Know Your Dog
Before choosing a breed, research its historical purpose and decide whether you’re prepared to live with its associated behaviors
By Kim Campbell Thornton
Andrews McMeel Syndication
The dog trainer received a phone call from a couple wanting to hire her to help train their new 9-week-old German shorthaired pointer. “You must like those high-energy hunting dogs,” she commented as they spoke.
“No; why do you say that?” the man replied.
She learned that he had chosen the breed because he’d always thought they looked nice, and he wanted a dog to hang out with. The couple didn’t realize that their highly active puppy would grow up to be a highly active dog. They were prepared to walk the dog around the block, not go running or hunting with him.
As human lifestyles have changed, from hunting mammoths and gathering roots and berries to pushing a cart through the supermarket, it’s easy to assume that our dogs have evolved right along with us to have a more relaxed lifestyle. In fact, the brains of different breeds have evolved differently depending on the traits for which they were bred, according to a study (“Significant Neuroanatomical Variation Among Domestic Dog Breeds”) published earlier this month in the Journal of Neuroscience.
That’s right. Now there’s science behind the advice to consider working heritage before choosing a breed.
Researchers looked at brain scans of 62 pet dogs representing 33 breeds. Their findings established that brain anatomy varies significantly in dogs, likely in response to human selection for particular behaviors. “Through selective breeding, humans have significantly altered the brains of different lineages of domestic dogs in different ways,” the researchers write.
Those differences in brain anatomy aren’t simply linked to the dogs’ body sizes or head shapes. Their neural networks are actually different, based on the traits selected for in particular breeds. For instance, breeds that tend to have cognitively complex jobs such as herding or police work have larger prefrontal cortexes, the area of the brain involved with planning and decision-making.
In an interview with Jill Radsken of The Harvard Gazette, lead author Erin Hecht, Ph.D., assistant professor of evolutionary biology at Harvard, said she and her collaborators could see that breed differences weren’t randomly distributed, but were focused in certain parts of the brain. They identified six networks of the brain where anatomy correlated with types of processing important for different breeds: reward; olfaction; eye movement; social action and higher cognition; fear and anxiety; and scent processing and vision.
The finding? Dogs have multiple types of intelligence that suit them for specific types of work, such as retrieving, herding, seeking out scents, guarding and, yes, companionship. They aren’t born knowing how to round up sheep or retrieve pheasants or sit in a lap, but they do have a propensity to learn those behaviors.
So if you’re thinking about a Dalmatian, for instance, know that they were bred to run behind carriages for long distances.
German shorthaired pointer: bred to seek out and retrieve all types of prey in rough terrain.
Border collie: bred to run miles daily and control challenging livestock.
Siberian husky: bred to pull sleds with endurance and speed in snowy, icy conditions.
Beagle: bred to hunt rabbits over hill and dale.
Jack Russell terrier: bred to chase and dig out prey.
Rottweiler: bred to drive cattle to market and pull carts for butchers.
Miniature poodle: bred to be a circus dog or truffle hunter.
Papillon: bred to be companions, but with the highly active nature of their spaniel ancestors.
Greyhound: bred to sprint after and bring down prey.
Labrador retriever: bred to retrieve bird after bird, all day, every day.
Chihuahuas: bred as companions and ratters.
You get the picture. Do your research and choose wisely.