Thursday, March 27, 2014

Individuality Vs. Breed

Every dog is an individual

Everyone has heard that statement, especially lately with all the Animal Farm Foundation (AFF) media. And I absolutely agree - every dog is an individual. BUT...and here is the but everybody wants to argue with...breeds do matter. You can't just wish that all away. In all the years that I have been doing Doberman rescue and had tens of Dobermans in and out of my house, no two have been exactly alike but they all have shared general breed characteristics. And I would be remiss if I just ignored that fact.

I understand where AFF is coming from because today's pitbull (and I use that term loosely) isn't a breed, it's a conglomeration of breeds all judged on physical appearance. But all that aside, we have the breeds of dogs we have today because of selective breeding (good and bad) and those breeds were bred for specific purposes that require certain skills (good and bad, LOL). Taking those characteristics into account when picking a canine companion for your family will certainly help you make a correct and lasting match. Sadly, most people bring a companion home based solely on their looks.

Monday and Vito are both 'pitbulls' in the eyes of the public - but have two
very different breed backgrounds.

Behavior is complex, no denying that, and there are no easy answers when it comes to modifying behavior and explaining problems related to learning. Individual characteristics, variables in the way they are trained, and breed differences all play important parts in successfully teaching new behaviors or changing the existing behaviors of any dog.

Breeds - They Really Are Different

Making generalizations about any breed of dog is sure to seriously offend someone :). If you say sporting dogs are active, someone will undoubtedly say that their Weimaraner is a calm couch potato. If you talk about the general tendency of terriers to be tenacious, someone will surely describe theirs as an easy, go-with-the-flow kind of dog. While there are exceptions to every rule, the truth of the matter is that different breeds have developed as a result of hundreds of years of selective breeding for specific characteristics and temperament. Maintaining and preserving common characteristics within a breed is the whole point of purebred dogs.

Now obviously heredity affects a number of traits and genetics is mostly a crap shoot for the average person, which is where you will get the differences in individual personality. But, for the most part, it is important that dog owners understand the histories of breeds and specific breed characteristics if they want to fully understand the animal they are living with.

It's All Relative

Because there are individual differences within breeds and one dog may not behave exactly as the breed was intended to, you can benefit from interacting with knowledgeable breeders before acquiring a canine companion. Especially if you have specific goals you want to accomplish with your dog. A word to the wise, all the backyard breeding is ruining our purebred characteristics. You will see much more variation in individual dogs from these unscrupulous (although sometimes well-meaning) breeding practices. Please do your research to make sure you are interacting with a responsible breeder. Responsible, experienced breeders can tell you what is normal for the breed and what the range of variation might be.

Mixed Breeds

Mixed breeds are a whole different ball game :). Sometimes, knowing the breeds that contributed to your dog's ancestry will provide some valuable information, but generally you don't have that luxury. And that's okay! Canine behavior principles still apply, so training your dog shouldn't be any issue - you just won't have the ease of any background understanding on breed characteristics. But breed characteristics aren't everything, they are just one piece of the whole puzzle, and give you an edge when selecting reinforcers and training methods that best suit your dog. There are DNA tests that you can submit to find out what breeds are in your dog's history, however there have been interesting and varying results with these.


It's important to remember that ALL dogs are trainable, regardless of breed. When operant conditioning techniques are applied correctly, all dogs can learn :). As I said before: Individual characteristics, variables in the way they are trained, and breed differences all play important parts in successfully teaching new behaviors or changing the existing behaviors of any dog.

If you have a purebred dog, do they have certain breed characteristics you were expecting? Mixed breed owners, if you have guessed at the breed history of your dog does it display any of the expected characteristics?


  1. There are definite tendencies in some breeds even though the dogs are still individuals. It's important to be aware of the tendencies so that you can take them into account when training.


    I'm an animal control officer. I hear it all. Half the people I deal with say "All pit bulls are {fill in the blank} and the City should ban them." The other half are yelling "It's the deed, not the breed." I can't completely agree with either camp.

    In my opinion, pit bulls can be warm, loving pets. The are often energetic, playful and have a high pain tolerance. I caution families with small children, and frail,older members because they can easily be knocked down by an exuberant dog. I have, however, seen calm and gentle pits do quite well in those situations. I wholeheartedly disagree with breed bans. On the other hand, it is my experience that pit bulls tend to have higher prey drives and more instances of dog aggression. This can be problematic for inexperienced owners. Couple this with the frustration of inadequate exercise and raging hormones, and there can be real problems (which is true of ANY high energy dog.)

    I feel (again, my professional opinion) that things are exacerbated by "Thug Culture." The thug wannabes WANT a tough, mean dog and will encourage (or at least not discourage) bad behavior. And when a large, strong dog of any breed goes bad (bites, attacks, etc.) it's never pretty. Seriously, a 60 pound dog will always do more damage than a 6 pound dog.

    I totally agree with your feelings about backyard breeding. I have seen people breed their dogs because they want puppies, think they can make money, or want a specific physical characteristic -- regardless of the parent's temperament. I hear things like "I got a red nose, you got a red nose, lets make pups" -- never mind the fact that one dog is an ass and the other is mentally unstable. Surely SOME personality is hereditary. (By the way, I've seen people do this with show dogs too. Please don't think I'm picking on pits!)

    So, like you, I feel that people should take MANY things into consideration before bringing home a dog, any dog. And once home, people should take the time to learn their dog's personality and train the dog in the best way possible. Like people, each dog learns differently and each dog has it's own motivations. Unfortunately, there isn't an easy answer.

    Thanks again for such a thought provoking post. -- Kelley