Kim Brophey: Ethology and Breeding Dogs
Jessica Hekman: Welcome to the Functional Breeding Podcast. I’m Jessica Hekman, and I’m here interviewing folks about how to breed dogs for function and for health: behavioral and physical. This podcast is brought to you by the Functional Dog Collaborative, an organization founded to support the ethical breeding of healthy, behaviorally sound dogs. FDC’s goals include providing educational, social, and technical resources to breeders of both purebred and mixed breed dogs. You can find out more at www.functionalbreeding.org, or at the Functional Breeding Facebook Group, which is a friendly and inclusive community. I hope you have fun and learn something.
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Jessica Hekman: Hi, friends, today I got to participate in Kim Brophey’s ongoing podcast tour. If you haven’t already heard her and a bunch of other podcasts such as The Bitey End of the Dog, Hair of the Dog, you might enjoy checking those out. Or, you could just listen here for a lot of juicy ruminations on thinking about dogs and dog breeding through the lens of ethology. Kim is a behavior consultant who approaches dog training through that ethological lens and in this episode we talk about a wide range of subjects, but always with the frame of thinking about what traits make it easier or harder for dogs to fit into our lives. Well, thank you so much, Kim, for agreeing to come on this podcast. I’ve been listening to you do your tour of other podcasts. And I’m really pleased to have you here now.
Kim Brophey: Oh, well thanks so much again for having me. It’s very exciting to be on your show.
JH: Yeah, we have a lot to talk about for sure. I actually had a request from a Patreon user to hear more about what you mean by ethology and what your background is, like how you got there. I guess a lot of people have been becoming really curious about what that means, whether it’s a path they themselves might want to take in dog training.
KB: Yeah, yeah, no. And I really do like talking about that as a different lens, and how I ended up here now. When I was trying to decide what I wanted to study some 20 some odd years ago, the field of applied ethology had absolutely zero presence in the US. It still really does, unfortunately. And so specifically, ethology, just to kind of review, again, for folks that haven’t heard this little bit on the other podcasts, but ethology being the study of animal behavior. Historically that’s been animals in natural conditions, you know, and observing what they’re doing. I’m very rooted in evolutionary biology, ecology, and understanding the animal as an organism within an ecosystem, and, you know, with all the pressures and opportunities therein.
And then applied ethology specifically looks at animals that are under some form of direct human control. So animals that are either wild animals in captivity, animals in laboratories, zoos, on farms. So most applied ethologists are working with animals that are on farms, and then very few are working with companion animals, because I think they haven’t gotten a lot of attention as a captive animal. You know, we think of them as just having this life of luxury and not really needing these kinds of welfare considerations and examination for what happens in our behavior between us as humans and them as captive and domesticated animals.
So I at the time wanted to, I thought I wanted to train just service and therapy dogs, because that seemed like the cutting edge at the time, in terms of the work that was being done in learning and behavior. There was an organization called the Delta Society at the time, which is now defunct. But that’s where Pet Partners kind of got its roots, used to be a branch of Delta Society. And that made me really want to pursue training service and therapy animals, because behavior consulting also wasn’t a field yet. So I didn’t really see that as a future. And I didn’t really want to be a dog trainer in that I didn’t care about controlling them and having animals perform so much. That wasn’t my thing as much as I really wanted to understand. And I wanted to know what were the depths and possibilities, and problems, that could happen between people and animals.
So because it wasn’t available in this country to study applied ethology, I had the good fortune of going to a college in western North Carolina here called Warren Wilson. They have a program, as a few small liberal arts colleges do, called integrative studies, where basically you can propose an interdisciplinary major or a nature specialization major. And so I was able to pull from the core courses there in animal behavior, learning and conditioning, psychology, social psychology, ethics, sociology, anthropology, and then a lot of independent studies about the history and evolution and domestication of dog breeds and their relationship with people, and was able to put something together that got me a good start as an applied ethologist and then I honestly just had to keep digging myself. So my education didn’t stop there, I lived with a stack of books on my bedside table, still do. But it used to be about 10 books high, you know, for the first 10 years after I graduated, just studying everything that I could about evolutionary biology, neuroethology, epigenetics, you know, as these fields started to emerge, and then just stayed very involved in my continuing education, at conferences, and with any experts that would give me the time of day and help me on my journey.
JH: It’s very cool that you put it together for yourself as an undergrad, and something that I think a lot of people don’t think through. Because I have heard of other schools—the school that I went to, for undergrad, also had that opportunity. I ended up not taking it, but I considered it. But I think a lot of us want to study animals. And that’s something a lot of people don’t think of is that you can actually for some schools go and just say, I’m going to figure out how to do this. I don’t have to sort of make do with psychology or, or whatnot.
KB: Yeah, and I think, for me, it was really valuable, because I’ve noticed the longer that I’ve been in this field that it did position me to have a different perspective on some things. Just because our country has been traditionally very, like, top down, kind of the puppeteer model very concerned with how to change behavior, as opposed to why is the behavior occurring in the first place? What are the environmental pressures that are creating that behavior? Should we even change behavior? Is that ethical in the first place? And applied ethology being kind of based in Europe, you know, Europe would say that they don’t have as thorough of an understanding of the applied behavior analysis model. Whereas I think here we have a much stronger root in applied behavior analysis and had been historically lacking in bringing in that ethology piece. And so cross pollinating is really ideal at this point, because there’s just so much good information in so many little fields.
JH: So would you say that ethology is more about understanding the animal and applied behavior analysis is more about changing the animal’s behavior?
KB: I think that might be an accidental consequence, even if it wasn’t the original intention, just because I think the ethology was rooted in, you know, kind of the Jane Goodall model of studying animal behavior, where you’re really trying to observe and understand it, without trying to manipulate it or find out how we can modify it. And I don’t think that applied behavior analysis had any kind of a root goal in trying to manipulate to unconscious ends, you know, where we’re just doing it, because that’s, you know, for power, or whatever. But I do think we’ve accidentally slipped into this relationship with dogs, especially in this culture, kind of with everything that the pet industry has pitched us that like, there are tabula rasa, you know, and if we just do a, b, c, d, e, they’ll be perfect. The right food, the right fit, the right training, and that there’s this prescription, that if we just follow, they’ll be what we want them to be. And there’s not near enough emphasis on first understanding what we have. And that’s so the starting point for every other species in nature, you know. If they don’t have the right environment and habitat for which they were selected through environmental pressures and evolutionary pressures, historically, they will find themselves a fish out of water, and they will be dysfunctional and maladaptive and have welfare issues, if not just pretty imminent death. And so I think it’s easy to look at our pets and not realize all that’s going on. So for me, my emphasis is always trying to bring it back to those points.
JH: Yeah, so I think that a lot of us think of dogs as being adapted to living with humans, like that humans are the environment for dogs. And then, a lot of times, I think we don’t think through what we mean by environment, that environment is this very changeable thing. I mean, it’s different. Obviously, there’s different environments, just in pet homes. But this concept of “pet home” is fairly new. There’s no reason we couldn’t have selected dogs to have fit into a pet home at this point, with a number of generations we’ve had to do it. But I also don’t think we’ve really been focusing on doing that. And so there’s sort of this feeling that dogs should just fit in, but we haven’t made the effort to do that for them.
KB: Well, and I think it’s really complicated by our own rapidly changing environment as people, at least in the modern United States. So you know, in studying kind of the anthropology, and the anthrozoology of kind of what’s happened over the last couple 100 years, I mean, as recently as like the 1940s most people spent the majority of their time outside. You know, we didn’t have most people living in cities. And so that wasn’t that long ago. I mean, that’s less than 100 years ago. That’s 80 years ago when it was just an entirely different world.
So I mean, just starting there, right, and then thinking, okay, so now the majority of us are not outside all day, the majority of us are inside, sedentary, you know, in small spaces. And really the rate of environmental change that has occurred in the last 100 years, it’s unprecedented in the history of the whole planet. And so to us, we’re all living it, and we’re experiencing it at such a rapid pace, that we’re not even necessarily aware of how we’re having troubles adapting to that. But one of the interesting things about us is that we can still, in theory, solve our own genetic problems. Now, even though modern medicine affects the success of our species as a whole, and maybe individuals aren’t being selected against that would have been selected against, we at least have the option of who we’re going to mate with. And so our selection is not under direct control, and of some, some other species.
Whereas with dogs, at least in this country, most of their breeding is under direct human control. And so genetically, nature can’t work out those kinks. Nature can’t say, well, this works really well for these modern indoor sedentary conditions, but these not so much. And, you know, we all fancy the breeds that we’ve historically had, and we love them for their looks and their attributes, but often with an incomplete understanding of all that they’re bringing to the table that made them what they were in the first place that is not going to fit well with these rapidly changing modern conditions.
JH: Yeah, for sure. And I think, and again, I think we could have, right, we could have said that that was a priority for us with dogs. But I don’t think anyone really took a step back and thought about that that was a new priority that we should be having. And that the way that we’ve been breeding dogs, for, you know, a couple of 100 years now, has been that we have these breeds and the breeds have these historic purposes, and, you know… On the Facebook group recently, there was a discussion of someone wanted a Golden Retriever, that did not have oily fur. And I thought that sounds very reasonable. I used to have a Golden Retriever and he was oily and it was annoying. And someone else said, but the essence of the breed is that they are supposed to be used in duck hunting. And the oily fur is to repel the water. I was like, but she doesn’t want to duck hunt with her Golden Retriever (laughs).
JH: And have we taken a step back and asked ourselves, like, what is essential for this breed? And what should we be changing? Because the Golden Retriever is now the quintessential pet.
KB: Right. And it’s like, okay, so the Golden Retriever is a fun one to play around with, because I would make an argument that they fit into modern expectations better than most. You know, for most families they are going to meet the quintessential, kind of like, I want it to be a friendly love sponge that’s tolerant of people and children and other animals, to display very little protective or territorial aggression, to really be go with the flow and jovial and light hearted and flexible. And so if the least thing that you have to get that comes along with all of that success, in my mind, is some oily fur, it’s not bad, because as you know, we may decide to select against oily fur, and we may lose some of the better quality qualities of the Golden accidentally that we didn’t realize were connected.
And I think that idea there too, for people to realize, especially with breeds that are more difficult to live with than a Golden Retriever, that the relationship between form and function is one that is inevitable. You can’t maintain the physical breed standard’s attributes and simultaneously breed out the historical jobs and behaviors for which they were intentionally bred. Again, not to say they all definitely will be the breed standard behaviourally for what they were originally selected for. But there will be kind of a standard deviation range that is, you know, with maybe a couple extreme outliers, but a kind of general average of expressions of certain behaviors that are more kind of common and breed standard for that breeder group. And it’s just so disappointing to me, having worked as a behavior consultant for 20 years, how increasingly people come to you presenting breed typical behaviors as pathological breed problems, and they want it changed, they want it gone. And often these dogs are just getting shuffled around from home to home in search of the home that will tolerate the breed traits that we bred into them in the first place.
But nobody’s stepping back as a culture and saying “Whoa, whoa, whoa.” We all have to take some collective responsibility for this and really ask ourselves tough questions. I’m not saying I have those answers, but I think we should all be asking ourselves the tough questions of: is it fair to be continuing to breed animals for behaviors they didn’t ask for, that are oftentimes very maladaptive to modern conditions, oftentimes working against fundamental principles of selection, like the selection for self preservation and the economy of behavior and that would select against things like neuroses. Where we’ve bred into many of these breeds of dogs, things like neuroses. And so is it fair in increasingly challenging modern conditions, to continue to be producing these dogs as products, in the ends that they’re going to be placed in pet homes, because few of them honestly are in working homes, if we’re just being honest, it doesn’t mean the best breeders aren’t placing their dogs in working homes only. But I would say most breeders, given that it’s an unregulated industry, are not. They’re producing animals where the demand is, and they’re seen as a product. And that’s why things like puppy mills have gotten out of control. And backyard breeding is just because people will pay for them. You don’t run into the problems with the puppies, you run into the problems with the adults, and they’re all cute and easy to sell and find homes for when they’re little. But I just feel like so many of these animals are living with chronic madness against their will that nature wouldn’t have done to them.
JH: Yeah. And I can see both sides of it, right? Like so I absolutely see the perspective of the people who love the particular breed and have been caretakers of the breed, or have inherited the mantle of being caretakers of the breed, and who feel passionately that the breed is almost like a historical artifact that they want to preserve. And, and then there’s just, I feel like there’s so much to unpack about that. There’s, well, maybe you preserve some dogs as the historical artifact, and you place them in homes that can work with them as appropriate. But you understand that perhaps the majority of the breed might start moving in a different direction, as sort of in tune with the modern era. Because I feel like a lot of times we don’t understand that biology is never going to be static. That with biology, you don’t come to find that perfect dog and then you’re done and you just maintain it. Like you can’t, you can’t maintain a thing. But then I sympathize with people who want to say that we have built up this thing and we and we want to maintain it. But I feel like that is starting to become to the detriment of the dog. And maybe there is room for sort of splits there.
KB: Yeah, well, and I, I wish that it wasn’t so complicated as to probably at some point need to involve regulation for that to happen. But it would be really cool if there was kind of a historical society. And there was maybe an elite group of breeders that could preserve these historical artifacts, as you say, these living historical artifacts that then could do demonstrations of the behaviors that our ancestors used them for hundreds or 1000s of years ago. I mean, there’s nothing cooler than seeing an animal doing something that it was bred to do. Or something along the lines that is at least satisfying to those base instinctual behaviors that were so painstakingly developed for reasons and behaviors that, you know, many historians really credit human success and evolution and survival with. That, you know, the companionship that we had with dogs is what made our agrarian society successful in the first place. And I don’t think that that should be erased. I just think that not everyone holds it in the high true regard, that it is abused. And there are a lot of popular breeds that are so over bred and suffering at such chronic levels in pet homes. You know, talking about, like, the average pet home, and the amount of time in the average pet home that a dog spends indoors, confined, alone.
And that is, you know, it’s the same set of welfare considerations and problems that led zoos years ago to create enriched habitats, right? That we thought it wasn’t enough to just put them in a cage where people could see them. We realized that they had needs and you know, in our discussion of the five freedoms that we knew that one of those was the opportunity to express natural behaviors. And I look at pet dogs and I think wow, a lot of them arguably have more compromised welfare than animals in various enriched zoo habitats, because they don’t get to be anything like what they were developed to be in the first place. And I do think that that’s accidentally criminal not intentional, really, you know. I just think we all kind of evolved to this like oh, “pet doggy” idea over the course of time so rapidly.
JH: With the help of movies and books.
KB: Yes, yeah. And, you know, pet stores and pet marketing dollars. And you know, there’s so much that went into that, it’s not like you can boil it down to one original source. But I mean, even well intentioned things like leash laws, you know, which I’m a fan of. I mean, I think it’s horrible at this point, if someone’s not following the leash laws, because they’re there to protect everyone, and you have to have an even playing field. But then you look at like, where I grew up in Atlanta in the 70s and all the dogs were still loose. And my childhood in Atlanta was spent surrounded by neighborhood dogs, and creating relationships with them, following them, seeing where they went, you know, what was their life. Like our puppy, our Golden Retriever, this would never happen today, would go on long jogs with whatever neighbor was jogging all the way around the park, and come back and play with whoever on the way, and eat trash, and chase squirrels. And
JH: I should have started out with that, when you were talking about your training as an ethologist. (Laughs)
JH: That was your daily training.
KB: It did, it went back that far. And which is why you know, now if I’m traveling to places like, you know, Argentina, where my cousin lives, and she was married there, I mean, that was the first chance that I had to see dogs living as they do in 80% of the world. In their natural habitat of coexisting with people, to go back to your point about yes, humans are their natural habitat. But with autonomy, where they’re scavenging and coexisting, and cohabitating, but not in the strict confinement of pet captivity.
JH: Yeah, Sara Stremming likes to talk about the importance of what she calls decompression walks. Which for those who don’t know, are basically fairly long off leash walks. And I feel like a lot of us have sort of been raised to believe that a dog deserves to be walked around the block a couple times, maybe even twice a day, right? But that there’s a real difference in being on a leash on concrete, versus being off a leash in the woods. And the amount of just, I feel like, psychological sort of unwinding that they get by being off leash in the woods, and being able to make their own choices. “I’m going to chase that squirrel up the tree. I’m going to stop and sniff that thing. And then I’ll catch up with Mom, I’ll let her get 50 feet ahead and then catch up.” Things you cannot do on a leash.
Yeah, and I think even, you know, one of the kind of surprising unfortunate things that I’ve found is that for some of my clients’ dogs, the walks are even detrimental. They’re more frustrating than they are satisfying, you know, and it works against getting closer to homeostasis, as opposed to towards it. And, you know, you talk about that and I just envisioned why we moved to the property that we’re at here, where we have three fenced acres for our dogs. And the irony is, they won’t go unless I go with them. Like they won’t even go with my husband, they won’t go with my kids. (Laughter) The one Pyrenees mix does her rounds every night, very true to breed. In the evening she does her barking rounds to make sure all the potential predators and whatever are going away. But other than that, they are literally at my feet all day. But anytime I go out, and I just walk with them, then they run around the yard, and sniff, and chase each other and play, and just track, and walk, and space out, and lay down on the ground and roll around. And the cats come with us. And you know, I don’t, I don’t bother them, I don’t give them commands, I’m not training them. I’m just well, personally, selfishly enjoying just watching them be.
But I think that decompression time, that decompression walk, is something that I would argue, truth be told in the United States, probably less than 5% of pet dogs get on any kind of regular basis. I personally have tried to make sure that my animals have that. I think because I can’t unsee what I see now just because of my background in ethology, it’s just given me a lens for wanting to create space for the integrity of the animal to be what it is without my interference. And you know, that looks different for different dogs, that’s not the same for every dog. As a matter of fact, I’ve realized my herding dogs, they need me to be talking to them even while they’re being autonomous because they’re not even happy unless we’re working together, at least saying, “Yes, it is a beautiful day,” or you know. Whereas my Pyrenees is maybe like 300 feet away from me doing whatever she’s doing with no care in the world to what I’m doing.
And, you know, I think, however it looks for different people, finding opportunities to create that kind of space that—I like Sarah’s description there of the decompression walk, you know. I think far too many dogs never get a decompression walk. And I don’t know how we’re gonna solve that as a culture, but I think we’re gonna see increasing behavior problems if we don’t start talking about some of the problems that are at the root of the behaviors that we’re seeing. You know, I see behavior as evidence of welfare in many ways, as opposed to something that exists, as an island or in a vacuum. And so when people are bringing me a host of dysfunctional behaviors, you know, sure, sometimes it’s just the lack of education for the dog in terms of understanding what’s expected of them, or someone hasn’t put the time in with training. But sometimes it doesn’t matter how much training you put into that, because you’re not having a learning issue, you’re having some kind of a dysfunction between the environment and the genetics. That fish out of water problem, not having the right kind of habitat in the first place.
JH: Yeah, so I guess there’s a lot of different parts to this, right. There’s the environment that you create for your dog, which we’ve talked about a little bit, but it could be maybe even worthwhile to talk more about. Like, what do you do if you live in a big city and you have a dog that needs off leash time? Where do you go? Maybe your only option is a dog park, which not all of us, not every dog is appropriate for. There’s the question of the decisions that owners make about what kinds of dogs to get. So if you’re living in that big city, and you get a border collie, that may not have been your best choice. And then there’s, this is a podcast about breeding. So there’s, again, the questions of the decisions that breeders make. And so, again, since we love talking about these crazy herding breeds, you know, I have several of them. Um, you know, there are some that are bred to work, and that are intended to be placed on farms. Should we then be breeding some of them to be sports pets? What would that look like? So I don’t know, I feel like it’s a whole big complex problem. And I don’t know which pieces you want to dig into?
KB: Well, I think one of the reasons I like always going back to that LEGS model of learning environment, genetics and self, which is just so
JH: Why don’t you tell people what that is first before because not everyone has listened to the other podcasts.
KB: Before I go off on a tangent. Yeah. So the LEGS model is just basically like a nuts and bolts way to think about an animal’s phenotype and all the things that go into that beingness of that animal. And so, you know, instead of going into really thick, long scientific descriptions about one thing or another, we can just say that all these things matter. We’ve known for years, nature and nurture matter. A way to kind of think about that, in just a slight bit more detail, is Learning: so the animal’s experiences, their socialization, any trauma, training, etc. Environment: external conditions. Genetics: that’s pretty obvious what they’re bringing to the table biologically, although that’s also affected by the other things now that we know that that’s a more flexible concept than we once understood. And then the Self: the internal condition, so the animals age, sex, health, what we think of as the ontogeny of the animal, in many ways, the development over the course of their life. And you know, whether they have a disability, injury, infection, etc.
JH: And just to be clear, you developed that.
KB: Yeah, yeah. Just really out of a frustration once I got to a certain point in my own kind of educational process of realizing, holy cow, there’s so many disciplines and so many things that matter. I’m overwhelmed, but I’m looking at it all and I know it all needs to have a place at the table. How do I translate this to my colleagues, much less the public, right? How do I make this even palatable? Nobody’s going to sit there with like epigenetic reading on their nightside table and bedside table, you know, so how do you make it digestible? And so yeah, that LEGS model, like it helps me because I think I’m a pretty literal person, and it helps me to kind of come back down to bare bones.
So in the question you’re talking about, if we’re going through LEGS to look at it, let’s look at what we can change and what we can’t change, right? So there are things that we can do in the animal’s socialization, in the “L,” in the training, to help maximize their adaptive traits and reactions to those kinds of conditions that they’re in. So figuring out how to do quality, not necessarily even so much quantity, but quality, early socialization experiences, that’s something breeders can do, really, to help prepare them for what’s actually a very noisy, overstimulating world. And there’s I’m sure a lot of creative ideas that many breeders are doing to early socialization and development, and figuring out what those sensitive periods are, and what helps and what doesn’t help for different types of dogs.
We also then, if we’re looking at a problem between the environment and genetics, like we were talking about, we’re having kind of a fish out of water problem is kind of the crux of it. Well, there’s only so much we can change about the genetics. But arguably, to your point, maybe there are some things that we could look into as breeders if we’re wanting to preserve a certain breed to make them more adaptive to the modern conditions and urban environment. We might have to let go of some breed standards if we do that. We might find, which often is true across the breeds, if you breed for calmer dogs, you often get heavier boned animals. And that’s kind of a truism across, you know, all sorts of species. I mean, there’s a reason that there’s Clydesdales and then there’s Arabians and that they behave very differently. So the lighter boned animals are probably going to have higher demands behaviourally, exercise, habitat wise, etc. Of course, if we breed them small enough, they can get exercise in your big condo, right? If they only weigh five pounds, you can get a lot more out of it like a, you know, 2000 square foot house.
And then, you know, the ‘S’ for the individual, those internal conditions, like things like diet, you know, and having the right kinds of supplements, making sure that they’re healthy, that they’re not suffering from any kind of chronic infections, obviously, all those things matter. But I think if we’re looking at LEGS, in this conversation, we can agree that we’re having a problem between the E and the G. So if we can’t change the environment, because the people are going to live in the city, what can we add to that environment? Things like, you know, enrichment for the real world. You know, those kinds of ideas are fantastic and they’re helpful. In my experience, though, we need more, because that’s still facilitated by us. And for some dogs, they might get more excited. Yes, more stimulated. But when does the decompression part occur for them? And when do they then get that autonomy? I agree with you that dog parks are really not an answer for a lot of dogs. Daycares are not an answer for a lot of dogs. We have something here as a model that I wish could get extended to every major city in the United States. As a matter of fact, I could use five of them just in my city alone, where you have someone who takes a you know, plot of land, here, it’s eight acres and a town close by where they fencing the whole thing, and they rent it by the hour. I think that’s a phenomenal idea. I think every major city should have a few of those available, that are just safe areas where people can go and have it to themselves for a period of time so that they can walk around, let the dog walk around, and know that everything is safe and they don’t have to worry about the interactions with other people and animals in that habitat.
JH: Yeah, there’s a company, Sniff Spot.
KB: Uh huh.
JH: That does that. But I think they’re having trouble getting the spaces.
KB: Right. Yeah, and that’s part of the problem is that if you try finding affordable land in which to do this in a big city, it’s going to be tricky. And so I have to say, I would bring this back to what’s the first question? Where does it start? What’s the first thing we can change? And I do think that’s the genetics. And I do think that is the question that we should at least all be chewing on. Because I think that’s the question we’ve been scared to ask. That’s the question that has so many implications that we don’t want to let go of, or that we don’t want to think about, because we don’t want to let go of our sentimental feelings about certain types of dogs.
I love herding dogs. But where I am in my life, I won’t have a herding dog, at least for the next 10 years, just because I know I don’t have the time. Being a mom right now with my business where it’s at and having to about to have to take care of my own Mom, you know, in the next phase of her life. Having a herding dog to me feels like having another child and you know, a gifted one at that, who needs to have all of their activities, and needs a certain chunk of my time. It’s like a part time job. And I don’t kn ow which breeders are really communicating thoroughly to their clients about what expectations they should have of themselves and of the dog, and the need to go into it with that full commitment. But I think all too often, we’re still making the acquisition of a pet about us, and not enough about the animal and what welfare is going to look like for them. So I think we have to start breeding for the pet environment. I like Sue Sternberg’s ideas about taking, you know, animals that nature is already developing to be adapted to the expectations of modern humans that are going to be suitable for our lifestyles and conditions. And instead of fixing all of them, figuring out which are the gems that might need to stay in the gene pool. And I think sometimes it’s this as a society, we have to stop and question our tenets and the sacred cows, and at least challenge them. I’m not saying that I have the answers. But I think we have come full circle to a situation that’s hitting a boiling point for our pet dogs. And I think it’s time that we at least start spitballing with the willingness to challenge some of those sacred cows that we’ve all embraced.
JH: Yeah, I think we all—to talk about what you said about genetics, we all thought of breeds as a set thing that couldn’t be changed. And I think that’s something that a lot of us are starting to, to question now. So if you were trying to design the perfect dog for someone who lived in a high rise apartment in a big city. And let’s assume that this person had a car so that they were able to get the dog out of the city a couple times a week, maybe. So they could commit to like, you know, there’s not open space here, but I’ll go find open space periodically. What would you think that dog might look like? And obviously, the answer is going to be different for different people, but…
KB: Something like a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel without health problems.
JH: That’s a great answer, actually. It’s pretty succinct. (Laughs) What is it about Cavs that you like, aside from their ticking time bombs of hearts,
KB: Right, exactly. Gosh, bless their heart and syringomyelia. But the temperament matches most people’s expectations in terms of being very socially flexible. I think a lot of the toy breeds, first of all, are more adapted to indoor environments. So if you just start with the toy group, in general, a lot of our expectations, in terms of their own welfare, exercise needs, etc, will be a little bit closer to accurate for say, you know, big cities and stuff like that, where they don’t have as many of those opportunities to go and run free and have those decompression walks. They can also get more exercise out of a small space.
But because the toy genetic group has, they’re basically dwarves from all of these other genetic groups, so you have little terriers, little spaniels, you know, little guardians, little bulls. And so you if you look at that you have some of them that are like mini versions of the big thing that are a lot of dog and a little body, and they can still experience a lot of the frustration from living in a small space and being unemployed. I think that something like a Yorkie is a good example. Sometimes they do great in those conditions, and sometimes they do horribly.
And the Cavaliers have the temperament that a lot of people want in a gun dog, which is why the retrievers and the spaniels and the setters, and the pointers have historically done really well, that kind of hearth dog, that’s the family dog that was probably more a part of the human family indoor home historically than many of the other breed groups were. And so the selection for those kinds of adaptive traits with families, kids, visitors, etc, you know, just works better, you know, they’re not going to be as protective and territorial, things like that. And you know that the neoteny, if that’s what we’re gonna call it, being, you know, that we’ve gone back and forth as a science and as an industry as to whether or not that’s what we’re looking at, but they’ve been considered kind of the poster child, if you will, of the breeds for neoteny. And it just works, you know.
And I think, what is it about something like a Cavalier that makes them work so well, for so many homes? There’s a reason I don’t have tons of phone calls from people who own Cavaliers with severe behavior problems. Yes, we might have things like separation anxiety to contend with. When you breed for the connection with people, and the affiliation and the sociability with people, the flip side of that is the predisposition for things like separation anxiety. But they’re kind of a heavier boned toy breed, and so tend to not be as nervous as some of the lighter boned toy breeds. And so, you know, is that something we should be thinking about? Should we even be looking at something like bone density as at least something that we could be talking about in breeding. You know, if we’re breeding for lighter boned animals versus heavier boned animals, or vice versa, what are the implications of that? If we’re looking to nature to help inform us about what happens to something like dopamine as it relates to bone density, what can we learn from the species that are already out there? I think low dopamine is better for most pet homes. And I think a lot of the dogs that we’re breeding are not low dopamine (laughs), you know. So there’s, there’s a reason my last pick of a dog for myself was a Pyrenees/Newfoundland. I had a client who had one and I was like, that’s my next dog, because that fits my lifestyle.
JH: So long as you don’t need them to listen to anything you say.
KB: Right, exactly. Actually, she’s completely responsive when I need her to be and totally ignores me when I don’t, you know, we have it worked out perfectly for our relationship. But I joke with my clients because I have, you know, my three dogs here, and I’ll be doing a demonstration or something about a behavior that we’re teaching and I’ll show them how to do it. And as soon as I get the cookies out, the Papillon/Rat Terrier mix and the Border Collie/American Eskimo jump out of their skin ready to help me. And the Pyrenees/Newfoundland is still snoring. Like, it’s not even like she thinks about getting up and helping. But that works for me and what I have, you know, in my…
JH: Yeah, it’s all in what you need.
JH: Yeah. And so one of the things you were talking about there too where you mentioned that separation anxiety might be one of the issues that you would see. And so trying to balance that softness and that interest in being with the family versus needing it a bit too much. Another person on Patreon brought up the concept of the importance of resilience and he didn’t use that word. He was talking about how, I think a lot of breeders are very clear that breeding against aggression is important, but then also breeding against fearfulness which we might characterize as resilience. So I know you have emotions about that as well, you have feelings about that.
Yeah, I think in the same way that the dogs that are the best suited to our modern expectations, and lifestyles, and conditions, are probably also the same dogs that are very much at risk for the development of separation anxiety, and fearfulness of novel stimuli or sound phobias. And, you know, again, anecdotally, like we were talking before the podcast, I’ve seen that in my own clientele. And so I think those are important questions that I would love to sit at the table with breeders and talk to them about and see what have they observed, you know? Do they feel like those issues could be solved with something like a selection for heavier bone density? That’s a really interesting question. Could it be that the lighter boned, you know, Cavaliers, for instance, are going to be more prone to that? Or the lighter boned retrievers versus the heavier boned retrievers, more prone to that?
You know, is there a way to kind of dampen the emotion, that is also the (unclear) the other side of that coin is that affiliation and the friendliness, and that jovial, outgoing, playful personality. Is there a way to kind of counterweight that somehow, so that we are maybe having dogs that are a little more, maybe flatter than some people honestly are wanting. People, everyone wants the personality when they want it, and they don’t want it when they don’t. Alright, that’s the challenge, when you want the dog to be entertaining, and funny and playful, because that’s what you have time to do, you love all that personality. But as soon as you need to work on your computer for eight hours, and the kids are doing, you know, remote schooling, or you’ve got company and from town or whatever, all of a sudden, that stuff’s not cute anymore.
And that same adorable puppy that’s just dying for your attention and to be in the middle of things, what do they do in the 21st century when the kids are involved in four extracurricular activities, and even pre COVID, we’re working and we’re, you know, going out here and going to this event and traveling there. And, you know, the dogs often get sidelined in the midst of all that. And I think for a long time, it kind of worked, like thinking back to the 70s and the 80s, and even the 90s. And we’ve had some breaking point in the last 10 or 20 years where a lot of this stuff isn’t working anymore. Like, I feel like so many dogs aren’t just having behavior problems, they’re really having mental health problems. And, you know, it will probably, as it did historically, take us some trial and error and experimentation to find which dogs work best on sheep. It’s going to take us some trial and error and experimentation to find out which dogs work best for these modern conditions. And then, especially in the original development of those breeds, pre modern breeds that were then developed for fancy, for looks, etc, for coat types, color, etc. When most of our ancestors were breeding for function, they were far less concerned about what they looked like for breed standard, they were concerned about what behaviors and what characteristics and functions those animals were going to be exhibiting and how that was going to work or not work in their environment. I would love for us to have a little bit of a value and a paradigm shift back towards that, and away from the loyalty to shape and color and cuteness and, you know,
JH: Back to experimentation is what you’re saying.
KB: Yeah, back to experimentation. That is, okay, these are the conditions, like nature would do, right? So nature looks at the conditions, the pressures, the opportunities, the niche, the ecosystem, and it finds what works, and it repeats what works. And I think our ancestors were doing that out of necessity, because they were using dogs to survive. Now it’s all a luxury. So we have to stop and really think about it, and care enough to realize that a lot of these dogs are really in a pickle. And we put them there collectively, accidentally, but it’s who else is going to get them out of it, you know?
JH: Yeah. And I think also we’re in a really nice place to experiment right now. So when you’re talking about people experimenting with putting dogs on sheep, I think we imagine that a lot of dogs were culled back then, right. Like, this dog attacks sheep and so there is no place for it on a farm and there is no other place for it. But these days, you know, when I talk to breeders about some experimentation, some of the pushback that I get is what happens to those dogs that aren’t exactly what you’re trying for. And I think we’re in a really nice place right now where so many people want dogs, and there are such a variety of different good homes for dogs out there. And the kinds of experimentation that you and I are talking about are not massive.
KB: No, no.
JH: We’re not talking about, oh, by mistake, I created a dog that’s going to kill the toddler. Like, that’s not the kind of thing we’re talking about, right?
JH: We’re talking about by mistake, this dog may be higher energy than I intended it to be. But there are homes for dogs like that.
KB: So if we’re starting with the right options in the first place, right. And, and that’s where I think it’s really cool where breeders might have been a little cautious about doing that even for their own economic reasons, you know, before where people would say, well, that’s now a mongrel because it’s a mixed breed. The designer breed phenomenon has changed all that. People like it when you do a mashup and give it a cute name. And, you know, I think, for instance, I think some of the doodle experimentation has been successful. I really do. I think some of it’s been a train wreck and I think some of it’s been really, really awesome.
And I think, if we’re all talking to each other, and we’re cross pollinating from specializations, right, rather than just breeders, only talking to breeders and trainers only talking to trainers, and, you know, sport, people only talking to sport people, and us non sport people only talking to non sport people. Like, figuring out a way to get these collective and diverse voices at the table to talk about what they know, and what understanding and perspective they have that can help us work towards greater ends. You know, for not just the ideal homes, right, but the average homes. And I think like you’re saying, the type of experimentation that we’re talking about is nothing that’s, you know, super left field that’s going to create, or shouldn’t be in my thinking, that’s going to create such severe problems that they would, you know, not be placeable. But it probably is going to take some trial and error. And again, I like Sue Sternberg having the gall to go out there and say, let’s try this. And, you know, Ray Coppinger, was the most prominent figure for my 20 years. I mean, back when I was in college was when I first started writing to him, and he started sending me articles. And then in the last couple of years before he passed, we finally had the chance to become friends. But I followed his work closer than anyone’s. And I remember seeing him on some BBC videos and things like that, 15 years ago, on one of the same episodes on dogs that Karen Overall was on, both of them saying 15-20 years ago, we should be breeding for pets. We should be breeding for pets, and getting away from, “Oh, aren’t aren’t Huskies gorgeous?” Yes, they’re gorgeous. Does that mean everyone needs one? No, it really doesn’t. And I love Huskies, but I would want to have the right place for a Husky, you know? This place could work, my last house not so much. Right? And I think just being honest, and being willing to let go of some of our emotional, sentimental attachments, in the interest of the dogs we all love is at least something we should be talking about, not that any of us have the exact answer.
JH: Yeah, and I think that we’ve been, as we talked about how to change the genetics of the dogs that we’re making to help them fit into the environments that exist now, what you’re talking about is also the other side of it, of changing the expectations of the people about what kinds of dogs they should expect to have. And I think that brings up the question of, are there people with expectations that no dog can fit? And what do we do about that?
KB: I do think that there are people who maybe have never had a dog who want to have a dog, or maybe had a dog a long time ago, and it was a very different world, and maybe they had environmental conditions that made it work better then, that now would like to have a dog and welcome that relationship into their life. But maybe we as a whole, as the pet industry just in general, aren’t doing a good enough job informing people about what they’re signing up for. I do think that shelters, trainers, veterinarians can all do a better job being honest with people about some of the common requirements and expectations that people should be having for different breed groups. And it’s one of the reasons why I decided to write the book, is because I felt like we’ve all gotten away from the role that the the genetics and the history of these groups of dogs plays in the behaviors and the traits that they’ll have, that they didn’t ask for, or nor are they choosing to express now necessarily, so I think people need a better guide. And while it was rooted in really great intentions, the popularity of the saying “it’s all how you raise them” came to consume the thinking of the American public about dogs in the last 10 years. And it’s really found its way deep into the psyche of the public, such that they really believe when they walk into a shelter, or call up a breeder, because they think the puppy’s pretty, if they just do A, B, C, and D, it’ll be fine. And that’s a problem. That’s a cultural myth we all have to keep working to undo. Because it’s just not true. That it’s not true for any other species and it’s not true for dogs.
JH: Yeah, genetics actually does have some effect.
KB: Yeah, yeah. It plays a little role.
JH: So you mentioned your book. And that actually might be a good way for us to segue into, as the hopefully the viewership won’t know this, but we’ve had a bunch of issues trying to plow through to get this podcast done. (Laughter) So I have no real feel for how long we’ve been talking. But I feel like it’s probably a good time to start wrapping up. But then why don’t you tell people about your book?
KB: Sure. Yeah. It’s called Meet Your Dog: The Game-Changing Guide to Understanding Your Dog’s Behavior. And it is broken down into the LEGS model, as we talked about. So there’s a learning, environment, genetics and self chapter. And then the genetics section is broken down into the 10 genetic, historical working groups of dogs and kind of does a nice, deep dive. But one that’s really tangible and relatable, too. I very much wrote it for the public, so that it was something that anyone can pick up and relate to, and get something out of, even if they were a novice and new to dog ownership.
JH: So it might actually be something good to buy as a Christmas present for someone. Of course, this will come out after Christmas, but to buy as a present for someone who is thinking about getting a dog. It might provide some guidance for them on how to think about that process.
KB: Absolutely. And I’ve had a lot of trainers also reach out to me and tell me that they frequently refer their clients to it because their clients will have unrealistic expectations about the dog that they’ve brought to a trainer. And it can help fill in some blanks without it seeming like it’s just coming from the trainer as a cop out for why I can’t fix it. You know, there’s real reasons why some of those behaviors are there. And you know, the interesting thing about instincts is they’re bypassing that good old filter of frontal lobe. And it helps people I think, you know, get away from personalizing some of the behaviors they don’t like, as if they’re something that dog’s doing on purpose.
JH: Yeah, that sounds like a great resource. And for other resources, where else can people find you? You have a consulting business?
KB: Oh, yeah, The Dog Door, dogdoorbehaviorcenter.com is my website. (Note: address reverts to dogdoorcanineservices.com). We’re kind of redoing the whole thing in the next few months so people will see some changes. But there’s a bunch of information that we will have more effectively organized in the next version. But we will also be at Wolf Park in 2021. If COVID allows it, we will have a five day training on how to integrate the LEGS model and applied ethology for professionals into their training and consulting businesses, just to help bridge that gap in the information that’s available for professionals out there.
JH: That sounds amazing. Wolf Park is a fantastic place.
KB: It’s amazing. And I was so honored to be asked. And it’s cool because we’re actually really working closely with their staff to have demonstrations for different types of ecological principles and concepts with the wolves throughout the five days.
JH: Oh, very cool. Yeah, they do a lot of interesting behavior stuff there. So
KB: Yeah, great people.
JH: Yeah, that sounds like a great opportunity. All right. Well, thank you so much for coming on. This has been wide ranging and very, very interesting.
KB: Yeah, thank you again, for having me. It’s been a lot of fun.
Thanks so much for listening. The Functional Breeding Podcast is a product of the Functional Dog Collaborative and was produced by Sarah Espinosa Socal. Come join us at the Functional Breeding Facebook group to talk about this episode or about responsible breeding practices in general. To learn more about the Functional Dog Collaborative, check out www.functionalbreeding.org. Enjoy your dogs.
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