.
So I don’t exactly think that quiz was correct because I know lots of shibas with vast variations who wouldn’t fit the description that the quiz gave me at all. And so I think there’s a big danger for people when they, again that’s strong of a word, when they take those quizzes and then they jump right to adopting a dog based on what that quiz said because it really is just taking the stereotypes and things that may not even be true.
Jessica: By just taking breed traits and making a personality out of them, I think that’s really unwise. Yeah I think that doesn’t makes a lot of sense.
And it’s it’s hard, because people really like for biology to be black and white. And so while on the one hand, I like the idea of educating people about dog breeds… And so you know, you see people bringing home a dog that has way too much energy for their household. And you think gosh maybe a Labrador retriever wasn’t the right dog for you. Maybe some large dog would’ve been, but your chances of getting a really super mellow dog were much lower based on the fact that she went looking for a lab. So on the one hand, I feel like it’s nice to educate people and have them really think about what their needs are. But on the other hand, you can’t then go from, “you know I want this and my best chances of getting that are going for this breed.” You can’t go from that and think you will just get any dog of this breed and it’s going to be totally fine. That’s a huge leap.
And it’s people just you know people need to understand that getting a dog is not the same thing as purchasing an item on Amazon where you know that it’s going to be exactly as advertised and that’s used to be what a lot of people think.
Regina: I notice in a lot of dog communities online where people just… they really think all dogs are carbon copies of one another and they all have these very specific traits and that those traits again equal personality. And like I said before I think some of that might be because it makes them feel special. Yeah. Their dog is special with these particular traits but I think that can also lead to barriers and adoption when people assume when rescues or shelters assume that dogs when we look at what maybe as a negative trait that people assume that then they have to protect the dog from being adopted to someone who may not be able to handle those behaviors. Nikki, you want to talk about that because I know you. You’re the expert on removing barriers for adoption.
Nikki: This actually made me think of… I was actually speaking to our colleague Christa today about this podcast because I’ve never owned a purebred dog but she’s had German Shepherds her entire life. So, I wanted to get some insight from her as to why was she making this decision of adopting a German shepherd every time she got a dog. And for her, what it sort of came down to was that the looks were more important to her than how the dog behaved. But it had worked out for her with every dog that she’s had.
She also said every dog that she’s had has been extremely different in personality. So I think for adopters, the barrier is that they are looking for… I would say most of the time is a specific look and not really are always looking for a specific behavior. So when you know so and so goes out and adopts that lab like you said, Jessica, and there they’re faced with a dog with a lot of energy, they were only worried about what that dog looked like and not how it was going to behave. So I think it sort of goes… it goes the other way for shelters. They have just been doing such a great job making sure that if you want a dog that looks like X Y or a purebred dog of this breed, then we are going to make sure we find you one that’s going to work in your household. So that that doesn’t happen so much anymore where we are in animal welfare. But I definitely can see how it can be people can have false expectations in the beginning.
Regina: I see it a lot with rescues… and I’m friends with a lot of rescuers. Some general rescues and some breed specific…. And I see some of them kind of fall prey to those stereotypes that X Y Z breed is an escape artist so you have to have a fence and the fence has to be so high.
I see that a lot still with rescues. And I just think that’s that’s a poor assumption because then you know it’s not like rescues have a plethora of foster homes or even space for these dogs and maybe they have some dogs that don’t need an eight foot fence. So then they’re they’re keeping those dogs in their rescue for a long time, looking for that perfect adopter based on something that may or may not be true about that dog.
Jessica: Yeah I was in I was in rescue. I did lab rescue around like 2005 to 2007ish, and then after a vet school I did a shelter medicine internship and I saw in the shelter world that people were starting to realize and make really great strides in removing barriers to adoption. And it’s not clear to me… There definitely were super barriers to adoption in the rescue world when I was in that world and I keep hearing a lot of stories now… you hear all these stories about people coming to you and they’re obviously really good potential dog owners saying “Well the rescue wouldn’t adopt that to me because I didn’t have a fence or because I had a twelve year old child,” or something like that. You know, “they wouldn’t even consider me.” And I don’t know if they’re…. I’m hopeful that there are rescues out there that are starting to learn, as this information is percolating through the shelter world, and start to remove some of the barriers to adoption but there’s certainly still a lot of them that do have it.
Nikki: Do you have any experience working with breeders and how they pick who gets what dog that they have in their litter at all.
Jessica: Some. So a lot of breeders will do a puppy test and a lot of them will have someone come in to do a puppy test and get some information on. So this will be at around sort of six or eight weeks of age and get some information on the puppies behavior that way. And obviously. the breeder will, if it’s if they’re a good breeder, they’ll know a lot about the puppy by the time they’re placing the puppy. And so they’ll start to have an idea that like, you know, I think this puppy’s personality looks more like this, and that one looks more like that, and then they’ll work with the owners to help the owners decide.
And you see the gamut, right? You see some breeders that are just like “OK owners! You can figure out what you’re gonna do.” And that can either be because the breeders are just not making an effort, but it could also be because the breeder knows that the people that they’re working with know what they’re doing. So I work with a lot of people. I hang out with a lot of people who are deep into the dog sports world right now and they are very competent about picking their own dogs and the breeders will just let them do that if they think they know what they’re doing. When I picked Dash, I called up the breeder and said, “I really wanted a male.” I thought he would get along with my female better. And the breeder said, “OK well we have two that sound like they’d be good for what you’re looking for.” So she basically weaned it down and then was like, “of the two you pick.”
But it’s not clear. So there’s been there’s scientific evidence about the utility of doing these puppy tests or doing any sort of assessment of personality in eight weeks that suggests that personality is so likely to change after eight weeks that it’s almost not worthwhile to make any guesses at all. And I’ve heard some people, high level dog sports trainers, basically say when you’re picking your next puppy go meet both parents make sure that the parents and the lines are what you’re looking for and then pick a puppy at random…
Nikki: and hope it works out!
Jessica: And hope it works out! Because that’s the closest you can get. And given that I sort of feel like, “well if you want to do behavior tests and make guesses that way, that’s just as good as saying that you like the markings.”
But you know you can you can tell something about how the puppy is built at eight weeks but you’re going to have a fair amount of trouble really predicting their personality.
Regina: So why do you think that is? Is that just I mean just like human children we change as we grow up or do. Do you think that’s something about how much nurture affects a dog?
Jessica: Now all of that eight weeks is really young. Think about how much you changed when you went through puberty and they haven’t had not gone through puberty yet. And I know my dog changed a lot. I really wanted to get it. I had never had a puppy and I really wanted to see what development was like. I was amazed at how much he changed when he hit like five and a half months. I was like, “Well where did my sweet puppy go?” He listen to everything I told him and was a little sponge for learning and now you just want to pee on things and sniff girl pee and you know that’s all you’re interested in! So, they they change a lot when they go through adolescence and they don’t necessarily go back to how they were when they come out the other side. So there’s just… they, you know, it’s how the owner is going to handle them and how the owner is going to socialize them and just a lot of stuff can change and it’s chance.
You know my dog Dash is sort of an extreme example of a dog who had sort of a big sort of life changing experience when he was young. I think really changed the course of his personality. When he was five months old, he injured himself. It turned out that he had actually broken a very small bone in his elbow. I knew that he was lame, but I rested him and then it got better and then it got worse. I spent a year and a half trying to diagnose what was going on before I finally found a surgeon who figured it out and went through arthroscopic surgery and fixed it. And then we had a really long recovery. So he had spent a good portion of the first two years of his life being in chronic pain, learning that running around and playing and exercising getting close to other dogs and all those things could cause pain.
It really affected his personality, and I’ve been I’ve been seeing him change as he’s recovered. And I’ve been doing a lot of work with him to get him, you know, unafraid of things hurting him. We’ve been getting back to where I want him to be, but that’s… I thought that was a great example of a dog who you know something happened and it really affected his personality.
Nikki: And you also done a lot of work on how the parents affect the dog’s behavior, correct?
Jessica: I haven’t done that work myself, but I’ve done a lot of reading. You mean in environment? I’ve done a lot of reading and thinking about how the mom effects the baby’s behavior by how she raises the baby. which I’m assuming you’re talking about.
So there’s some really fascinating work out there, which I would love to get into. Some people have started doing it with dogs, but it’s it’s hard work to do. It basically involves watching moms and their puppies for hours and hours and hours on end. Or more likely, video recording them but then watching hours of Dog TV.
So, though the work was originally done in the 1990s in rats and it showed that rat mothers who were much more sort of interactive with their babies so that they would look and groom them more and then they would be more likely to arch their backs to make it really easy for the babies to nurse, that those babies tended to grow up to be much more confidence in the world… much more resilient to stress compared to babies whose moms just didn’t spend as much time sort of doing those kinds of caretaking tasks…. They knew it wasn’t genetics because they would cross-foster, so they would take rat pups from moms that were very nurturing at birth and they would put them with moms who were not very nurturing. They would see that sort of opposite behavioral affect personality as they grew up. So this is super interesting work and particularly interesting because they were able to map it down very finely to exactly what’s going on in the brain. I love when we can really understand the biology, right. And so people are just starting to look at that in dogs.
Then there’s a study that came out… and it’s really early days in dogs…. There’s a study that came out where they looked at something similar in guide dogs and they found actually sort of the opposite, which is that guide dog moms who made it harder for their babies to nurse, those puppies were more likely to grow up to be guide dogs. And so, that may be because that early challenge made it easier for them to do that kind of independent work that guide dogs have to do. So we don’t we certainly don’t know how to make the environment perfect for the puppies or the puppy grows up to be exactly where you want it to be. But it seems like there’s a lot of stuff going on there, if we only knew how to harness it.
Regina: But I feel like that kind of goes back to what I was saying about…. Because there are so many puppy mill dogs and backyard breeder dogs and we really don’t know how much time, if any their moms are spending with them and for puppy mill dogs, probably not a lot. So again, people are making all these assumptions about a dog from a specific breed for having possibly all these behaviors. But there’s so much that goes on when you have all these dogs in the population that are not coming from ideal conditions despite the fact that we all think they are.
Jessica: Yeah. The idea of getting a puppy out of a pet store… I think most people realize this but some people not, if you get a dog from a pet store, it almost positively has come from one of these environments where… you know… maybe there are better and worse puppy mills some of them are not clean…. some of them are clean but they’re still not in a situation where people are socializing them and you know they’ve been raised in a kennel with their moms and best case they’ve been raised in a kennel…. worst case in sort of a small cage.
So it’s just you know it’s so, so, so different from what breeders or really high quality foster parents who raise puppies that would otherwise have been born in shelters. You know the proper way that a human helps a mom dog raise a puppy, you know starts from mom dog not being stressed out when she’s pregnant. That’s important. It’s… puppy brains are already learning when they’re in the uterus that, “if mom is stressed then the world is a scary place and I should be prepared to live in a scary place.”
And then you know having mom in a place where she feels comfortable taking good care of the puppies and then the humans working so hard to socialize them… So you know we all think how important it is to socialize a puppy when we bring it home at eight weeks. But, it turns out that the really the most important part of their socialization period has already closed by then. So there’s a lot that we can and should be doing from 8 to 12 or it’s eight to 16 weeks. But the biggest bang for your buck is in the hands of that person who’s raising that puppy for when it first starts coming out of the nest at four weeks until it leaves their hands at eight weeks. Those those weeks between 4 to 8 weeks are the most important ones for the puppy learning what the world is gonna be about and what to be afraid of and what not to be afraid of. And to have a puppy be in a big commercial facility at that at that age and not have someone be spending, you know, for eight hours a day dealing with that litter…. It’s just you know some puppies may still manage to grow up to be fine and you hear the story of someone saying, “Oh well I got my dog from a pet store but he’s you know he’s turned out just fine.” And yes sometimes they do. But again it’s all about risk and the risk of having a dog who doesn’t turn out to be fine from that environment is so much massively larger.
Regina: I have a friend who… I don’t know if you know about the shiba puppy cam that went mega viral on the internet….
Regina: My friend is that breeder and he just had a very small… well he didn’t have a small litter, one of his dogs had a small litter and he still has a puppy cam. And I’ve learned so much about proper dog breeding from him. And he’s so involved. He and his wife are so involved. They’re so involved before the dog goes into labor. And I think most people have… I think people want to ignore… I mean this isn’t a conversation about puppy mills…. But you know I think a lot of people have the idealized version that like what happens with a responsible breeder is what happens with the dog that they get. And that’s just not the case. And so again that can bring a lot of so much variation into the population.
Jessica: Yeah for sure and you don’t want to believe that the dog that you love didn’t have the best possible start in life. But you know that is sometimes the case.
Regina: And I think that’s something most people don’t think about when they think about what their dog might behave like. I think it’s really good that we ended up on that on that topic. Is there anything else that anybody feels like we should cover
Jessica: I think we’ve got we’ve got most of it down.
Regina: Yeah I think this. I think this will be really educational for a lot of people it was educational for me.
Jessica: Yeah I hope. I don’t know how to reach. I’’m struggling right now with how to reach the people who really like dogs and are really interested in doing the best for their dogs, but are not sort of rabid members of the dog community. So when I lived in Illinois I walked and we had this lovely dog park – and a lot of dog parks are pretty scary places – But this one was 33 acres with trees and grass and it was fully fenced in and we would go early in the morning when there weren’t that many other people there. It was a very safe lovely place and I walked with two or three friends who I got to be very close with their dogs and they loved their dogs. They loved their dogs a lot and they really wanted to do what was right for them as is evidenced by the fact that they got up early in the morning and went everyday to the dog park right… But there was massive amounts of stuff that I, as a member of the dog crazy culture, was just shocked that they didn’t know.
I mean… and they didn’t, you know, none of them had really taken their dogs to obedience classes or dogs did OK but that wasn’t something that they, you know, that they thought was important and they went then when they had behavioral issues with their dogs they had no real idea how to tackle it.
I had this conversation with them where I realized they didn’t fully understand what a dog breed was. Then I explained that if you crossed a lab to a golden and then you took the resulting puppies and just kept bringing them back to labs for 20 generations. So you got this minuscule amount of golden in this lab… 20 generations later is still not a purebred lab it can never be a purebred lab again. Ever ever ever…. no matter how many generations if there’s only one golden in there and they were like “What!” Like that’s what a dog breed is!
So there’s these there’s there’s people out there who love their dogs but I don’t know that they listen to podcasts like this and I don’t know that they you know they don’t read stories in the places where I publish stories and I don’t know how to reach them. I feel like those are the people we want to reach. And I don’t know how to get there.
Regina: Well I think I actually would say kind of the opposite. So I am super involved in the primitive dog community and Shiba Inu community and I mean the breedism and there is kind of nuts. Luckily there are a lot of behaviorists there too but and for anybody who’s listening I love you all even if you’re a crazy breedist. But I will say, I used to be, too, until I started learning actual science but I think we need to reach those people too because a lot of the assumption that people make about breeds and same with huskies. Same with really any breed of dog where any treats treats traits can be perceived as negative and then can become like I said a hindrance to adoption or a hindrance to training the dog right… Because I see so many people in the primitive dog community say “well I guess my dog is just stubborn or my dog is just too independent and I can’t do anything about it.” That’s just the way the dog is. Yeah. And then that that does a big disservice to the dog. And then if you think that you can can’t train the dog or can’t work with the dog to be a positive member of your household, that sucks.
So I think that this podcast and this discussion is really good for everybody because I think a lot of people it’s just really like pop culture stereotypes when it comes to their dogs.
Jessica: Yeah. But you know when you want to tell a story about how your dog is special you can turn it on its head right and tell the story about how your dog is special is a really special special Shiba not just like every other Sheba but her own individual who’s an individual.
Regina: Yeah that’s what I do with my dog but I talk about my dog every five minutes if I can.
Jessica: Do you? I have noticed!
Regina: Yeah I do think that we should make it a drinking game and this podcast that every time you talk about my dog we just we take a drink. We’d be drunk. Nikki, do you have anything else that you want to talk about?
Nikki: I feel we’ve covered everything was good. Good information. And hopefully it will get into the right people’s hands. Jessica, thank you so much for coming on our podcast we were really excited to have you on today.
Jessica: Sure it was so much fun. Thank you so much for inviting me. It’s fabulous. Oh and you should actually, you should tell people where they can follow me on Twitter and on Facebook. Cool. So Twitter is @dogzombieblog. So the joke is that I really like dog brains, so I’m a dog zombie. Yeah. So it’s a little less professional that I would like. I came up with it in vet school and it was fine then and now I’m like, OK….
Regina: No! I think it’s cool
Jessica: but when I’m emailing like veterinarians trying to get myself into talk with the AVNA conference I think that this is my email address now. OK. But @dogzombieblog on Twitter and then on Facebook if you search for like Jessica Heckman dog zombie you’ll find it. But it’s Facebook.com/dogzombieblog.
Regina: Cool we’ll link to it in the show notes, too.
Jessica: Oh that’s perfect. That’ll make it work.
Regina: And hey if you ever think of a topic that you want to talk about. You are welcome back anytime. So just let us know.
Jessica: All right.
Regina: Thank you so much Jessica.
Jessica: Yes. Thank you both. This was lovely. Thank you.