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Choosing your next dog

Finish Lapphund puppies
Finnish Lapphund litter mates playing

Our dogs are amazing and quickly become a major part of our family. But unlike our children we get to pick our next dog!

For many of us we are looking for a puppy and have certain characteristics in mind. Whether it is the type of fur, moulting habits, temperament, size or intelligence, we will have a series of selection criteria.

Many traits are inherited via the parents genes (DNA) so a real benefit in adopting a pedigree puppy, or at least one with known parentage, is that you have a much better idea of the type of dog you will be taking on. For instance, if you are looking to adopt a Springer Spaniel you will have an expectation of their personality, activity levels, fur type, how large they are likely to be and their temperament. But there are two pretty distinct types of Springer now - those that come from a "show line" and those that come from a "working line". Getting this wrong, or not being aware of this can mean you and your pup may struggle.

Show line working and pastoral dogs tend to be larger, heavier set and temperamentally more placid because over many generations these dogs have been bred to meet a specific breed standard and have been judged purely on how they look and move over a short, flat ring. In addition, these dogs need to be able to stay calm in loud and busy environments and be handled (sometimes quite roughly) by judges. To succeed in this environment a dog needs to be predictable and steady. In addition, many judges have a preference for the larger, stockier dogs in a breed and even have preferences in fur colour. All this puts pressure on breeders to produce dogs that can succeed against these criteria. This makes show line dogs a really good choice for many first time dog owners and for those with young families, but as you can see from the German Shepherd's above, breeding against a standard can significantly change the conformation with corresponding health issues such as joint instability, allergies, difficulties breathing etc.

Working line springer spaniel

Working line Spaniels have been bred to be fast over rough terrain, are driven to work, are intelligent and active. They tend to be smaller, faster and always on the go. If you cannot keep their mind and body active they can be more prone to behavioural issues arising from boredom and frustration. They make idea pets for active, outdoorsy types or those wishing to work their dogs and make use of the exuberance.

These two dogs are both Cocker Spaniels and I have exaggerated the differences to highlight my point. This difference plays out in all the working and pastoral breeds. So knowing your dogs parentage and genetic makeup is so important to choosing the right dog for you and your family.

So a dogs DNA (genes that come from their parents) will influence that dog in many ways. Many of the physical characteristics such as size, fur type and colour and physical conformation are predominantly set by them. These characteristics can be significantly altered over a relatively short period of time if the breeding pressures are there.

How the German Shepherd has changed over time
Extreme and rapid conformational change over time due to breeding pressure to meet a Kennel Club Breed Standard

But, and it is a big but, it is not the only influence on how your dog will turn out, particularly when it comes to behaviour. Firstly, the environment your puppy's parents live in will influence your dogs traits and behaviours. Nervous anxious dogs produce nervous anxious puppies which is why it is so important to not only meet the mum (at least) but in their own environment.

It is also increasingly obvious that parents do not just pass information to their offspring through their genes. A study on rats demonstrated that a frightening experience can be linked to a specific smell and that just exposing the animals to that smell can cause the animals to be fearful. However, even more interestingly, this fear is transferred to babies that are not even conceived at the time of the smell exposure. If a dogs' DNA is set at conception, it is not possible for them to pass on fear associated with a smell via their DNA - it has to be transferred another, faster way. How this happens is not clear right now though.

So don't rescue or adopt a dog with missing parental information, right?

Two lurchers with very different looks

Well, no because your dogs DNA may be set but inherited behavioural characteristics are turned on and off by their environment.

Researchers believe that most behavioural characteristics including fear aggression, separation anxiety, intelligence and drive are significantly affected by environmental factors and this is where, as an owner, you come in!

Most behaviours are influenced by both the dogs DNA and the environment, with DNA only playing a 20-30% role in expressing the behaviour. So no matter what dog you do end up with, there is a really good chance you can help them to be the very best dog for you. But in some cases it may require a lot more work than perhaps you had planned for. Both my dogs are adopted from local animal rescue centres and they are (mostly) perfect!

Key things to consider when buying a puppy:

  1. See the puppy with the parents and in the environment in which they live

  2. Find out as much as possible about the parents' temperament, exposure to stress and lifestyle

  3. Be prepared for multiple visits to see your pup before you take them home, many good breeders will want to make sure that you are right for their puppy too

  4. Good breeders will take a puppy back if things are not working out so make sure you ask what aftercare there is

  5. Ask for breed specific screening results of the parents, and grandparents where available. Diseases with a genetic component are commonly screened for and include: hip and elbow dysplasia, syringomyelia, eye tests etc. A full list or recommended screening for your chosen breed can be found of the Kennel Club website

  6. Most owners will have their dog for life - so health, temperament, activity levels and compatibility with your current and future family needs are more important than size, fur type and what is fashionable today.

  7. If you are looking for a popular breed be prepared to wait as good breeders only produce small numbers of litters from their dogs over their life

  8. Good breeders don't ramp up prices when demand is high. The health and welfare of the puppy is important to them. If a breeder can supply a popular breed right now at a high price then it is likely a puppy farm animal and therefore more likely to have many health and behavioural issues

  9. If you do not know the parentage of a puppy, think carefully about adopting. But - and it is a big but, if you are prepared to accept there may be challenges along the way and you are happy to work through them (with experts if required) you can still have the best dog in the world. I know I have!

If you already have a puppy?

Your dog has DNA which cannot be changed - but how these are expressed through it's temperament and behaviours are significantly influenced by their environment which can be changed.

If you need help with your puppy, or older dog then get in touch and let's see what we can achieve together. I offer massage and core strength conditioning which can help you dog cope with living in a human world I will be offering canine behaviour support from January 2024 so if you need a behaviourist right now I recommend you check out the Association of Pet Behaviourists or the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour (ASAB).

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