Dogs Unlike Their Breed Expectations

True individuals stand out from the crowd
By Karen B. London PhD, July 2018

Dog breeds are genetically different from each other to various degrees, and since genetics play a huge role in behavior, it should come as no surprise that dogs of different breeds have a tendency to behave differently from one another. Many herding dogs are naturally gifted around sheep or cattle, many dogs who were bred to retrieve game also love to play fetch and dogs who were bred to guard livestock quite often bark. The list of natural behavioral tendencies and the breeds who exhibit them are long and quite often accurate.

However, there are plenty of individual dogs who are quite unlike the typical members of their breed. This is far from unexpected because the genetic variation within breeds is quite large relative to the variation between breed. Still, whenever I meet a dog who is behaviorally unusual for the breed, I find it fun and fascinating.

The first Husky I ever knew well attended a doggy day care where I worked as a groomer 20 years ago. He was extremely unusual for a Husky, but I didn’t know that at the time. He naturally stuck close to his guardian. When she came to pick him up each day, he trotted right beside her out to their car without being on a leash. On his daily walks, he behaved in the same way, and never ran off. Huskies are famous for bolting and taking long independent journeys, but he had no wanderlust at all. I never realized how unusual that was until I got to know a number of other Huskies over the next few years.

I recently met a Labrador Retriever who is aloof, and that is quite rare. To be clear, she does not avoid people because she is fearful or because she had been traumatized. Those are unfortunate situations, but sadly, they are not that unusual. No, this dog is truly aloof, by which I mean she is cold and distant. She could easily be described as standoffish, emotionally detached or indifferent to people. She is well-trained, responsive and polite. It’s just that there is nothing particularly friendly about her, and she does not display any real interest in people. As near as I can tell, people are simply sources of food, toys or access to the outdoors rather than social partners.

My parents had some friends who were in their 80s and had a young Jack Russell Terrier who was so unlike typical representatives of the breed that his behavior posed a real issue. He was mellow, calm, agreeable and gentle in all ways. He showed none of the energetic tendencies so common in Jack Russell Terriers and was not relentless, persistent, interested in chasing prey or prone to hyper focusing on anything that squeaked or moved. He was a genuine couch potato and an absolutely lovely companion to this elderly couple. The problem was that most of the other seniors in their social group wanted to adopt Jack Russell Terriers themselves because they loved this particular dog so much. I told them repeatedly how very unusual this particular Jack Russell was and how unlikely they were to find another member of the breed that would be so well-suited as a companion to an elderly couple.

One of my favorite I-don’t-match-my-breed-description dogs was a Newfoundland who hated water. Since Newfoundlands are famous for their hearty tolerance of cold water and tendency to love every puddle, pond, lake or sea they can find, she was definitely unusual. Not only did she decline to swim or even wade in any water, she seemed to regard the very idea of being near water as offensive and absurd. She was not fearful of the water, but simply revolted by it. I honestly think the average cat is less resistant to being wet than this dog was. She was clearly a dog who had not read the books about her kind and didn’t realize that Newfoundlands are strong swimmers capable of rescuing multiple people at once as they use their webbed feet to propel themselves through the water and use their tail as a rudder.

Have you ever known a dog who was quite unlike others of the breed?

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She is the author of five books on canine training and behavior.

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