"Let's Talk About BREEDLORE..."
Since 2009, I've worked with countless breeds and mixes of breeds as a professional. Would it surprise anyone to hear that over 50% of the family dogs I've been called out to address aggression issues for are Golden Retrievers and Golden Retriever mixes? Well, it sure surprised me. But before Golden lovers and owners get up in arms I'm also going to add that I have known, and know of, many, many Goldens who are flawlessly friendly and outstanding family dogs, therapy dogs, assistance dogs and search and rescue dogs. But try telling the kind and responsible owners of aggressively behaving Goldens that their "perfect family pet" that "gets along wonderfully with children" and has an "easy going and friendly disposition" yet has attacked the neighbor's dog when it was doing nothing wrong, bitten their own child because the child tried to get into their lap, bit their Great Aunt for reaching for her cup of coffee, should be listed as such? They won't agree.
And so I would like to address a subject that I feel is largely responsible for why I get so many calls to help people with aggressive behaviors in dogs that are described regarding their respective breed as "laid back nature", "eager to please", "ideal for families with children", and the list goes on. I have been called to help these perfect family dogs with aggression and threatening behavior issues, owned by perfectly peaceful, positive training people. Dogs that have been so unpredictably harmful that I was the last resort before euthanasia in some of those calls. So, this very serious happenstance is what I have come to personally label as a result of "Breedlore" in breed descriptions.
Doing what I do for a living I get called out for aggression and threatening behavior problems more than any other problems. I would say about 3 out of 5 calls for behavior issues are for aggression issues. About two years into my work as a professional Dog Behaviorist & Trainer I couldn't help but begin to realize a very surprising 'aggression help S.O.S. by breed' ratio was beginning to form. So, being analytical by nature, I couldn't resist going back and counting the dogs I had helped with aggression by breed and mix of breeds. What emerged was so contrary to the typical elaborate breed descriptions in countless books and literature that I felt I was being called to get to the heart of the problem and separate the facts from the fiction.
Now when I say "aggression and threatening behaviors" I am referring to dogs who are doing one of more of the following: Innappropriately snapping and nipping at people (strangers, family members or welcomed guests) lunging at people with the intent to bite, actually biting people, attacking other dogs, cats and household pets, bashing doors and windows, barking like crazy, when they see people, animals and even cars outside and rushing at welcomed guests when they come in the door with furious displays of lunging and barking. Here are my stats so far, at least for the intervention calls I have taken:
From 2009 to 2014 (5 Years) There has been 184 Calls for Aggression and Threatening Behaviors Alone Consisting of:
96 Golden Retrievers or Golden Retriever Mixes (41 Full Blooded Golden Retrievers, 27 Goldendoodles & 28 Predominantly Golden Retriever Mixes (This equates to 52% of the total calls).
88 All other Breeds (This number represents dogs of all sizes, all ages, very small to very large, various full blooded breeds & various mixes of breeds EXCEPT those that were Goldens and Golden mixes. (This number includes only 12 German Shepherds, 7 Rottweilers, 7 American Pit Bull Terriers, 6 American Bulldogs, 5 Dobermans, 3 Mastiffs & 2 Great Danes).
So, do you see why I was surprised? Now, make no mistake, this analyses is not meant to give Golden Retrievers a bad rap! There are thousands upon thousands of passive, sweet, gentle Goldens out there, FABULOUS Goldens! My analysis is meant to bring 'BREED DESCRIPTIONS', NOT Golden Retrievers, into the bright lights of accountability.
Most of the people who have called to report their Golden as aggressive have been good parents who had meticulously researched various breeds before selecting a Golden to be their family dog. They responsibly chose the Golden for all of the marvelous claims the breed descriptions made about how loving they would be with their children, what a great family dog they are, how energetic yet mild mannered and easy going, etc. Two of those people had young children who were bitten. The bites bled and left bruises. Some may think, well, the child was probably teasing the dog? But they weren't in either case. One bit a 4 year old because she had run crying to her Mom's lap after being stung by a bee. The dog was on the couch next to the Mom and 'corrected' the child for disturbing their peace. The other bit a 7 year old because he walked behind the dog while it was eating. The boy didn’t even make contact with the dog, just walked behind it from the kitchen table to go to the bathroom. In both of these cases (and most of the other cases) the dogs had had a history of being non-obedient, grumpy and snapping on occasion. But when their dogs decided to move it up to a real bite the owners were dumbfounded. They were probably just waiting for that perfect family dog breed description to kick in. In every case where a Golden was being aggressive I have heard a different variation of the same thing, "But the breed description said..."
So, I coined the word 'Breedlore' for statements in breed descriptions, ALL breed descriptions, that may or may not be true depending on the individual dog. "Breedlore", defined, is: Any specific statement made in a breed description that can be true or false about ANY individual dog of ANY breed or mix of breeds.
Unfortunately, many long standing, supposedly reputable, dog registry references, dog breed books, web sites and dog breed informationals are RIDDLED with Breedlore. Oh, there are real breed facts stated too which is why the Breedlore statements are most likely taken for the gospel truth as well. But the Breedlore statements are what cause many people to mistakenly assume that all they have to do is buy, say, for example, a Basset Hound and, poof, they never have to worry about aggression. The mere fact that so many people buy Goldens due to the breed description alone is why I believe they top my aggression intervention list. But that doesn't mean their breed descriptions should be changed to suggest they are aggressive, cranky or unpredictable as a breed because they AREN'T! Their breed descriptions should be changed to remove claims that might or might not be true about them or any dog of any breed. Even if 'most' of them are naturally wonderful with children, the breed descriptions should either remove that type of claim altogether or state it as, "most have a good reputation for being excellent with children but that's not always the case", because I'm here to tell you that ALL Goldens AREN'T naturally wonderful with children, adults, welcomed guests, other dogs & other household pets. I’ve personally met 41 of them that aren't in the past 5 years.
Once again, it's important to reiterate that I personally know of many Goldens who are as laid back, sweet as sugar and as outstanding family dogs as their universal breed descriptions claim them to be, but it has nothing to do with their breed except that most Golden breeders usually pair together a Sire and Dam that are both medium to low energy dogs with passive (submissive) energies that do not react assertively or aggressively to fear. Still, not all the resulting pups will be born with like dispositions. Most, perhaps, but not all. When the aforementioned traits are present in any dog of any breed or mix of breeds you will find the dog is easier to integrate into families, especially families with children. They are easier to train and easier to deter from becoming aggressive due to the very nature of their lower energy levels, natural born passivity and non-aggressive reactions to uncertaintly and fear. I have personally known Rottweilers, German Shepherds, Dobermans, Chows, Cane Corsos, Bull Breeds, etc., who are as laid back, sweet as sugar and outstanding family dogs as you will find in the standard Golden Retriever breed descriptions. Some of these dogs described as being "unpredictable, natural guard dogs, one person dog, fearsome home protectors, high strung, never to be trusted", etc., by their breed descriptions would hide under a table while a burglar crawls in a window to loot their family's home or happily follow the burglar about for a scratch on the head and a cookie.
Contradictory to what Breedlore would have many humans assume, one of the sweetest, most balanced, level headed, intelligent, easy going dogs I've ever personally known was a dog labelled "Pit Bull". Cesar Millan's 2 main therapy dogs, Daddy and Junior, are Pit Bulls. World War I's most decorated dog was a Pit Bull ("Sergeant Stubby"). The list of friendly, helpful, gentle, Pit Bulls goes on. Here's an even better one that defies typical breed description; one of the worst aggression cases I ever had to rehabilitate was a high strung, aggressive Basset Hound. Yet we had a family Basset that was sweet as pie.
I have extracted for this article three short breed descriptions for the sake of separating factual statements from the 'possibly true/ possibly false' statements. Mind you there's a vast array of references out there that have many different things to say depending on who's breed book, listing, brochure or site you look at but the descriptions I'm using are quite typical for what you'll find for each of the three breeds, below. I have selected Golden Retriever, Bassett Hound and the American (Pit) Bull Terrier (the latter not even officially recognized as a breed by the AKC, at least not the last I checked). But before I go there, let me first touch on a breed I am most personally familiar with; the German Shepherd. I have owned them as personal pets, never being without them, since 1977 when I graduated from high school. I own 3 right now, as I write this, and have had 4 previous to now who lived to ripe old ages before returning to the gracious God Who blessed me with being able to have them.
I can tell you the only things about the seven German Shepherds I've owned to date that are definitely the same is: They have all been black and tan, they have all been over 60 pounds, they have all had coats that leave light hairs on dark fabrics and dark hairs on light fabrics, they all have exceptional tracking abilities for both ground and air. Other than those traits, my German Shepherds have all been quite different. They've had (and have) different energy levels, different quirks, different reactions to uncertainty and fear, different things that cause or don't cause uncertainty and fear, different natural tendencies and reactions to children, different chemistries with me personally, different levels of physical abilities and activity interests, different ways of interacting with other animals and people and different levels of assertiveness to passivity. One loved to pull toilet paper off the roll and all through the house, none of the others did. One loved to play with balloons and pop them while yet another would go into the other room when balloons were around. One loved to burrow under blankets and lay there real still like a strange lump in the middle of them while another had to be conditioned not to be afraid of blankets. The list of differences go on.
Before I conditioned them to not be afraid or uncertain and to leave those kind of discernments to me, their natural born reactions to uncertainty and fear were as follows; 2 reacted to uncertainty and fear by running away, hiding or getting in my lap and shaking, 2 reacted by posturing themselves in a hostile 'ready' manner or attacking what scared them, and 3 stood still mesmerized or frozen, trying to figure out whether to run or attack or dig a hole to put their head in. These are classic reactions to being startled or feeling uncertainty or fear that both dogs (of all breeds) and humans (of all races) alike share and that we can condition in ourselves and our dogs to be otherwise with focused, repetitious reconditioning efforts.
Back to Breedlore, let's tear down some of the mythical walls that keep my phone ringing so much.
First are the descriptions, as they are written:
The Golden Retriever, with its intelligence and eager to please attitude, is one of the most popular breeds in the United States according to AKC® registration statistics. The working ability that has made the Golden Retriever such a useful hunting companion also make him an ideal guide, assistance and search and rescue dog. The golden-colored coat is the hallmark of this versatile breed, and can range from light to dark gold. This active and energetic breed was bred for sporting and can adapt to many different living situations but requires daily exercise. His water-repellant double-coat sheds seasonally and needs regular brushing. With his friendly temperament this dog is the perfect family dog and gets along exceptionally well with children and other animals. With its striking golden color and dependable even tempered personality, this breed is both beautiful to look at and a sheer joy to own.
The Basset Hound has proven itself to be a multi-purpose dog that excels in conformation, obedience, tracking, field trialing and pack hunting. The breed is known for its strong hunting instinct and, if given the opportunity, will follow a scent willingly. Because of its easy going, friendly, non-confrontational nature, the Basset can be used for hunting in packs or alone. The Basset can be any hound color, which includes combinations of black, tan, white, red and other colors. The Basset's sweet, low-key, gentle disposition makes him a great companion and although his medium short coat requires minimal grooming, his extra body scent glands require an extra bath or two more than the average dog. New owners should be prepared for a dog that actively follows scent while outside or on walks. Bassets are very friendly, easily accepting strangers and other animals. They make excellent family pets.
The American (Pit) Bull Terrier* is a good-natured, amusing, extremely loyal and affectionate family pet that is obedient and eager to please. They are very muscular and have exceptionally powerful jaws. Highly protective of their owners and property, they will attack an intruder with the intent to kill. The APBT can be any color, which includes combinations of white, gray, black, tan, red, brindles and other colors. Their short coat requires minimal grooming. The APBT is very willful and needs a firm hand. They are generally okay with other animals if they are raised with them. They are excellent with children in their own family. The American Pit Bull may suddenly go for the throat of strange dogs and even humans who annoy them or seem threatening. They can make excellent family pets but should never be completely trusted. (*Special Note: The original AKC breed name was ‘American Bull Terrier, but the AKC dropped the breed due to so many people pit fighting them. However, the UK quickly swooped in and adopted the breed into their registry as the American 'Pit' Bull Terrier’)
Separating Facts from Breedlore:
GOLDEN RETRIEVER FACTS: The Golden Retriever is one of the most popular breeds in the United States according to AKC® registration statistics. Its golden-colored coat is a hallmark of this breed, and can range from light to dark gold. It was bred for sporting. Its water-repellant double-coat sheds seasonally and needs regular brushing. It has a striking gold colored coat.
GOLDEN RETRIEVER BREEDLORE (Statements made that can be true or false about any dog, the Golden Retriever or other breeds, depending on the individual dog and not the breed): Versatile, intelligent, eager to please, an ideal guide, assistance and search and rescue dog, active and energetic, can adapt to many different living situations, has a friendly temperament, is the perfect family dog, gets along exceptionally well with children and other animals, is dependable, has an even tempered personality, is beautiful to look at and is a sheer joy to own.
BASSET HOUND FACTS: The Basset Hound excels at tracking, field trialing and pack hunting. The breed is known for its strong hunting instinct and, if given the opportunity, will follow a scent willingly. They have been used for hunting in packs or alone. The Basset can be any hound color, which includes combinations of black, tan, white, red and other colors. The Basset's medium short coat requires minimal grooming but its extra body scent glands require an extra bath or two more than the average dog. New owners should be prepared for a dog that actively follows scent while outside or on walks.
BASSET HOUND BREEDLORE (Statements made that can be true or false about any dog, the Basset Hound or other breeds, depending on the individual dog and not the breed): Multi-purpose dog, excels in conformation and obedience, easy going and friendly, non-confrontational nature, sweet, low-key, gentle disposition, great companion, very friendly, easily accepting of strangers and other animals, makes an excellent family pet.
AMERICAN PIT BULL TERRIER FACTS: The American Pit Bull Terrier can be any color, which includes combinations of white, gray, black, tan, red, brindles and other colors. Their short coat requires minimal grooming. They are very muscular and have exceptionally powerful jaws.
AMERICAN PIT BULL TERRIER BREEDLORE (Statements made that can be true or false about any dog, the APBT or other breeds, depending on the individual dog and not the breed): Good-natured, amusing, extremely loyal and affectionate family pet that is obedient and eager to please, highly protective of their owners and property, will attack an intruder with the intent to kill, very willful, okay with other animals if they are raised with them, excellent with children in their own family, may suddenly go for the throat of strange dogs and even humans who annoy them or seem threatening, make excellent family pets, should never be completely trusted. (By the way, a 'dog that can never be completely trusted' makes an 'excellent family pet'? Nice...)
So now you understand what I'm talking about. This doesn't mean go get a Pit Bull for your family because the breed description gives them a prejudiced bad rap nor does it mean don't get a Golden Retriever because their breed description gives them a prejudiced good rap. It means whatever breed or mix of breeds you select to bring home to your family, if you are looking for a dog who will be naturally good natured with you, your guests and your children (provided it is not being cruelly teased or tormented) and easy to train, bring home the dog who is naturally passive, non-fearful & respectful by nature (meaning not all over you, in your lap or in your face but also on the other hand not ignoring you or fleeing from you) and you will be glad you did.
Breed definitely dictates physical attributes, coloration, variations of colors, conformation, size, what people have used them for, what people have bred them for & special inbred abilities and skills like most Huskys being able to run for extraordinarily long distances, Greyhounds being amazingly fast sprinters, Bloodhounds having keenest ground scenting skills of all breeds, Border Collies having an uncanny super-skilled herding instinct, etc., but breed simply does NOT dictate whether a dog will be friendly or not, shy or aggressive, posessive or passive, good with children or annoyed with them, and so forth.
If you need a dog to pull a sled for you, get a sled dog breed; If you want a dog that will go after a badger and drag it out of its hole, consider a Scottish Terrier; If you want a dog that is more physically capable of slowing down an intruder, look for a breed with size and strength like a Great Dane, Rottweiler, German Shepherd, Cane Corso or other large, powerful breed.
Bottom line, if you want an easy going, friendly family dog, breed is ABSOLUTELY irrelevant. The easiest dogs of any breed or mix of breeds to shape into friendly, well mannered family dogs, no matter what size, are dogs who are born naturally submissive and passive (not dominant or boldly assertive), ideally have medium to low energies, and do not react aggressively or assertively to fear or uncertainty. Grab that dog or pup right up whether male or female, whether small or large, no matter what breed, take that one home with you and you'll probably never call someone like me unless you need help for non-aggression related training. The criteria you base the choice of your dog on will play a big role in how easy or difficult it may be to avoid, manage or rehabilitate any potential behavior problems. Please, take it from me, don't base anything on "Breedlore".
Choose breed specific if the breed is special to you or if you really like the way that breed looks. Choose breed specific if you want your dog to perform certain tasks that particular breed excels in but carefully select the individual with the right disposition. If getting your dog from a shelter, whichever dog you select, make sure he or she is naturally submissive and passive, not dominant or boldly assertive, ideally has a medium to low energy, and does not react aggressively or assertively to fear or uncertainty. If you need help determining this, hire a reputable behaviorist to accompany you. The dog is going to be with you a long time. For those who want to rescue a dog that nobody else is likely to save because it 'is' problematic, God bless you. I am a text or phone call away if you need help taming the dog's shyness or aggression issues. ALL breeds, ALL sizes and ALL ages. ARF!
Melanie Blair, Dog Behavior Specialist, has successfully helped individuals and families screen and select puppies and adult dogs with dispositions best suited for the tasks or services they wish for them to learn or for simply being an 'easy to train' family dog. If you would like help selecting your dog, text or call 330-310-9681 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org