From the start, humans have had a hand in influencing not just what dogs look like but also how they behave. Dogs were domesticated around 20,000 years ago, which gave us plenty of time to tinker with our new-found friends, selecting for attributes that made good hunters, guards and herders as well as loyal companions.
Dogs have long been bred for very specific behavioral traits—hunting breeds excel at tracking, pointing and retrieving while herding breeds have highly developed stalking and chasing skills. How all those variations came about is what researchers have been busy studying since the first dog genome was sequenced in 2005.
Should these various functional traits matter to those of us with mixed-breed dogs? Yes. To understand and work effectively with our dogs, it is both interesting and instructive to have some insight into what underlies their behavior. For example, if our dog has some Border Collie in him, we shouldn’t be surprised when he tries to herd other dogs at the park or a group of children at a family picnic. Or that our Retriever mix is tireless in his desire to fetch balls or Frisbees; our Hound mix oftentimes has her nose glued to the ground and seems deaf to our recall pleas; or our leashed mixed-breed Husky pulls like a freight train.
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Then again, dogs are individuals, so not all will display specific behavioral traits or an interest in living up to their breeds’ reputation. There are Labs who don’t like to swim, Brittanys who do not chase birds and Terriers who do not dig. As John Paul Scott and John L. Fuller observed more than 40 years ago in their book, Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog, there can be greater variability in terms of temperament and talent between dogs within a breed than between breeds.
Generally, though, knowing which breeds contributed their functional traits to our dog can be helpful in informing our choice of enrichment and training activities. Hound mixes can shine at scent work, sporting dogs and herders often excel at agility or anything that taps into their athletic abilities, and Retrievers and other large breeds may do well with dock-diving and field sports. And of course, all dogs respond to positive reinforcement training and like hanging out with us and getting as much attention as they can.