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Image by kyle smith

The DNA that designed him, inside and out. Genetics determine not only their physical appearance but also certain behaviors (eye stalking in Border Collies, pointing in Pointers). Some behaviors, just like your dog's color, can't be changed.

- Kelly Whittington

Dog Life Hack #3: Learn all you can about your dog's breed or breed mix to better understand their needs and motivations.  

Quick Summary
  • Purebred dogs were selectively bred for specialized tasks.

  • Training can't undo behaviors that were genetically created. 

  • Some behaviors are "hard-wired". They are part of what makes a dog a dog.

  • Freedom to express normal behavior is necessary for a dog to have good welfare.

It's Not a Bug, It's a Feature!

Have you ever wondered why Basset Hounds have such long ears? It's because they bring odors closer to their nose by dragging on the ground. Basset Hounds have the 2nd best scent tracking ability, behind only Bloodhounds. The Basset Hound was purposefully bred in the UK for an enhanced ability to hunt hare. Their ears, among other features, make them experts at tracking a scent.

The AKC recognizes almost 200 dog breeds, but many more exist. Most of these were bred to be specialists at certain tasks. Border Collies are hard-wired to herd. Training puts the herding under the shepherd's control, but they do not have to be trained to herd. They are born with it.  

A lot of behaviors considered a nuisance today were desired in the past. Dogs were bred specifically to do those things! A student once asked how to get their dog to walk without keeping his nose on the ground. Answer? Make him not a Basset Hound! How do I train my Dachsund not to dig? Get a dog who's not a Dachsund. They were bred to go to ground after badgers. How do I stop my Sheltie from barking so much? LOL, good luck! They were bred to both herd and guard sheep. As a result, they are hypervigilant and notice everything that moves, and it was their job to sound the alarm. Useful and appreciated by the shepherd whose livelihood depended on those sheep!

It's Not All How You Raise Them

If any dog could be trained to herd or guard sheep as easily as to hunt lions there would have been no need to create purebred dogs in the first place. The reality is that no amount of training will teach a Ridgeback to herd sheep or a Border Collie to hunt lions. A Chihuahua can't be trained to behave like a German Shepherd any more than she can be trained to LOOK like one. Both the looks and the behavior are genetic.

There is a saying that Therapy Dogs are born, not made. Not all dogs have what it takes to be a good therapy dog. Service Dogs and Guide Dogs are selectively bred, and some still do not make the cut despite intense training. The Labradoodle was originally created to provide Guide Dogs for people with dog allergies, but they weren't able to do the job. They are good at being Family Pets, though.

Belgian Malinois excel at bite work. Their puppy biting phase is far more extreme than most other breeds. They are more extreme in general than most other breeds, earning their nickname "maligator".


Hard-Wired Behavior

Some behaviors are so hard-wired that the dog doesn't even know why they're doing it. A Pointer doesn't "decide" to point. It's not a trained or learned behavior. They see a bird, and they reflexively point. Fixed Action Patterns (FAP) or Modal Action Patterns (MAP) are a sequence of behaviors that an animal performs automatically in response to a certain stimulus or "trigger". Turning in circles before laying down, hiking a leg to pee or mark, eye-stalking, pointing, etc. Dopamine, nature's reward, is released which reinforces the behavior.

Chasing a running animal is an example of a MAP that sometimes causes problems for modern dogs. The predatory MAP sequence in dogs is ORIENT > EYE > STALK > CHASE > GRAB-BITE > KILL-BITE > DISSECT > CONSUME. Your dog is not a monster if they kill a baby rabbit. Your dog is a normal dog executing hard-wired genetic behavior. Electrical Stimulation of the Brain (ESB) studies show that these "fixed" behaviors can be triggered with an electrical current without the presence of an actual stimulus such as a baby bunny! Not all dogs have the full predatory MAP sequence. It depends on their selective breeding. For example, herding dogs have been bred to stop at the CHASE part of the sequence. Cattle Dogs have a modified GRAB-BITE to bite at the heels of livestock which gives them their nickname of Heeler. But, the rest of the sequence wouldn't be much help to a shepherd, so it's been arrested through selective breeding.


Feists lived in the White House with President Teddy Roosevelt and helped with the rat infestation. They were so good at their job that Roosevelt called them his "Little Ratters", and the Rat Terrier breed was born!

Dogs by Phenotype

Natural Dog - "Wild at Heart"

Akita - Alaskan Malamute - American Eskimo Dog - Basenji - Canaan Dog -Carolina Dog - Chow Chow - Dingo - Eurasier - Finnish Spitz- German Spitz - Japanese Spitz - Karelian Bear Dog - Keeshond - Laika Elkhound - New Guinea Singing Dog - Norwegian Elkhound - Samoyed - Shar-Pei - Shiba Inu - Siberian Husky - mixes of any of the above breeds

Sighthound - "Regal Runner"

Afghan Hound - Azawakh - Basenji (natural basal sighthounds) - Borzoi - Chart Polski - Galgo Espanol - Greyhound - Ibizan Hound - Irish Wolfhound - Italian Greyhound - Pharaoh Hound - Saluki - Scottish Deerhound - Sloughi - Whippet - mixes of any of the above breeds

Scent Hound - "Siren Hunter"

American Foxhound - Basset Hound - Beagle - Black and Tan Coonhound - Bloodhound - Blue Tick Coonhound - English Foxhound - Harrier - Otterhound - Petit Basset Griffon Vendeen - Plott Hound - Redboone Coonhound - Red Tick Coonhound - Treeing Walker Coonhound - mixes of any of the above breeds

Herding - "Working Wingman"

Australian Cattle Dog (Blue Heeler) - Australian Kelpie - Australian Shepherd - Bearded Collie - Beauceron - Belgian Groenendael - Belgian Malinois - Belgian Sheepdog - Belgian Tervuren - Berger Picard - Border Collie - Briard - Cardigan Welsh Corgi - German Shepherd - Old English Sheepdog - Pembroke Welsh Corgi - Polish Lowland Sheepdog - Puli - Pumi - Pyrenean Sheepdog- Shetland Sheepdog - Standard Collie - Swedish Vallhund - mixes of any of the above breeds

Gun Dog - "Outdoor Adventurer"

American Cocker Spaniel - American Water Spaniel - Barbet - Boykin Spaniel - Brittany Spaniel - Chesapeake Bay Retriever - Clumber Spaniel - English Cocker Spaniel - English Pointer - English Setter - English Springer Spaniel - Field Spaniel - Flat-Coated Retriever - German Shorthair Pointer - German Wirehair Pointer - Golden Retriever - Gordon Setter - Irish Red and White Spaniel - Irish Setter - Irish Water Spaniel - Labrador Retriever - Lagotto - Romagnolo - Munsterlander - Portuguese Water Dog - Spinone Italiano - Standard Poodle - Sussex Spaniel - Vizsla - Weimaraner - Welsh Springer Spaniel - Wirehaired Pointing Griffon - mixes of any of the above breeds

Akbash - Anatolian Shepherd - Bernese Mountain Dog - Boerboel - Bullmastiff - Cane Corso - Dogue de Bordeaux - English Mastiff - Fila Brasileiro - Great Dane - Great Pyrenees - Greater Swiss Mountain Dog - Kangal - Leonberger - Komodor - Kuvasz - Maremma Sheepdog - Neapolitan Mastiff - Newfoundland - Sarplaninac - Spanish Mastiff - St. Bernard - Tibetan Mastiff - mixes of any of above breeds

Terrier - "Go-Getter"

Airedale Terrier - Australian Terrier - Border Terrier - Cairn Terrier - Fox Terrier - Irish Terrier - Jack Russell Terrier - Kerry Blue Terrier - Lakeland Terrier - Manchester Terrier - Miniature Schnauzer - Norfolk Terrier - Scottish Terrier - Sealyham Terrier - Skye Terrier - Welsh Terrier - West Highland Terrier - Wheaten Terrier - Yorkshire Terrier - mixes of any of the above breeds

Bull Dog - "The Entertainer"

Alpha Blue Blood Bulldog - American Bulldog - American Staffordshire Terrier - Boxer - Bullmastiff - Bull Terrier - Dogo Argentino - English Bulldog - French Bulldog - Olde English Bulldogge - Pit Bull Terrier - mixes of any of the above

Toy Dog - "Little Companion"

Bichon Frise - Bolognese - Cavalier King Charles Spaniel - Chihuahua - Chinese Crested - Coton De Tulear - Havanese - Japanese Chin - Lhasa Apso - Maltese - Papillon - Pekingese - Pomeranian - Pug - Shih Tzu - Tibetan Spaniel - Toy Poodle - mixes of any of the above breeds

World Dog - "Renaissance Dog"

World dogs are not breeds created by humans with closed gene pools or artificially selected jobs. Nature is the breeder in this case and has continued to create these dogs all over the world. Their physical forms indicate that they have no specific predominant job in their ancestry, other than to be good at simply being a dog.

Didn't see your breed listed? Some breeds have cross-representation from more than one group. Examples are Dobermans (multiple), Dachsunds (scenthound and terrier), Rottweilers (Guardian and Herding), Dalmatians (multiple), Catahoula (Herding, Scenthound, Guardian, Bull Dog). Those with multiple groups represented may express traits from each one.

If your dog is a mixed breed, the combination that makes up 30% or more of their DNA determines what has the most genetic influence. For example, if your dog is 15% standard poodle, 12% labrador retriever, 8% golden retriever, and the rest is from various phenotype groups, then your dog falls under the Gun Dog phenotype because more than 30% of their DNA is from gun dog breeds.

Freedom to Express Normal Behavior

Freedom to express normal behavior is part of good welfare for an animal. Your dog will be happiest when they get to be a dog and when they get to do the things they were bred for. Lots of dog sports exist to give dogs a chance to show their stuff! Unfortunately, Columbia doesn't have most of them. If you're not up for traveling there's still lots of things to do at home. Let your sighthound chase a flirt pole. Play hide n seek with your scent hound. Get some giant balls to let your herding dog herd. Let your terrier hang from a rope or a tire. Give your Dachsund a sandbox to dig in. Take your guardian dog to the highest place you can find and let them play sentry. Teach your retriever to go get your newspaper or slippers. Play to your dog's strengths!

It is not fair or humane to ask a dog NOT to be a dog. Dogs are not ducks. Dogs do dog things. They roll in smelly things, eat poop sometimes, bark, dig, chase, and growl. These are all normal dog behaviors. It's fair to ask them not to do them at certain times, but not fair to ask them not to do them ever. Like, we don't allow children to run around screaming during a church service or a funeral because it wouldn't be appropriate, but we don't stop them from running around and screaming ever. It's a normal child behavior that needs to be expressed. My dogs eat wild bunny poop in the yard, and that's ok... because they are dogs!

The 5 Freedoms
of Animal Welfare

  1. Freedom from Hunger and Thirst

  2. Freedom from Discomfort

  3. Freedom from Pain, Injury, and Disease

  4. Freedom to express Normal Behavior

  5. Freedom from Fear and Distress

Brambell's five freedoms have been adopted as the basic standard in zoos, farms, and animal shelters.

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