He’s good with kids, right? He’s a Labrador – Beware of positive assumptions about dog breeds

Beware of grandiose claims about dog breeds – article by Canis bonus. November 2016
Author: Laure-Anne Visele.
Illustration credits at the end of the post.

About the author: certified dog trainer in The Hague

IMG_6639

Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school) in The Hague.

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour.

I have a degree in Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.

Mutt or pure-bred dog?

It breaks our heart, but we are nearing my old dog’s end, and we are tempted to look at a breed dog after a series of (successful!) rescues. Philosophically, I can’t get past the fact that the shelters are overflowing with unwanted dogs looking for a second chance, and that families still order new purebred pups. Practically, I am getting less high-horsey by the day as I consider the idea of yet another ‘project dog’.

Philosophically, I can’t get past the fact that the shelters are overflowing with unwanted dogs looking for a second chance, and that families still order new purebred pups. Practically, I am getting less high-horsey by the day.

Like most modern people, I am inhumanely busy: I have a young kid, a husband, friends, and hobbies. And, most of all, I run two companies (OhMyDog!, the dog training school and Canis bonus, the dog behaviour practice). So I could do with a low-maintenance dog – if there is such a thing. I dream of this calm but motivated, independent but cooperative, miracle of a dog. I know better, of course. No matter what, I’ll need to invest a metric ton of time and energy (and money!) before I get half the dog I dream of.

But yes. I am also contemplating going the breeder route this time round. So shoot me. I too want the Good with children dog. And now the question is: how to make the right choice? Welcome to a series of blog posts about breed dogs, starting with:

Dog breed traits: the publicity game

When you get information from a breed club, be critical of what you read. Chance is it was written by huge fans of the breed, so you’ll forgive breed clubs’ tendencies for spinning worrying imperfections into Lassie traits.

In the professional dog world, we are so familiar with this phenomenon that we have worked out shortcuts to the downsides of these rosy traits:  

  • Faithful can mean So shy of strangers he’ll hide behind a chair rather than let your guests approach him,
  • Cuddly can mean So dependent he’ll howl the hours away from the moment you leave the house,
  • Good guardian can mean So paranoid of visitors he’ll bite first and ask later,
  • Independent can mean Stubborn as a plank of wood.
That's OK, he's just being a 'good guardian'

That’s OK, he’s just being a ‘good guardian’

To every ‘good trait’, beware of the other side of the coin. Chance is you’re in for a rough landing if you expect only the rosy sides of the claims to come true.

This dog breed is Good with children

Selling a breed as Good with children is particularly intelligence-insulting, if you ask me. What precisely does it mean? Does it mean a dog who is OK’ish about:

  • being smacked in the face by little hands,
  • being startled out of his sleep,
  • having his toys snatched off him,
  • being chased and cornered,
  • being hugged even when he’s not in the mood,
  • loud shouts,
  • constant agitation,
  • fast movements

Even if you boil it down to, say, High resilience to stress or Extreme enjoyment of human company, how heritable are these traits? Calculating the heritability of individual behavioural tendencies is a devilishly complex endeavour. That, and the fact that hardly any behaviour trait is 100% genetically determined.

dog-with-child

If you’ve seen a puppy and a kid together lately, you’ll know how utopic that picture is

Knowing all this, telling me that my pup is guaranteed to be Good with children by virtue of his being a Labrador is downright dishonest. At best, you can claim that he has a greater pre-disposition to turning out to be good with children. But I get that’s a mouthful, and it doesn’t sell as much.

And now, there’s the added complication of how pre-disposed is the breed exactly? What is the chance that my individual pup happens to be the Good with children archetype of that breed?  In other words, where does my dog fall on the breed spectrum?

Where does my dog fall on the breed spectrum?

Even if being Good with children was 100% genetically determined – it isn’t – and even if that breed produces a majority of dogs who are kid-ready – we’re not there yet. How big of a majority is a majority: 51% or 99%? And where does my individual dog fall on the spectrum?

Without knowing how the Good with children trait is distributed in, say, Labradors, I still know nothing about the probability that my own pup will be ‘one of the good ones’. For all I know, 70% of the dogs of that breed are ‘kid-approved’ (and that’s generous for any trait and any breed). What of the remaining 30%? That still leaves 3 dogs out of 10 ranging from downright psychopaths or just so-so with children. Where does your pup fall? I have no idea.

normal-dis

The 70:30 ratio isn’t particularly pessimistic from what I see at the dog training school. This means that, on average, 3 Labrador pups out of 10 require quite a bit of attention to prevention and remedial training to become suitable family dogs. Not a huge deal in itself, but a far cry from all-around Good with kid label.

In conclusion

I am going to leave you with one last mind-blowing thought: when you compare a trait within different individuals of a breed, you will see a much wider distribution for that trait – i.e. much more extreme individuals – than when you compare dogs across breeds. So please exercise caution before assuming that your dog will have what you thought to be a typical, say, Labrador trait – Labradors differing so much among themselves temperamentally.

When shopping for a dog breed, be EXTREMELY wary of shiny breed claims. There are plenty of stranger-loving German Shepherds and plenty of kid-hating Labradors out there. Look at the individual dog and his individual temperament. If you want, a professional can help you choose but then again, early temperament testing have appallingly low predictive value. That’s going to be for another blog post, though.

Illustration credits

No modification were made to any of the illustrations, aside from my own.

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  • […] « He’s good with kids, right? He’s a Labrador – Beware of positive assumptio… […]

  • […] As my old dog is nearing the end of his life, we are starting to contemplate whether we’ll go the rescue route again, or whether to go the breed route for once. So I have started a series of blog posts about breeds. For the full list, go to the first post in the series: He’s good with kids, right? He’s a Labrador – Beware of positive assumptions about…. […]

  • […] As my old dog is nearing the end of his life, we are starting to contemplate whether we’ll go the rescue route again, or whether to go the breed route for once. So I have started a series of blog posts about breeds. For the full list, go to the first post in the series: He’s good with kids, right? He’s a Labrador – Beware of positive assumptions about…. […]

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