Originally posted April 2013
Probably the toughest question you get as a dog behaviour consultant is “why does my dog have this problem”. Regardless of the problem, aggression, anxiety, fears and phobias, separation anxiety, everyone wants to know why THEIR dog has a behaviour problem. This is important to people for a variety of reasons including but not limited to the genetics of the dog, how he was raised and where he lives now.
When I saw Dr. Ian Dunbar speaking in Guelph several years ago, he made the point that the only time we can prevent a genetic problem from coming up is before the puppy is bred. Once mom and dad have done their thing, whatever they pass along is expressed in the puppies. This implies a very big responsibility on the part of the breeder, but also on the part of the puppy buyer. In every class we take a moment to ask people about their choice of puppy and the responses are interesting. They range from the serious dog enthusiast, like us who spends years meeting dogs they like, and visiting shows and breeders to select the best possible parents for the puppy and then selecting the offspring of those puppies, through the asinine. Our most unusual rational behind getting a puppy involved a lady who went into a store looking for a potted plant for her sun room and came out with a Belgian Tervuren. Not a terrifically easy Terv either.
If you are going to take the time to add a dog to your home, consider meeting at least mom first. Meeting mom and dad should happen when mom is not being bred and there is an important and poorly kept secret about best practices in breeding. If mom AND dad are on sight, it is unlikely they are a great match as breeding partners. Sometimes, but not usually. Usually, if you own a breeding bitch, you select a male or dog from someone else’s kennel to augment your breeding program. If you are breeding dogs on purpose, you should have a goal in mind and once you have bred your brood bitch once, if she whelped or “threw” what you were looking for, you would keep one of the pups back to breed in a couple of years. Often a reputable breeder will have a mom and a daughter on site, or even a granddaughter. Normally the breeder might be breeding one of these dog in a year, but it is not common that a breeder would be breeding these dogs repeatedly. There are exceptions; service dog organizations might be producing multiple litters, or kennels that provide dogs to the police and military might produce many litters, but in general, people who are serious about their breeding keep mom on site and take her to dad for breeding.
You don’t want to meet mom when she is in heat because she will be hormonally all over the map. For the first while she will be very cuddly. Then she will be somewhat stand offish. Then she will be flirty, but not receptive to attention. And finally she will only be interested in breeding the closest male. When you do meet the bitch, you should be looking at her in terms of how she behaves. Is she polite? Is she nervous? If she is behaving aggressively will she call off when the owner asks her to mind her manners? Is she timid? Is she a dog you could live with? If she isn’t a dog you could live with, tomorrow, without any other training, then do you really want to live with the puppy she produces and teaches for the first eight weeks?
You don’t want to meet the sire of your litter on site either. You should be visiting him separately from the bitch and you should be able to approach him and handle him. If the stud is not a gentleman, do you really want one of his pups? Probably not. Once you have met the bitch and the sire, recognize that breeding is not like mixing paint; if you breed a tall dog to a short dog, you will not necessarily get a medium sized dog. You probably won’t get any dogs who are as tall as their tallest parent and you also probably won’t get any dogs who are as small as their smallest parent, but you also are unlikely to get a litter of dogs all exactly the same size and all exactly mid way between the parents’ heights.
When you are meeting the parents of the litter you are interested in, the best thing you can do is to ask the breeder and the owner of the stud what they are aiming to produce in their litter. They should be able to give you some really good information about what they are aiming for and why they think that these dogs will produce that. if you don’t think you could live with either of the parents, most likely you are not going to be able to live with the offspring and the only time you get to make a genetic decision about a puppy is before he is bred. Once mom and dad have bred, the genetic potential is set. As a consumer, you get to make another choice though and that is to not purchase any puppy whose parents temperaments you don’t like. For more information about choosing a good set of parents you can visit my blog called “Good Breeders Few and Far Between?” at http://tinyurl.com/bzulzj
Once you have chosen great parents and a fantastic breeder, the next place you can directly influence behaviour problems is when the puppies are born. This is what I call the “Miss Manners” stage. It is everything that happens from the time the puppies are born until they are about 6 months of age when all the major social milestones have passed.
Ideally, puppies should have the opportunity for Early Neurological Stimulation in the litter before their eyes and ears open. You can find out more about ENS at http://tinyurl.com/d8a25ds. Early Neurological Stimulation gives your puppy the best chance at having great bounce back at avoiding anxiety issues and at overall better health. If you are visiting breeders, take a copy of Dr. Battaglia’s work with you and ask them if they know about it and if they are doing it. If they are doing “our own version” and are not willing to talk about concrete data and results, then they are not doing ENS; they may be giving the pups a lot of advantages, but then again they may not.
When the pups begin to creep and crawl, they should have wonderful opportunities to climb, carry things around with them, explore and find things and generally develop the best brains possible. If a breeder is sending out litter pictures and there are no images of toys and the pups are housed on flat newspaper, then they are going to have much more trouble as they develop learning about things like carrying items and climbing. The person who does this the best in North America in my opinion is Suzanne Clothier. Duckhill Kennels in the US does a fantastic job getting their little guys ready to go home and they do incredible stuff with their older dogs too; their Youtube video is well worth the watch if you want to know how to really do it in style; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KuE1iGc-IZ0 Developing confident out going pups who are happy and eager to work is a lot of fun and is the least that a puppy deserves.
Then the puppy goes home and it is up to whomever had your pup between 8 and 16 weeks to introduce him safely to everything and everyone he will meet in the world. If every puppy were carefully socialized during this period of time, there would be far fewer problem dogs in the world. You can fix a lot of problems from the genetics department if you know what you are doing at this stage. Not every genetic problem is fixable, but many of them are. This means a great puppy school, and a great family who will help that pup to get where he needs to go and feel safe about doing it.
Before your pup hits 6 months, he also needs to learn things like not to jump up when greeting and not to drag you down the street to meet people, and not to snarf food off the table. In short he needs to learn to be mannerly and to ask politely for the things he wants. If you do your homework diligently at this age, before he gets huge, before he is able to knock you over, and before he is an adolescent, then adulthood is much easier. If you have put everything into place before this stage, and he has good genetics, then you are ready for what might happen in the event that your puppy encounters a War Zone.
War Zones are what I call the horrific situations that dogs end up in that we wish they would not. A car crash can set a nice dog seriously back if he is not resilient enough to incorporate that into his experience and look at it as something that happened just once. Living in complete chaos is another kind of war zone that many dogs experience, and those resilient dogs are those who do just fine, even though they don’t live in an optimal situation. It is also important to understand that what might be normal for one dog, may be unreasonable for another to cope with. Labrador retrievers should not worry when guns go off suddenly and unexpectedly. A working herding dog such as an Australian Shepherd should not be frightened by gunfire, but also should be concerned for the flock if he is hearing a lot of it. When a dog goes through a War Zone, his ability to cope is going to depend on his genetics, which cannot be changed once he is conceived, and what happened between birth and six months, the “Miss Manners” stage.
There are four conditions here to consider. There is the dog who as great genetics and who had a wonderful puppyhood. This pup may be frightened but is likely going to bounce back and cope once the crisis is over. These are the dogs who experience bad things and take the experience in stride. These are also the dogs who sometimes seem not to worry about anything, no matter how crazy the situation is that you put them in. These dogs also cope with unpleasant experiences by changing their behaviour, not by having a meltdown.
Then there are the dogs who have really, really sound genetics, and but didn’t get a great start in life. Often these dogs cope just fine with war zones, but they may not always respond as predictably as we would like for them to respond. They may behave quite outrageously or with a lack of inhibition. They may be explosive in their responses. Their bounce back from crises is not as fine tuned as their cohorts who got what they needed from birth onward.
|D’fer as a puppy. He has terrific genetics and had as perfect a puppyhood as I have ever seen.|
Then there are dogs who got rolled the crummy genetic dice, but who had great puppy hoods. These dogs may learn to cope with war zones, but they are never as good at it as those pups who got great genes. These pups really ought to be in the hands of people who recognize problems early and who know what to do about it. The sad fact is that these pups often end up in the hands of beginners and without a lot of support and luck, they end up in difficulty.
Next we have the dogs with decent genetics, but a really crummy puppyhood. This was probably the situation that best describes how I ended up as a behaviour consultant; I had a dog who was genetically okay, but not fabulous, but she had a very difficult puppyhood. We didn’t know as much as we do now, and I flooded her with all the things that frightened her believing that I was socializing her. I was told to take her to the market, and the park and to let children give her treats. I tried really, really hard, and looking back I can see that I frightened her. Puppy classes were not available at that time and I did what I thought best. I introduced my pup to people and when she showed that she was afraid by hiding behind me, I would put her in front of me and when she wouldn’t take treats, I would get frustrated and sometimes angry. She was moderately fragile in her ability to cope to begin with and when I overwhelmed her as much as I did, she finally figured out that biting would make the scary thing go away. The way that I over socialized this pup left her without good coping strategies as an adult. This is the most difficult situation of all for the people, because when we look back, we feel overwhelming responsibility. Looking back, I can see all the errors I made and when she became aggressive towards strangers, I eventually had to euthanize her. Rest in peace Newtie; never again. Now I help people to understand why this strategy is a bad idea.
Finally we have the dog with both crummy genetics and a crummy puppy hood. These dogs are fragile and don’t have any coping skills. These dogs are the ones who present as frightened and withdrawn and overwhelmed or as over confident and defensively aggressive. A lot of these dogs have a great deal of bravado but when faced with someone who comes back at them will back down and sometimes flee. In an acute war zone, such as a home invasion or a car crash these dogs are extremely frightened and cannot escape their fears. These dogs will often exhibit all sorts of behaviours that demonstrate their anxiety. When they live with people who recognize the signs of their anxiety and can protect them from frightening stimuli, they can sometimes cope, but when they live with people who don’t recognize their anxiety, they really struggle. When these dogs live in chaotic situations where stress is a part of day to day life, these dogs are often very overwhelmed and their people even if they are well meaning may not recognize that they are over threshold because these dogs don’t act out.
If you are looking for a stable pet, you need to start with good genetics. Once you have found the genetic picture you want to live with, then make sure that your pup is raised to the standards of Miss Manners. He will need a great puppy class where the instructors are able to help you to recognize when your pup might be approaching threshold and help you to address that, while gently expanding your pup’s horizons. Finally, avoid war zones with your pups. If you have a herding dog, recognize that traffic may be over stimulating for them. On the other hand, if you share your life with a retriever, getting upset that he is picking up everything that is within reach is just frustrating for both of you. Choose carefully, expose to society with care, and avoid placing your dog in crises.
If you have a dog with serious behaviour issues, there are really three major sources of problems. The genetics may be a problem. He may not have had all the advantages of Miss Manner’s upbringing. Or he may live in his equivalent of a war zone. Most likely though, there are elements of all three issues.