Deciphering the Breed Code

Published: October 26, 2011
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Which puppy to choose?

If you have been following this blog, you are aware that we are adding a new dog to our household, and for the first time in 23 years it will not be a Rottweiler. (We will be getting a Rottie in a couple of years though — we are addicted!) As I have been speaking to breeders and people in rescue, I am reminded of the code words and phrases used to describe our beloved breeds.

Good breeders aren’t trying to deceive buyers, they just have pet names for the character traits of their breed. Why is it important to be able to decipher the code? Because code words are used to describe the behavior of the puppy and its parents. In addition, these words are a part of the breed standard, meaning breeders are trying to breed dogs who meet that standard and will possess those character traits. Knowing what the most commonly used words actually translate to can help you choose the right puppy for your family.

Unless you are in the minority, you are not looking for a fearful or aggressive dog. Some of us (including me before I had a child) seek out troubled dogs because we like to try to help them and enjoy seeing them make progress. Dogs only get to be fearful a couple of ways, which we will talk about in more detail in another blog. The route to acquiring aggression and fear that we are concerned with today is the inherited route.

Aggression and fear are heritable traits which can be bred into a certain line within only about five generations. Fear is the primary cause of most of the behavior problems that I and other board certified veterinary behaviorists see. Look for phrases like: "requires socialization throughout their lives," "they can possess shy natures," and "alert and responsive, instinctively protective, determined, fearless, aloof … does not relish intrusion by strangers into his personal space." These phrases all translate to shy, fearful, and an increased risk of aggression.

Now, that you have decided on your breed, or lack thereof, it is time to choose your puppy! The way that we choose puppies is incredible to me. Can you imagine meeting a person on the street, talking to them for 30 minutes, and then asking them to live with you, share your bed and promise to care for them for 15 years? Your friends would say that you are CRAZY! Yet that is what people do when they choose a puppy. They find the pup that touches them, and then they take it home without considering its temperament, energy level or trainability. It is no wonder that so many dogs end up on death row in shelters.

Just as there is no guarantee that your child will grow up to be exactly what you want him or her to be, or that your partner or spouse will behave exactly as you would like, there is no way to predict what your puppy will grow up to be. However, you can make informed choices about which puppy to add to your family and increase the likelihood that you will make a good match. Puppy temperament tests have been shown to be unreliable in scientific studies for most character traits, including aggression and dominance, but they can be reliable for assessing fear. In other words, if the puppy is fearful, she is likely to be fearful later in life as well. Watch the entire litter together to see where your pup stands when compared to her littermates. It will give you some idea of how her temperament compares to the average temperament of her littermates (those who share similar genetics).

Choose the puppy who is outgoing, who is running up to you to interact. The puppy should also be independent enough to run away from you to play with the other pups. She should play well with the others, romping, barking and wrestling normally. Pick the puppy up in your arms and touch her all over to see if she is sensitive to handling. When she is busy with something else (like play), make a loud noise (not loud enough to scare her) and see what she does. For example, if you drop your keys on a metal object or tile floor about 6 feet from her, she should look up and may back up. Then, she should go back to playing or walk up to investigate the item. Don’t pick the puppy who is hovering in the corner and won’t come out to see you, unless you are looking to work with this puppy for a long time to come. It is a lot easier to reel a dog in than it is to bring one out of her shell. Be prepared to leave if none of the puppies in the litter mesh with your family’s expectations.

As my bumper sticker says: "A dog is for life, not just for Christmas." So choose carefully!

Dr. Lisa Radosta

Image: perfect little norman rockwell puppy by candrews

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