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Honoring Genetic Imperative

Amidi and Amalu as a puppy running on the beach

You can never let a ________ off leash. Fill in the blank. You can never let a sighthound off leash. You can never let a terrier off leash. You can never let a scent hound off leash. And the list goes on.

Now think for a moment. Don't all those types of breeds have an original purpose that involves being off leash? In ever single case those breeds' purpose is two-fold. First: go out and independently locate/hunt/dispatch prey (varies by breed). Two: return to your human or at the very least remain in the general vicinity so they can be collected.

I've heard all the stories of lost hunting dogs. There's a reason GPS tracking collars are so ubiquitous in the modern age. I've gulped as my dogs disappeared over the horizon at Open Field Coursing and breathed that sigh of relief as they came trotting back to me. I'm not saying that there's not a risk to independent hunting breeds being off leash. I'm saying that sighthounds and scenthounds and terriers (independent hunting breeds) have a long history of returning to their handlers at the end of a hunt. And you know what, those dogs that didn't return didn't tend to reproduce.

Cut to the modern era where the common advice is: you can't have independent hunting breeds off leash. And is that truly fair to all these breeds who have, for so long, existed to have a measure of independence and freedom? The average backyard is not enough space for many of those breeds to stretch their legs. And while terriers might hunt vermin in the backyard, most hounds are not going to get much enrichment simply by being out in the yard by themselves. Add that many of these breeds are not necessarily well suited to dog daycare or dog parks and where does that leave us? Often lovely household companions that do not have an outlet for fulfilling their genetic imperative.

Independent hunting breeds aren't the only breeds that often miss out on the enrichment of fulfilling their genetic purpose. How often are herding breeds scolded (or rehomed) for herding children? Or much worse killed while trying to herd cars. How often do people complain of the mouthy retriever? The chomping shepherd breed? What about the guardian breed that never gets out of their own backyard - they never get to watch and inspect the world going by or they never have charges to protect.

Every breed (or purpose bred mix) has a purpose. There are many breeds whose sole purpose is in fact companionship - most toy breeds fit this category. There are many other breeds that fit well into a tradition nuclear family home because they have been bred to work closely with humans for hundreds of years. But just because there are breeds that don't fit the two aforementioned categories doesn't mean that those breeds can't fit into a non-working home. And just because you are in a pet home, a home that will not work the breed in their original role, does not mean that you can’t find ways to fulfil your dog’s genetic imperatives.

I have often seen well-meaning owners and even some dog trainers restrict their dog’s natural instincts. Terriers can’t dig and can’t play tug of war. Herding dogs don’t get to nip, they don’t get to tug because they might increase the nipping. Sighthounds can’t run loose in expansive areas. Scenthounds aren’t allowed to have their nose glued to the ground. Retrievers are bid to be less mouthy – to put fewer things in their mouth. Pointers are discouraged from pointing birds. Sled dogs shouldn’t pull or run long distances. Guardian breeds must spend every moment looking at their owner lest they act out.

But here’s the thing. When you suppress instincts, sooner or later that suppression and management eventually breaks down, and usually in explosive and sometime catastrophic ways – your sighthound slips outside and joyfully runs through the streets and gets hit by a car. Your retriever finally gets ahold of that sock, swallows it, and dies from obstruction.

An alternative, the best alternative to my mind, is to find non-destructive ways for your dogs to fulfill their instincts. Some of the ways you can do this are easy upkeep outlets. Use a flirt pole with your terriers and hounds. Let them exercise their prey-drive. Play fetch with your retrievers and pointers and spaniels and herders. Take decompression walks to allow your guardian breeds who want to see and take in the world to do so or let them hang out in the yard with your kids. Scatter food in the yard or the house for almost any breed to allow them to use their nose. These are all ways to fulfill your pet dog’s instincts.

Credit Sandy McArthur

There are other ways to fulfill those instincts in a more primal way that involve more effort on the owners’ parts. Flirt pole is a great first step but Fast CAT, Coursing Ability Tests, AOK9 and LGRA and NOTRA racing are great options for all breeds that have prey drive but that mean their owners find and attend the events. There are Hunting Tests and Trials for the sporting breeds. There are Coonhound and other Hunt Tests for many of the scenthound breeds (plus Scent Detection sports). There are Herding Trials or Obedience or Rally or Obedience for the herding dogs whose minds are moving a million miles a minute. There are various types of joring for sledding breeds. There’s Terrier Trials, Barn Hunt, and Earth Dog for your terriers.

There are so many options to help your dog fulfill their genetic imperative. All of these require an investiture of time, money, and equipment on the owners’ parts. That makes these options less accessible. However, I can truly and honestly tell you, there is very little that is more fulfilling for the dogs that participating in as close to their original purpose as possible (and yes, participating in their original purpose does tend to be the most fulfilling for dogs). And while I will always acknowledge the entry barriers to people starting in dog sports with their dogs, I will also always encourage people to participate (and happily help them get started) because I have seen so so many dogs’ lives change for the better.

Even if you don’t want to get your dog into dog sports, you have options. My sighthounds want to run. They want to stretch their legs and let off steam. I allow them to do so in safe areas, off leash. They go out, they run and play and romp, and after that, they come back. I start my puppies off with off leash walks while their following instincts are stick strong and the flight instincts haven't kicked in yet (Avidog's Adventure Walks is a great resource for doing this). As young puppies, I generally don't have them drag a leash, they aren't going far. I use my older dogs (or a friend's well trained dog) to model the correct behaviors for the puppy. As they get older they start dragging a line - longer when they first prove to be untrustworthy and in need of more recall practice, then shorter as they get more consistent again. Once a dog is old enough, I'll layer in e-collar as a backup. This system works best when you first have young puppies, but it has worked fantastically with Tabiri as well.

Remember, often when something is novel, dogs value it. If off leash time is always novel, your dogs will naturally value it and often get the zoomies or play keep away. If dogs are used to walking calmly off leash with their people (and pack) early on, there is less novelty to the situation and so they don't have that initial burst of frenzied running, they simply move off to sniff when released to do so. If you are at all unsure or your dog is inconsistent with their recall, please, I beg of you, work with a trainer because they can help you and your dog enjoy greater freedom safely.

That's not your only option though to allow your dogs that have a genetic need to run the ability to stretch your legs. If you have a small yard or even no yard at all you have some other choices. The typical and known alternative is daycare or dog parks. Both of those merit their own blog post, but suffice it to say, they aren't the right fit for every dog or every breed. A lovely alternative is Sniffspots, which is essentially a yard that you can rent for an hour at a time. Many of these Sniffspots are on secure, huge property that allows even sighthounds to really open up and run.

Why get these breeds if their instincts run counter to what many people want in a dog? I adore my Azawakh because they are alert, independent thinking, and very bonded to their people. These same traits also make them a good alert/guard dog. I also love that they are athletic and happy to run. It's something I actively enjoy about the breed, but it does mean I need to honor their needs. There are other examples where someone might not enjoy the instincts a dog has. A terrier keeps digging out of the yard. Or a herding breed nips children on the stairs. In these cases it might be that the people love the overall temperament of the breed (feisty, stand-up, and lively for most terriers and bonded, loyal, devoted, and biddable for the herding dogs) but those other instincts prove a challenge. For the terrier a digging pit (sandboxes can work great) with buried treasure can be a great outlet. For the herding breed large exercise balls can be super fun for them to learn to move instead of children (Treibball is the formal sport) or even taking your family dog out to a place that offers herding lessons. You wouldn't need to commit for all time, but it can be a fun outlet even if you never do performance or work your dog.

Why bother fulfilling these instincts? I once read a study (which I wish I had saved, because I have been unable to locate the study ever since) that focused on when a dog was measurably (chemically) the most relaxed and fulfilled. As I recall, the study found that dogs were most relaxed when they had performed a job associated with their original purpose. And while I lack the evidence of this study, this has very much been my experience. There is absolutely nothing for my dogs like being out in the sage brush chasing jackrabbits. Nothing for them compares to it. However, the stimulated sighthound sports like lure coursing and racing certainly come close. Seeing that happiness and joy on my dogs' faces is enough to keep them playing those games, even when I'm busy or tired.

A final note - mixes still have instincts. I was once working with a dog clearly had guardian breed in their background and a situation came up that was clearly a present danger and it was fascinating to watch those instincts kick into action. In general, often mixing breeds can dilute some instincts - you rarely will find a livestock guardian that is mixed with a herding breed to be an effective herd guardian or working herding dog. However, in some cases like many sport mixes, those instincts and drives compliment each other so you get the drive and speed of a Whippet with the biddability and sturdiness of a Border Collie for example.

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