Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Links between canine lateralization, behavior and emotion
A few years ago, dog trainers and behaviorists renewed their love affair with tail-wagging, constantly checking to see whether dogs were wagging their tails higher to the right or to the left. Our awkward attempts at positioning ourselves to observe this behavior were surely entertaining to others. Why were we so eager for the information conveyed by these asymmetrical tail wags? Because they indicate dogs’ differential use of the left and right hemispheres of their brains and are, therefore, a window into their emotions.
The study of asymmetrical tail wagging that prompted our collective interest (Quaranta et al. 2007) found that differences depended on what inspired the wags in the first place. Dogs wagged higher to the right when greeting their guardians. The same right-side bias was seen in response to unfamiliar people, although the wags were lower overall. In response to cats, there was little wagging, but it was still higher to the right. In the tests, the only stimulus to which dogs’ wags had a left-side bias was an unfamiliar, confident dog.
Left or Right?
The left hemisphere is activated when the brain is processing positive experiences associated with emotions such as happiness, affection and excitement, as well as anything familiar. The right hemisphere takes precedence when processing sadness, fear, other negative emotions and novel things.
This link between emotions and sides of the brain came to light in studies of humans. Ahern and Schwartz (1979) found that people who were asked questions that elicited either positive or negative emotions responded in accordance with this principle. They looked to their right (showing left brain hemisphere involvement) in response to questions that elicited positive emotions, but looked to their left (showing right brain hemisphere involvement) in response to questions that evoked negative emotions.
Individuals—canine or human—who favor the left paw or hand more often use the right hemisphere of their brain, while right-pawed and right-handed individuals have a more active left-brain hemisphere. Studies have shown differences between right-pawed and left-pawed dogs. They have also revealed that dogs who are ambilateral—who don’t have a paw preference—are different in predictable ways from dogs who strongly prefer one paw over the other.
Lateralization research, an active area of study, informs our understanding of emotions and behavior. Though dogs and people are common study subjects, similar patterns have been found in fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and primates and other mammals.
Determining Paw Preference
Strength of Lateralization
Batt et al. (2009) showed that dogs with stronger paw preferences were bolder and less cautious than dogs with weaker paw preferences. They were more confident, less prone to arousal and anxiety, quicker to relax or become playful in new environments, and exhibited calmer responses to novel stimuli and strangers. It turns out that we humans are similar to our best friends in this regard: People with weak hand preferences are more likely to suffer high anxiety levels and are more susceptible to both PTSD and psychosis than those with a strong handedness.
Just as being right-pawed predicted guide-dog training success, dogs with a strong lateralization (either left or right) and a low rate of using both paws in the Kong test fared better in these programs (Batt et al. 2008). The authors hypothesize that this may be because strongly lateralized and right-pawed dogs are less likely to experience high reactivity and distress responses, which are detrimental to success as a guide dog.
Dogs also turned left in response to images of cats and snakes but not to images of dogs. With repeated presentations, there was a change toward right-turning behavior, indicating that the left side of the brain and its associated positive emotions were involved. This suggests that novelty may be a factor in fear and other intense negative emotions that tend to be processed by the right side of the brain.
To understand the role of lateralization in processing olfactory stimuli, it is essential to know that each side of the brain processes the information received on the same side: the right nostril goes to the right hemisphere, the left nostril goes to the left hemisphere. Dogs started to sniff novel but non-aversive stimuli (food, lemon, dog secretions) with their right nostril and then shifted with repetition to using their left nostril, showing a change from negative to positive emotions. When presented with adrenaline and sweat from their vets (really!), dogs demonstrated a consistent bias toward the right nostril, suggesting that their emotions started, and remained, negative in response to these odors (Siniscalchi et al. 2011).
* * * * * * *
Love and understanding compound one another with our dogs, and lateralization is a case in point. A dear dog friend of mine is strongly right-pawed; it was pitiful to watch him attempt to learn to give a left high-five, or use his left paw to hold his Kong when he briefly had a bandage on his right paw. I used to find how hard it was for him to do anything with his left paw somewhat comical. Now I understand that this trait is part of the package that makes him the unflappable, happy, don’t-care-about-the-power-tools-running-all-day-during-the-kitchen-remodel, playful and exploratory, nothing-fazes-him kind of dog I love so much. I’m honored and overjoyed that when he greets me, his tail wags are as one-sided to the right as the rest of him.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Many reasons for this behavior
Dogs often hold onto their own leashes with their mouths, and sometimes even take the leash of another dog. It’s generally pretty adorable, perhaps, in part because we relate to any example of dogs acting like us. If you watch any dogs hanging on to the leash of another dog, you may be able to make guesses about why the dog is doing it.
In some cases, as in the video below, it looks to me as though the dog is simply playing with the leash. The leash is an object in the environment that has caught the dog’s attention and interest, and the fact that it is attached to the collar of another dog does not seem to be important or highly relevant.
In other situations, such as in the following video, one dog appears to be walking the other dog around, much as humans do. It’s not a very forceful situation and no malice is apparent, but the dog with the leash in his mouth is using it to lead the other dog around. The dog on leash seems untroubled at first, but later appears to dislike the limitations imposed by the leash. Then, he starts to pull on the leash, just as dogs so often do when it’s a person holding it.
In this last clip, the more confident dog in the video appears to be using the leash to encourage (pull!) the more timid dog to go down the slide. Again, this is something that a person might do. Some dogs benefit from being forced in this way because they find the slide fun but might not have tried it on their own. Other dogs were scared to go down the slide before they did it and very scared while they do it, so it can be traumatic for them. It’s definitely a risk, but it sometimes works out well. I’ve seen a lot of people make their dogs go down a slide with this technique, but I’ve not seen a dog participate in this way before.
After watching the last two videos, it’s natural to wonder if dogs have learned how to guide dogs around by their leashes from watching humans do it. With so much recent research on social learning in dogs, I find myself watching dogs do things that humans have done and wondering if the dogs learned it by observing people.
Do you have a dog who leads another dog around with the leash?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Just ask skier Lindsey Vonn
Lindsey Vonn has had many injuries over the years from skiing, but this past weekend, she joined the dog bite club. She was hospitalized after being bitten when she tried to separate her own dogs during a fight. True to form, she is back on the slopes and plans to race later this month even though the bite to her thumb required stitches and looked ghastly.
Vonn’s two dogs, Leo and Bear, got into it over a toy, and she tried to break it up. The gash on her thumb is both bad luck and a warning about the dangers of trying to break up a dog fight. Of course, when you see dogs at risk of hurting one another, it’s natural (and commendable) to want to step in and halt the madness as soon as possible, especially when they are both your dogs.
There is no surefire way to break up a fight between dogs, and there is no guarantee that it can be done safely. There are always risks, but some techniques are better bets than others, and depending on the seriousness of the fight, you may be willing to take a big risk. If you ever have the misfortune to see dogs fighting with each other, consider your options and choose what you think is the best way to handle the situation.
Some low risk options for breaking up a dog fight are not always that effective, but they aren’t likely to cause a problem, either. These include making a loud sound such banging any loud meal objects together, blowing an air horn or a sudden yelled, “Hey!” Often dogs ignore these attempts, but for dogs who are not that committed to the fight or who actually want to stop fighting, but can’t seem to break it off themselves, loud startling sounds can work.
It’s true that spraying dogs with a hose may stop a fight, but dogs so rarely fight within reach of one. Even spraying them with water or dumping a bucket of water over them can work, but many dogs don’t seem to care. I’ve heard of cases in which fighting dogs were pushed in a pool and stopped, but again, there’s not always a pool handy when you need one. Spraying dogs with a citronella spray can have the same effect as water.
Using a barrier to separate dogs is riskier than the above suggestions, but also more likely to work. Inserting a cookie sheet, a piece of plywood or even a thick piece of poster board between two dogs can break up a fight. That said, it’s a major feat of coordination to accomplish this in most cases during a highly active altercation. There is a risk of being bitten but the bigger the barrier, the lower the risk because you can keep your hands further away from the mouths of the dogs.
Separating the dogs with direct physical contact has the best chance of stopping the fight, but also poses the biggest risk of you being bitten. It’s wise to lower that probability any way that you can. If two people are there, an option is for each person to grab the back legs of a dog and pull them away from each other. Yes, it can work, and yes, it’s awkward to time this right. Dogs have almost no power when their back legs are not in contact with the ground, which is why this is not likely to lead to a bite to the people. Of course, a failed attempt in which one dog is being held and the other gets away can put everybody at risk. I’ve seen people separate dogs by grabbing tails instead of hind legs. It’s not very pleasant for the dogs, but is generally better than continuing to fight.
The worst and riskiest ways to separate dogs involve putting your hand near their front ends. That includes grabbing at collars and reaching for an object that is the source of the dispute. This so often leads to dogs turning and biting at people’s hands. That’s how Lindsey Vonn ended up in the hospital, but it’s only fair to point out that reaching into the middle of a dog fight is most people’s natural response to trying to stop it. Like any other guardian, Vonn didn’t want her dogs to get hurt, which means that she didn’t want them fighting. Though reaching in is risky, if a dog’s life appears to be in danger, it may be worth doing anyway. One sobering bit of advice I once got from a brilliant animal control officer was that if you absolutely have to use your hand to separate fighting dogs, use your non-dominant hand. That way, your good hand is not the one that gets injured. It’s fine advice that I hope nobody ever has to take.
Have you broken up a fight and been injured while doing so?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Effects of feeding frequency and age
When and how much our dogs sleep matters to us because it affects our own sleep. Most people who have ever raised a puppy know the horror of sleep deprivation, and many people caring for elderly dogs or those who are unwell are facing the same problem. Even dogs who don’t need to be taken out in the middle of the night or in the wee hours of the morning often work against the goal of an uninterrupted stretch of eight hours of restorative sleep each night.
I once had a dog who slept in every morning, and I valued that quality in him immensely. Though I made many attempts to figure out how to transfer this quality to all dogs, I suspect he just came into the world that way. True, we did feed him healthy food and give him lots of exercise, but that surely hasn’t worked on a large number of other dogs. Still, I maintain a strong interest in learning about the variables that affect dogs’ sleep patterns, with the eventual hope that dog guardians everywhere can apply it to their own dogs for the benefit of all.
Because I am interested in canine sleep, I was interested in a study that investigated some basic aspects of dogs’ sleep patterns. The research looked into the effects of age and feeding frequency on dogs’ sleep patterns. Dogs were in one of three age ranges (1.5-4.5 years, 7-9 years, 11-14 years) and were fed either once or twice daily.
The researchers found that older and middle aged dogs slept more during the day than young adult dogs, but that was because they took more naps, and not because their naps were longer. Older and middle aged dogs also slept more at night than younger dogs because they had a longer total sleep interval at night (waking up later) and woke up fewer times during the night.
Dogs of all ages were affected in a similar manner by being fed twice daily as opposed to once a day. Dogs who were fed more frequently took fewer naps during the day, but the naps lasted longer. Dogs fed twice a day fell asleep earlier at night, but woke up earlier, too with a decreased total time sleeping at night. (The earlier waking time more than compensated for the earlier bedtime.)
>The take home message to me is that if you want more sleep, just wait until your young dog ages a little. That’s interesting when you compare dogs to humans, because we sleep considerably less as older adults than as young adults.
Have you noticed a change in your dog’s sleep pattern with age or with changes in feeding schedules?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Canine abilities that are inconvenient for humans
By the time he was six months old, my husband’s childhood dog could leap their six-foot fence. He was part Whippet, so it should come as no surprise that once he was out of the yard, it was pretty easy for him to cruise the neighborhood at speeds that made it impossible to catch him on foot or on a bike, and even a challenge by car. His physical capabilities were wondrous to behold, but also highly problematic.
I once fostered a puppy who was an excellent jumper and extremely fit. She had a lovely temperament, but like most active young dogs, she could be a bit tiresome to other dogs. Since we also had a five-year old dog at the time, we knew that giving our adult dog some breaks from the puppy would be wise. The first afternoon that the two were together, we put a baby gate across a doorway to separate the two dogs. We figured our adult Lab mix could jump over the gate if he wanted to be with the puppy, and jump away if he needed a break.
Regrettably, the puppy hopped over that fence with more than a foot of clearance under her, while our adult dog did not attempt it. It had surprised us that our adult dog was hesitant to jump because he had a history of leaping obstacles we thought were high enough to contain him, so we took him to see his veterinarian. That’s how we learned he had a slight tear in his AC. (So, on the bright side, we probably saved him from more pain by treating that injury earlier than we would otherwise have done.)
Some dogs show tremendous prowess at track and field events—running and jumping in a variety of ways—but others excel with their fine motor skills, and that can be just as challenging. It’s easy to marvel at a dog who can open doors, is undeterred by childproof latches or can open every secure trash can on the market, but it’s far harder to live with such a dog. If you have a dog who turns on faucets or opens the refrigerator, I would bet good money that you envy people whose dogs lack the skills to do so.
What physical ability of your dog has been a colossal inconvenience for you?
A romp at the dog park, a run along a trail, a walk around the neighborhood--we know how important it is to get our dogs out and about. But how often do we think about exercising our dog's brain? And really, why should we think about it at all?
Recently, I listened to an online seminar offered by Karen Overall, MA, VMD, PhD, DACVB, CAAB, and board certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, that provided several answers to this question.
Dr. Overall starts out by making the interesting point that it's very likely that dogs co-evolved with humans, which was made easier because both species have similar social systems that rely on work and problem-solving. Dogs still need to problem solve but in today's world, probably don't get enough opportunities to do it, which is why we need to provide them with mental stimulation as well as physical exercise.
She then discusses some of her research and shows videos of dogs working a puzzle box designed specifically for one of her projects; she also analyzes what the dogs' performance indicates about their emotional state.
The takeaway is that stimulating a dog's brain by engaging his capacity to problem solve improves both his physical and mental health. It's also key to helping dogs with behavior problems learn new ways to respond to stress.It's science nerd nirvana, a combination of theory and practical advice (most of which comes at the end in the Q&A segment).
The seminar is titled From Leashes to Neurons: The Importance of Exercising Your Dog's Brain for Optimal Mental and Physical Health, and you'll need to register to listen in (registration is free). Get started here: http://vetvine.com/article/192/akcchf-human-animal-bond-event
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Human behaviors that precede them
One disadvantage of being a canine behaviorist is that so many human behaviors scare me. My heart leaps into my throat all too often when I see people performing risky behaviors around dogs. From hugging dogs and picking up dogs to sticking their faces right by a dog’s face or bending over a dog, there are plenty of gasp-worthy moments. I see people performing these behaviors and want to scream out a warning. It’s similar to the reaction I have when watching a horror movie and want to yell, “Don’t go in the house!”
I work with so many clients whose dogs have bitten someone, and as I hear the stories of the bites, the same human behaviors are mentioned over and over. I’m not saying this to blame the people, but rather to help us all learn how to lower our risk of being bitten.
Dog bites are a serious problem that we should all attempt to avoid, and among the most distressing are bites to the face. In a new study called Human behavior preceding bites to the face, scientists examined 132 incidents of bites to human faces that did not involve bites to any other parts of the body. The goal of the study was to determine the human behavior that preceded bites.
Well-know risky behaviors such as bending over a dog, putting the face close to a dog’s face and eye contact with the dog and person very close to each other did occur before many of the bites, which is no surprise. What was a bit of a shock was the percentage of times that these no-no behaviors happened before the 132 incidents in the study. In 76 percent of the bites, people bent over the dog just before the bite! In 19 percent of the cases, a bite was preceded by people putting their faces close to the dog’s face, and in five percent of the cases, gazing between dog and person at close range occurred before a bite. In no incidents was a bite to the face preceded by trimming the dog’s nails, falling on the dog, hitting the dog as punishment, stepping on the dog, pulling the dog’s hair, tugging the dog’s body or scolding the dog.
More than 75 percent of the bites to the face happened to people who knew the dog. Over two-thirds of the bites were to children, and of those, 84 percent were to children under the age of 12. Children who were bitten were with their parents in 43 percent of the cases and with the dog guardian in 62 percent of the incidents. Sixty percent of the bites were to females, and no adults were bitten by their own dogs. More than half of the bites were to the nose and lips of the person, as opposed to the chin, cheek, forehead or eye area.
All of the dogs who bit someone in the face were adult dogs, and over two-thirds of them were male dogs. In only six percent of the bites did people report that the dog gave a warning such as growling or tooth displaying prior to biting. (To me, this is the single most surprising finding in the study, and I think it’s quite possible that some people did not notice or failed to remember warnings by dogs.)
As the authors of the paper mention, this research is based on questionnaires that ask people about past events. As such, there are inherent limitations with the study. Still, the results about the frequency with which kids are bitten, the greater likelihood of male dogs biting faces than female dogs, and the finding that only adult dogs bit faces are consistent with previous research.
If you have ever been bitten in the face or seen it happen to someone else, what do you remember about the human behavior right before the bite?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Variable reactions, similar behavior
Dogs with very different feelings about vacuums can exhibit behavior that is remarkably similar. In the following three videos, all three dogs act somewhat alike, but based on subtle differences, I believe that their emotional reactions to the vacuums are very different.
In the first video, the dog exhibits no discomfort around the vacuum. He moves close to it many times, offers a series of play bows, and seems quite eager to interact with it. When you see his face, his expression is not tense or fearful, but relaxed. Though his aroused barking suggests he might get overly worked up, which is not great for dogs, this one-minute video does not show a dog having a negative experience at all. His body is relaxed, there are a lot of happy tail wags, and the whole experience seems like a playful one for this dog
In the second video, there is a mix of positive and negative reactions to the vacuum by the dog. She is clearly interested in the vacuum and seeks interaction with it. She is sometimes relaxed and playful as she charges at it, but other times she seems nervous and unsure. While there are play bows, there are also nervous tongue flicks and retracting lips, which suggest that she is not enjoying herself. The fact that she runs away from the vacuum is also concerning. This dog seems more serious than the previous dog and also a bit frantic, reminding me of the way some dogs act around laser pointers. She is ambivalent about the vacuum—interested in it and yet not thoroughly comfortable around it.
In the third video, the dog seems distressed by the vacuum. The way he approaches it and bites at it do not look playful, and may be an attempt to get the vacuum to go away. When it moves towards him, he retreats, and I think that he is quite frightened by it. Many dogs run away and hide when afraid, but other dogs (including this one) tend to go on offense, preferring to get the vacuum before it gets them. This dog appears tense and anxious, darting in and out around the vacuum, but running away on multiple occasions.
How do you think your dog feels about the vacuum based on his behavior towards it?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Taking the angst out of canine introductions.
“We put the new dog into our car with our other dog.”
“I held each of them by the collar and put them nose-to-nose to meet.”
“Our son brought home a stray dog and took her into the back yard with our other dogs. I guess it was too much for an eight-year-old to handle by himself.”
When it comes to dog-dog introductions, I’ve heard it all—usually because the introductions have gone badly, very badly or disastrously, which leads to families coming to see me in varying stages of distress. Some are unsure about keeping the new dog, many are scared and a few are injured. All have learned the hard way that introductions are not to be taken lightly.
People introduce dogs to one another in all kinds of suboptimal ways, including those mentioned previously. Some of the time, it goes just fine, but even so, they’re still gambling with the safety and well-being of both their dogs and themselves
Whether you are introducing a new dog into your own household, setting up a first meeting between your dog and your partner’s, or just want to go for a walk with a friend and her dog, it’s more likely that the new relationship will flourish if the first meeting goes well.
As in all aspects of behavior, knowledge is your ally. It’s important to know that there’s no standard protocol for dog-dog introductions that works best for every dog in every situation, and no introduction is risk-free. That said, there are a few general guidelines and techniques that go a long way toward making the first meeting between dogs a positive experience for everyone. (Don’t feel you have to do it alone. Line up professional help if you have reason to suspect that there will be trouble, or that one or more of the dogs isn’t good with other dogs.)
• Have new dogs meet one-on-one. Group introductions can be a bit challenging even for a well-adjusted dog. For a dog who struggles in social situations, meeting multiple dogs simultaneously can be so overwhelming that it could damage the new relationships.
• Choose the location of the meeting carefully. Off-territory is best so that neither dog feels like the other is the intruder. And conduct the initial meeting outside rather than inside. Often during meetings, a dog will urinate and then walk away, especially if he is feeling overwhelmed. That gives the other dog an opportunity to get to know the stressed dog by sniffing the urine without coming into close contact with its source. If dogs are inside where urinating is a no-no, their options are limited.
• Avoid gates, fences, doorways and other tight spaces. They tend to make dogs tense, and a tense dog is unlikely to be at his best. In general, dogs feel more relaxed and are more likely to exhibit desirable behavior when they don’t feel confined, so do your best to keep both dogs in open space and away from narrow passageways. For example, try to conduct the introduction in the middle of the yard rather than along the edges.
• Don’t crowd the dogs. Like narrow spaces, having people too close can also make dogs feel uncomfortably confined. For many dogs, being crowded by people is worse than being crowded by inanimate objects and tight spaces because it puts a lot of social pressure on them. Resist the urge to lean toward them or hover over them. It’s natural to want to move toward the dogs if you perceive even the slightest sign of tension or trouble, but ironically, it can make things worse. Moving away is far more likely to lower the arousal or tension level and prevent escalation of the situation. If you see tension, use a cheerful voice to say something like, “This way,” or “Let’s go,” then clap your hands and walk away.
• Keep moving. This is a great way to help an introduction go smoothly. It not only prevents you from crowding the dogs, it also keeps their interactions with each other from developing intensity. If humans walk purposefully, dogs will often follow, allowing them to avoid greeting or interacting more closely than they’re comfortable with.
• If you can and it’s safe, drop the leashes and let them drag on the ground so you can easily take hold again if you need to. “Safe” means that the area is securely fenced and both dogs have a history of behaving appropriately around other dogs. If you can’t let go of the leashes, keep them loose to prevent tension from traveling down to the dogs. This is easier with thin, 12-foot lines, but can be done with 6-foot leashes, too.
•Model calm, relaxed behavior and remember to breathe. Our dogs respond to our emotions and behavior, so if you’re holding your breath because you’re tense, or sending out nervous energy (“Oh jeez, oh my, oh no! Yikes, I hope this goes okay!”), the dogs will pick up on that. Focus on breathing evenly, avoiding negative thoughts and keeping your own body relaxed.
• Make the meeting a food-free, toy-free experience. Many wonderful dogs are not at their best in the presence of other dogs when food or toys are around, especially if the toys are their own or the food is held by their people. Eliminate the possibility of possessiveness, which can cause problems.
• Keep the first meeting really short. By “short,” I mean just a few minutes. Many dogs find meeting new dogs fun and exciting, and if both dogs are like that, no harm is done by a short meeting. You leave them wanting more, eager to hang out again, and that’s not a problem. But if one or both dogs find meeting new dogs stressful, upsetting or tiring, a short meeting helps them avoid becoming overwhelmed, and that prevents trouble. The next time they interact, they are not truly “new” to each other, and a longer interaction is not as likely to be as detrimental. For dogs who really struggle in new social settings, a few short sessions may be indicated, but for most dogs, even one short session goes a long way toward a successful introductory experience.
• Make a new dog seem less “new.” Novelty is often exciting to dogs, and the resulting high levels of arousal can work against a smooth meeting. If you can remove some of the novelty from the situation, it helps make introductions easier and less intense. How do you take away some of the “newness”? By getting them used to the sight or smell of each other ahead of time. Then, by the time they meet, much of the novelty will have worn off.
One way to do this is to walk the dogs in the vicinity of one another without allowing them to greet. Continue to move in the same direction, keeping several feet between them, and adjust the distance as needed. Walking in the same direction (rather than facing each other head-on) and exploring smells is one of the normal ways dogs get to know one another—it’s the canine equivalent of “let’s have coffee.”
Having the dogs smell each other’s urine before they actually encounter one another is another way to get them over the “newness.” You can either lead each to a spot the other has used to urinate, or actually collect some urine from each and present it to the other. Oh, the things we do as dog people for the sake of a successful introduction!
And a successful introduction is the whole point. Proper meetings go a long way toward preventing social problems, from minor angst all the way up to and including serious fights. Whether you are adopting a new dog into your household or making the acquaintance of an occasional play buddy, following this advice will make it more likely that the dogs will become friends. That’s especially important when the goal is to have a “blind date” lead to a “together forever” happy ending.
Early tactile input pays off
As our readers know, The Bark is 100 percent in favor of adopting dogs from rescues and shelters. Giving a dog a new life in a home in which he or she is understood, loved and cared for is a giant gift, not only to the dog but also, to ourselves. It's one of those cliched win/win situations: we do something good for a dog and in the process, benefit from the unparalleled companionship that dog provides.
That being said, we also know that every day, hundreds—or more likely, thousands—of dogs are purchased from breeders for a variety of reasons. The most commonly cited reason has to do with predictability: those who buy a puppy from a breeder are looking for some degree of certainty in the adult dog's behavior, trainability and looks. Taking the wide-angle view, that notion has merit, but when it comes to individual dogs, it doesn't necessarily hold up.
I'd like to say that I'm a purist, that I've only adopted, never purchased, but that would be untrue. In my 20s, I purchased a Dalmatian from a breeder who was also a neighbor. All of the pup's littermates had been sold, and at 12 weeks, he was the last one in need of a home. The breeder had determined that he was going to exceed AKC standards in terms of height at shoulder and size of spots (I'm not kidding--she told me his spots were too big) and so decided to sell him as a companion dog. He turned out to be a great dog, one with none of the stereotypical Dalmatian behavioral quirks.
Fast forward 30 years, and I made another foray into purchasing a dog, although not from a breeder, but rather, from an acquaintance whose Siberian Husky had had a litter fathered by a Siberian mix. In that case, I was specifically looking for a Siberian mix for the very unscientific reason that on some level, I was trying to replace a much-loved dog who had died shortly before. I was guided by my heart, not my head.
In both cases, I lucked out—and believe me, the luck was definitely of the "dumb" variety.
The Dalmatian breeder bred her dogs infrequently and carefully, and the pups were well-handled and well-socialized before going to their new homes. The Siberian's people were teachers, not professional breeders. One could be critical of their decision not to spay their female and to deliberately allow her to mate, but in their raising of the puppies who were the outcome of that mating, they were stellar.
Recently, I read a posting from Stan Rawlinson, the UK's "original dog listener." In it, he talks about the impact a breeder has on a dog's adult behavior and health. Following is an excerpt that I found particularly interesting—it also explains why I'd been fortunate in the two dogs I'd purchased: in both cases, the puppies were born in the home and handled extensively from birth.
Humans handling pups from day one provide a mild stress response, which acts to improve the puppies both physically and emotionally. After that at 10 to 14 days the sense of hearing and smell develop, eyes open and the teeth begin to appear.
Their eyesight is not fully formed until seven weeks. Though they can see enough to get round from around three weeks of age. Pups that are handled regularly during the first seven/eight weeks of their life mature and grow quicker.
They are more resistant to infections and diseases, and are generally more stable. These pups handle stress better, are more exploratory, curious and learn much faster than pups that are not handled during this period.
They are also more likely to be happy around humans and are rarely aggressive. Therefore the pups born in kennels outside, and not in the home, and the ones born into puppy farms are less likely to get this vitally important tactile input.
Here's the first take-away: If you care deeply for a specific type of dog and are determined to start with a purebred puppy, it behooves you to pay careful attention to the way the breeder approaches the pups' crucial first weeks of life and the environment in which those pups are being raised. (After that, it's up to you!).
And here's the second obvious-but-true take-away: the value of handling very young puppies early and often isn't limited to purebreds —it applies to all pups of all persuasions in all situations. Hands-on breeders, shelter workers and rescue volunteers improve the odds that their smallest charges get off to a good start .
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