Recently, I engaged in a discussion with a poster to a dog training list. The poster is a breeder of an AKC toy breed, and she had two intact, year-old males who were fighting. It sounded like one was resource guarding her and the other, she mentioned, was very shy. In responding, I mentioned that I thought she should neuter one or both, and that if she were to neuter one, it would make sense to neuter the shy guy.
Absolutely not, she responded, shocked. Both boys were offspring of Best-in-Show winners and had fantastic conformation potential.
My response was to offer a lot of information on the inheritability of shyness. We know a *lot* about this exact issue. Experimenters intentionally bred a line of so-called “nervous Pointers” so that they could study a variety of issues thought to relate to inherited fearfulness. In the course of breeding these nervous dogs, scientists verified that the dogs were truly *genetically* fearful; even when newborn pups from the nervous line were cross-fostered with normal Pointers, and raised with careful socialization and lots of human contact, they remained terrified of humans and novel things, often freezing in terror if a human approached their kennel. Another experiment demonstrated that the nervous-line dogs did not learn as well operantly as the normal dogs.
Pet owners are nodding their heads as they read this! Some are remembering how when they visited the breeder, the dam would not let them approach the litter, or the sire hid behind the breeder, and now they have a shy adult with a limited ability to cope with the world or, worse, a tendency to try to fight the world away. Some have done wonders with their fearful dog, but realize, when adding up the training hours, how much longer it has taken their dog to learn to do new things, especially in more public environments.
It is so much easier to prevent fearful dogs by not breeding them than it is to try to rehabilitate them once they are born and owned and loved by someone.
Unfortunately, the breeder became extremely defensive and angry. I believe she was especially shocked that every single person who posted in the thread supported what I had written. One poster wrote that she had purchased a pup from fine show lines intending her to become her foundation breeding bitch. But this puppy turned out to be so fearful that she can barely leave the house, and despite being conformationally gorgeous, this intelligent, compassionate woman has realized that she is not a dog who should be bred. No one wants a Labrador who is paralyzed with fear of the world!
The breeder’s shock suggested to me that she hangs out with lots of other breeders who don’t think twice about breeding a shy animal. The list she was posting on is a training list; there are plenty of breeders on it, but they are breeders who are also interested in training, in the science of learning, and in performance and competition, so perhaps they tend to have a broader view.
As a behavior consultant (and also as a rescue volunteer) I find it absolutely heartbreaking that breeders either do not understand how heritable fearfulness is, or do not care. I am literally unable to understand how perfect earset and a certain pedigree could be more important to someone than a temperament that is comfortable in the world and will not break the heart of the future owners. I have a student whose dog came from a large breeder and is fearful of (and somewhat aggressive toward) both dogs and humans. This lovely man bought the dog when he retired, intending to make her his agility partner. Her ability to compete in agility is limited because for her, the world is a threatening, worrisome place. This man has trained this dog far better than most pets, has read numerous books, has bought numerous items of equipment… and has a dog he is trying to do remedial work with just to be able to take her to class. My anger at the breeder could not be overstated.
Obviously I did not do a good job at talking to the breeder who posted on the training list. She unsubscribed a couple of days after our conversation. I do not know if she was able to take in any of the scientific information I offered. So how do I talk to breeders? How do we get to the people who are making these breeding decisions before it is too late?
Of course, it is not only the reputable, professional or hobby breeders who are choosing to breed fearful dogs. No doubt, many puppy mill production dogs are fearful, as well as dogs being bred by backyard breeders, or by accident. However, it is especially scary when the dog being bred is the offspring of a Best In Show winner, because these dogs tend to be bred widely and to produce the “popular sire” effect. It is especially alarming when the dog in question is male, since a given male typically produces far more offspring than a given single female. Some of the prevalent temperament problems in certain breeds appear to have arisen after a male of that breed won Westminster and was thereafter bred widely. People seek out the offspring of these dogs in a way that they do not intentionally seek out puppy mill puppies.
How can we talk to breeders to influence their priorities? How many understand, but don’t care? How many don’t understand? Will simply educating them do the trick?