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?
It is unfortunate but true that there are people out there who are more invested in how things look than anything else. These people themselves are fearful, though they would never admit it, and use appearances (designer clothes, cars, fancy homes, even champion dogs) as an armor against the world. They have no interest in losing that perceived armor by self analysis. (Hence the poster leaving the forum altogether rather than evaluating whether all the other people on it might have a point.)
How to fix the problem or influence these people? Maybe a push to have dogs judged on temperament as much as physical points?
Education might do the trick. Just as Puppy Mills have been exposed and have a bad reputation, even in the non-dog world, once understanding of this matter reaches a “tipping point”, then people who breed fearful dogs will look bad to their peers, and the world at large. They certainly wouldn’t want that!
I have been searching for any animal behaviorist or knowledgeable trainer perhaps who can make me feel better about my extremely difficult decision to euthanize my sweet pit bull. We got her from a rescue shelter knowing that she had been physically abused by her owner since they got her as tiny puppy (so mentally abused as well). it was a circumstance of a non abusive owner contacting a friend to help her get the puppy away from the abuser. She was hoping that a loving home could be found for her or she thought a shelter might give the dog a chance. otherwise she had resigned herself that the puppy wld be better off euthanized than to
receive any more abuse. Your above blog told me that the abuse for months was most likely the reason for her fear. She was extremely shy when we brought her home from the shelter. And has continued to be very fearful of unfamiliar people. as she has continued to age a dangerous behavior of biting has developed. she has bitten six times and it is felt that her aggression was a result of the abused background. We have had a positive trainer working with us since we have had her.(sadly only 5 months). She advised us of an animal behavior vet/dr. that could evaluate our dog and her increasingly aggressive behavior. We were advised of the danger our dog will be to others as well as ourselves. She was very compassionate in her diagnosis and prognosis.. She did give us an intense behavior plan to implement though she encouraged us to please make a carefully thought through decision as to us keeping our dog. prescribing Prozac and keeping our dog in our house/yard and no one else wld be allowed around her for at least 6-8 weeks. we wld continue training her with her the skills she had successfully worked on and reevaluate in 8 weeks. she made it very clear to us that our dog would always be a significant danger to other people and dogs as well as us. she should never leave our property without being muzzled ; the risk and liability wld be with us for the rest of our dog’s life. Other strict, intense measures were advised as well. This is a sad heartbreaking situation for myself and my husband. We love her. But we feel we must consider the advise given to us seriously and the only solution that the biting, lunging, pulling if on leash etc. wld be euthanasia.