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Not Every Dog is a Lab!

Updated: Nov 30, 2020

Picture a typical dog. What physicalities do you picture? What temperament do you envision? In my experience, chances are good that you picture either a Labrador Retriever or a Golden Retriever.

Awhile back in one of my dog group Facebook groups, someone posed the question: if you were describing an average dog to an alien, what breed would you be describing? The overwhelming number of people answered Lab or Golden. Some answered German Shepherd and Siberian Husky (my answer was Chinook). In general, the feelings were: a typical dog is of moderate build, friendly, outgoing, and eager to please.

Let's look at the domestication of dogs for a moment. Dogs are descended from wolves. The generally accepted theory as to how wolves became domesticated is often referred to as survival of the friendliest. Most predators are going to be averse to interacting with people, but the friendliest, likely eventually gained access to early hunter-gather's food stuffs. Over time, wolves likely domesticated themselves and the friendliest to humans bred friendly to human puppies and so on and so forth. There is an interesting phenomenon called domestication syndrome which is when animals that are domesticated begin to develop curly tails, coat with patches, rounder and smaller faces, and drop ears (as opposed to prick). There is a famous study of foxes that demonstrates this quite clearly.

As these traits associated with domestic dogs began to develop, eventually humans began to selectively breed for dogs that fulfilled certain purposes: watch dog, guardian, hunting, herding. They would breed dogs that had the best success when hunting and thus refine and reinforce those traits. Similarly, herding dogs would be selected for their ability to move but not attack stock - a modified version of prey drive. Livestock guardians would develop from dogs that had low prey drive toward stock but high defense drive against intruders.

If you look at the majority of dog jobs, the vast majority of them require dogs be friendly with their humans but very few require that dogs be friendly with everyone. Guardian breeds should be alert and wary of strangers but loyal to their family (and potentially stock/pack). There's no point in herding breeds being overly friendly with strangers when they can instead double as a good alert dog to strangers approaching instead. Sighthounds again need to be bonded with their people enough that they come back after hunting, but what good is them stopping mid-hunt to go say hi to a person wandering past? Only gun dogs and companion breeds truly have no reason not to be neutral or wary of strangers. And even with some of those breeds, there are gun dogs (German Wirehaired Poitners for instance) who doubled as farm dogs who necessarily needed more wariness of strangers. There are companion breeds such as Tibetan Spaniels that served as alert dogs from on top of the monastery walls.

The dog that is friendly to every person and dog alike is the product of the modern age and that expectation is problematic for so many reasons. Yes, Goldens and Labs are great for families in that they are friendly and likely to tolerate children being rough with them and lack boundaries (cornering the dogs, taking their toys and bones, bothering the dog while they're eating, etc). But do you know what else? Most are high energy for a long time (think until the dog is 3-5 years). They're slow to mature and don't always have a natural off-switch, which means this is something a family needs to teach the dog unless they want them bouncing off the walls at all times. They are food motivated to a fault (fun fact: this has actually a genetic component) which means they are prone to counter surfing and picking up trash off the ground on walks. It also means that they can be more prone to developing resource guarding because they are prone to always having something in their mouth and if you always take it away from them they can get possessive. It also tends to mean they are prone to destructive chewing.

Normalizing the expectation of ebullient, gregarious Lab or Golden-like behavior from every dog can do a lot of damage in general public's understand of dogs as a whole as well. For instance, I talk to a lot of owners who have more reserved breeds like herders or sighthounds and when their puppies don't throw themselves against their playmates without reservations, they eye their neighbor's Lab who is tackling every other dog they meet and knocking them over, pinning them, and chewing on their ears, and they think their dog is broken or something is wrong with them. Meanwhile, their dogs politely approach the other dog, sniff, circle, and then play bow and start exchanging play with a lovely serious of starts and stops, which exactly what you want to see from dogs: a polite interchange with consideration for their play partner.

Rude play manners are something that have very much become normalized in dog to dog interactions and it shouldn't be normal. Every dog, it doesn't matter what breed, should read their play partner and back off when they're feeling overwhelmed. My dogs have dog friends that they will jump on, mouth, and tackle, but they've established a social contract and understanding with those dogs. They would never just run up to another strange dog and start behaving like they were already friends, because they understand other dogs may react poorly to that forward behavior. And when I am working with a dog who lacks play manners, that is absolutely something I seek to establish.

Similarly, normalization of overly friendly behaviors such a pulling up to every dog or human they meet can create two problems.

1) Every person expects every dog to want to say hi to them and thus they try to pet every dog they see while in public. While this is potentially fine with a person whose dog wants to say hi to every stranger, it creates the expectation that every dog is going to want to say hi to strangers be them people or dogs. So when a dog pulls away when someone tries to pet them or when you have an owner who is doing the right thing and advocating for their dog and says "No, you can't pet my dog" those people get branded as rude and often the dogs get labelled aggressive (even when there's zero aggressive behavior).

2) Those friendly dogs who have been allowed to pull up to every person and dog when they're a puppy in the name of proper socialization will start to get frustrated when they can't say hi to everyone as they get older. Owners will say: "Oh, she's just friendly' or "He just wants to say hi" as their dog frantically barks and pulls because they can't say hello. But that's a problem. If your dog gets so frustrated that they can't get their own way that they start barking, you don't have a well-adjusted dog. And in fact, you have inadvertently drive the dogs ambient level of frustration and stress much higher than if they were capable of calmly walking past people and dogs.

I don't have anything against Labs and Goldens. Honestly. They can make perfect family dogs. Perfect hunting or performance dogs. Or anything in between. But they aren't breeds that I want to live with because I don't enjoy training off-switches in a dog. I don't want a dog that constantly needs something in their mouth. And, most importantly, I have social anxiety (which, I confess tends to go away when I'm talking about dogs) and so I don't want my dog to drag me over to every person and dog we see on the street.

I want a dog that will focus on me naturally. I want a dog that is bonded with me first and foremost. I want a dog that is neutral or even avoidant of strangers in public. I have that in my Azawakh. I don't mind doing preventative reactivity exercises - that teaches my dog to focus on me anyway. I don't mind the extensive fear periods. Is it ideal? No. But I personally much prefer it to teaching a dog to truly settle and relax on their bed and thus I get a breed with a natural off-switch.

It will serve everyone better if we learn to understand breed differences at a general level. Most sporting breeds (there are always exceptions) are going to be more stranger friendly than most other groups. Most herding (again, not all) are going to be more aloof or avoidant and some with even be sensibly suspicious. Livestock guardians often range from sensibly suspicious to actively standoffish. Sighthounds are typically reserved and aloof with strangers. And so on and so forth.

Ami doesn't love every stranger, but she loves most

There will always be exceptions within a category of breeds. There will exceptions within individuals. For instance, Ami loves most strangers (though not strange dogs). Just try to remember, not every dog is a typical lab in temperament.

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