In my early twenties, I worked on a sheep farm in southern Illinois. The farm had around 1,000 sheep and two Pyrenean dogs to protect them. Great Pyrenees dogs are a type of dog known as a livestock guard dog; they do not herd sheep like border collies but rather are there to protect the sheep from predators. They are giant, white (mostly), hairy dogs that blend in well with herds.
The Pyrs, as the breed is affectionately known, slept in the barn all day when humans were present and there was no danger to the sheep. All night, however, they patrolled the farm, barking regularly to let coyotes or stray farm dogs know they were on duty and to be reckoned with. Pyrs have a deep, booming bark that denotes authority and the ability to back it up. We have never lost a single sheep thanks to these dogs.
However, they often chose to broadcast their presence in the middle of the night right outside my bedroom window. I really don’t remember getting a good night’s sleep during my stay at the farm. I remember laying awake thinking, “These are super sweet dogs and I really love them, but who would EVER have one as a pet?”
Fast forward many years. We had just lost our beloved Newfoundland, and my husband suggested we get a Great Pyrenees because that breed would be more protective of our home. All I remembered at the time of my experience with the Pyrs was how sweet, loving and kind they were and happily accepted. We went to the Great Pyrenees Association of Southern California, an animal rescue and adoption organization specializing in the Pyrs. We brought home our new Pyr, Sebastian, who immediately started patrolling our backyard and loudly let the neighborhood know he was on duty. I had forgotten the barking! Nevertheless, we liked him very much and became devoted fans of the breed; we had four more Pyrs saved after Sebastian. They have all been dedicated barkers and protectors of our home, even stopping two burglary attempts.
However, there are differences between them. Sebastian hated going out in the rain but didn’t mind loud noises. Isabella stood in the rain as long as we let her, but she was terrified if there was thunder or lightning. Holly is shy around strangers, but the others are eager to make new friends. Dino has a deep distrust of anything on wheels, skateboards, bikes, shopping carts, but others ignore them. Freya hides her toys under seat cushions while the others leave them strewn around the house.
Yet they share all of the Pyr behavioral traits of independence, willpower, and protection. These were behaviors required of a livestock guard dog, which was bred to be left alone with the sheep to defend them against wolves, and not to rely excessively on human companionship. This independent behavior also means that none of our dogs will win obedience trials. I gave up expecting them to respond like our Golden Retriever Rebecca, for whom my wish is her command.
The similarities and differences between our five Pyrs came to mind when I read a recent study published in the journal Science which suggests that a dog’s breed has less influence on individual behavior than people. don’t believe it. This study collected DNA and owners’ reports of their dogs’ behavior in an effort to explore how genetics shape complex behavioral traits. The study suggests that relying on breed as a determinant of a dog’s behavior is not as reliable as many people might believe.
The authors reported that certain traits, like submissiveness which signifies responsiveness to direction and commands, are more linked to certain breeds such as Border Collies and sociability is strongly linked to Golden Retrievers, but other traits are less hereditary. such as the agnostic threshold which signifies how easily a dog is provoked by frightening stimuli, are less reliable.
The researchers reported: “Behavioral factors show great variability within races, suggesting that although race may affect the likelihood of a particular behavior occurring, race alone does not, contrary to popular belief. popular, informative enough to predict an individual’s disposition.” The study reported that this is even more true for mixed-breed dogs.
The American Kennel Club responded to the study’s findings by citing a 2019 study published in the Royal Society’s biological research journal Proceedings B. This study evaluated over 14,000 dogs from 101 specific breeds. This study found that “behavioral differences between races covary strongly with relatedness between races, and for several traits, genotype accounts for more than 50% of behavioral variation between races, up to 25 times more than heritability estimates from within-breed genetic studies. ”
The American Kennel Club said: “The AKC’s position that the breed and type of dog informs general, instinctual behavior and is why owners should consider behavioral tendencies before selecting a breed. to make an educated, informed decision that leads to a happy life and -long commitment to the dog.”
This is an important consideration for dog parents or people deciding what breed or mix of dogs they would like to add to their family. This is especially important in the area of animal welfare as we see the negative consequences of incompatible dogs and families. New dog owners may get dogs unaware of that breed’s propensities or be disappointed if their new dog doesn’t meet their expectations of how he should behave because of his breed. These disappointments may lead to rehoming the dog rather than accepting its behaviors and keeping the dog in the family.
The Department of Animal Care and Control uses its knowledge of breed propensities to help guide adopters in selecting an appropriate dog to add to their family. An adopter looking for a couch potato to hang out with who is captivated by the blue eyes and striking appearance of a Siberian Husky may be gently redirected to a more suitable dog. Huskies were bred to run miles in the snow and require lots of exercise, a trait that is not appropriate for this home. However, someone looking for a jogging buddy would be the ideal adopter.
Of course, there are Siberian Huskies who like to lounge on the couch. However, let’s stack the game to make sure we can make the most successful matches between dog and family. People can use breed characteristics as a general guide on what to expect, but that shouldn’t be the rule defining an individual dog’s behavior. Accepting a dog that comes with or without the behavioral traits of the breed should be a key commitment to pet ownership.
Just think if the roles were reversed. Would a dog betray us because we don’t live up to his expectations? Our dogs accept us with all our faults, quirks, bad habits and when we don’t behave as they expected. We owe them the same consideration.
Check out the Great Pyrenees Association of Southern California. They are always looking for adopters, foster parents and would appreciate a donation of any amount.
Marcia Mayeda is the director of the Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care and Control.
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