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(Updated 31/7/01)

Life can be too short
Breeding for temperament - Oh really!

By Colin Christopher Tennant

RECENTLY I had a telephone call from a distressed client whose 155 lb Newfoundland had so distressed her, through its bad behaviour, that she was in semi trauma. This case in itself, is not an unusual one at the Canine & Pet Behaviour Centre. Many people call each week to describe a difficult or dangerous dog which is upsetting family life.

The culprit of most peoples’ dilemma is a mixture of misinformation, inexperience, ignorance of the species and in this case relying on the advice of a particular breeder who is less well informed than the client they are advising.

Therefore, I do use the term breeder loosely.

The most common and of course, the most serious problem we deal with at the centre is aggression towards people and dogs. Lack of early socialisation is the cause of most of these problems. Now you would think that with all the mass of information circulating in the dog press and the general media that by now this would be a minor rather than a major issue, but the statistics at this and many other centres prove otherwise.

A breeder or an owner who breeds

Breeders - what a curious lot they are! People who, for many reasons, have taken up the challenge of improving breeds of dogs by physical appearance and temperament by KC rules. Of course, this view is a personal one although the improvement is often a contentious issue even among quality breeders themselves. I, for one, an ex breeder and show exhibitor, understand the desire to enthuse and take part in an enjoyable pastime, of the dog show or passion, call it what you may.

When I use the term ‘breeder’, I often think hard because the term means nothing really. It is a person who breeds and possibly shows. Someone who breeds in a flat, a house, a large house, bad kennels, good kennels, backyard, farm and so on. All sorts of people, intelligent people, not so intelligent, profit first, profit last, at a loss but it’s a good job - the variations are endless.

However, I do not understand why thousands of dogs, including pedigree ones, are needlessly euthanased each year because although they have generally been bred with good temperament, they have been inadequately socialised when very young thereby setting the puppy on a course of uncorrected bad behaviour finally resulting in destruction.

Poor advice in action

I started off with Bert, the Newfoundland, because his particular Breeder had advised my clients, Mr & Mrs Harding, not to let their new puppy off the lead for exercise until he was nine months of age. Bert is a beautiful well bred male pup who no doubt is a good show specimen. Unfortunately he has overwhelming dominating characteristics with all species he meets, including people and a penchant for chasing and grabbing dogs, especially small ones. He causes chaos in the home when visitors arrive and a great deal more with the furnishings. The owners have had a Newfoundland before and are intelligent people. However they did follow the expert’s (breeder’s) advice and kept Bert on a lead until nine months to prevent damaging his bone structure.

When, with some trepidation, they did release him at the age of nine months, he went mad with excitable erratic play having fun and employing bully boy tactics on all living creatures around him. He has since spent a further 12 months on the lead so I must presume that his skeletal structure has so improved that he can now chase, squash and collect dogs by the mouthful. His idea of play is torment to all he meets.

Bert, by the way, has been banned from two boarding kennels for grabbing the staff - i.e. excessive mouthing attached to 155 lbs of dog! He now stays with me and he doesn’t attack the staff nor is he malicious towards my staff. He has on occasion grabbed a tee shirt and ripped it, playing tug of war games and it was attached to my kennel man, but we know that Bert is a lovable, huge, bouncy dog who is being dominantly boisterous. It is his size that makes modifying his behaviour just a touch difficult.

The main problems


Mr & Mrs Harding listed the following on their behaviour profile form presented to me. Excessive: boisterousness, barking, jumping up, mouthing, biting, aggression to dogs and some people, ignoring all commands, mad in the car, stealing food, furniture destruction, refusing to obey any commands and so it went on.....

At nearly two years of age Bert is still on a lead because to let him of would without doubt place Mr & Mrs Harding in the courts with chance of prison or a £5000 fine and Bert would be destroyed under the dangerous dogs act.

But why?

I’ll tell you why. Because this breeder obsessively believes that a Newfoundland’s bone structure will be impaired if let off the lead. Will it? I believe not. If it will, why are they breeding dogs which are so in need of formative virtual convalescent care? Is the breed too heavy or is it deficient in bone density for its weight? I rang two Newfy breeders who told me that they advised socialisation immediately not at nine months. That was a relief.

I have trained several young Newfoundlands for obedience without ever hearing of them needing to be formally exercised in this most restrictive manner. But that said, my main query is why is this particular breeder of Newfoundlands, with many years experience in the breed and shows, is so ignorant of early canine socialisation? If a breeder cannot by example show the pet owning public the way forward in pedigree dog care then the euthanasia rate will continue unabated.

Other breeds and generic advice

Not wishing to upset Newfy breeders too much let me include some other examples. Another, not uncommon, statement we hear at this centre is from the breeders of Pointers, Whippets, Basset Hounds and other hunting breeds. "Oh, they don’t or won’t come back when called. It’s a part of the breed - training them is a waste of time." Again - these breeders are placing negative suggestions in the client’s mind and they are probably too lazy to spend the right amount of time training their own puppies during the formative months - including obedience training. They compound the ignorance by passing on this misguided view to their new puppy buyers. By the way, one of the most obedient dogs I saw performing for a pet owner was a Basset Hound called George he was trained 10 minutes a day by his owner, not a professional trainer.

I do recognise that, many hound breeds - sight or scent oriented, are less malleable for training than say the gundog breeds but we have found that with early training, from six weeks of age, (demonstrated in the new Complete Puppy Care film for all breeds), obedience is not difficult to achieve. In the film I purposely used a Miniature Dachshund because it is not a breed we generally see performing obedience. He did well and is now a young adult happily walking about Berkhamsted Town in Hertfordshire.

If some breeders imbue the public with psychological negatives that the breed is untrainable then, when owners have difficulties - which we all do at times - they will just give up psychologically. That is a bad start for an owner and new puppy and of course, poor presentation of the breed as a family pet.

Pet dog owners

I do realise that the good breeders educate themselves in canine husbandry and their keenness and desire to see their stock reared to adulthood is genuine. If not, I would have a queue outside the centre with misbehaving pets. I also know that many of the problems presented to me are directly related to the public’s mistreatment or poor care management of their pet. However this article is about a group of people who have decided to breed dogs and moreover impart advice to clients as self declared experts. I believe it is incumbent upon them to show the way by example.

Dog training and behavioural programmes

Back to Bert. Bert’s owners have had four hours of behavioural advice and Bert has taken part in obedience training courses. He is slowly being allowed, under supervision, the natural inclination to investigate other dogs. Unfortunately due to his huge size and weight it is a very precarious re introduction to his own kind. He will often pounce on a dog and therefore two trainers and the owners have to be at hand. Also, a supply of trained, stable tempered dogs whose owners don’t mind them being assaulted growled at and dominated by Bert. It is quite a tall order and an expensive one too, all for the sake of socialising a puppy between six and twelve weeks and beyond. This is one of 36 dogs of this type I have seen in 1999!

If breeders of certain breeds feel that the dogs are so difficult to train or control then why breed and sell them to the unwitting pet owning public in the first place, where, surprise, surprise, the dogs do have to come on command, walk properly and not run amok in public places and have to mix with large numbers of dogs and domestic pets and negotiate modern complex traffic systems in most towns.

I hope that the responsible breeders will read this article and perhaps remind their less aware fellow breeders, with a kick up the bum, to get up to date with our dogs needs and their future in Britain because that is where the vast majority will live; not in the world of shows, rural kennels, kitted out cars and the other trappings of the dog hobbyist. I say this because one of the most distressing parts of my work is having to tell emotionally exhausted owners that they need to euthanase a beautifully bred dog which could, without reservation, have been a good stable companion had he been socialised.

Update

Before I completed this article I telephoned Mrs Harding and the update is that Bert has stopped grabbing, pushing and mouthing guests to the point of injury. He will now walk without catapulting his 155lbs at every passing dog and he no longer spins around their little car like some dervish. I believe another 12 months rehabilitation should get him straight. As for eventually playing with his own kind the jury is out on that one.

During September of 2000 Bert finally befriended a lady Jack Russell of all dogs and she not only puts him in his place but they both play together. Barney has also been released un muzzled with 4 other male and female dogs so the future is looking bright for the Newfoundland.

In conclusion let us understand what has gone on. For the sake of socialisation at six weeks onwards a dog like Bert has taken three trainers, twelve helpers, including owners, three less than confident kennel staff and hundreds of hours of time plus thirty participating dogs, all of whom have been temperament tested to the limit by Bert’s exuberance. The cost in money has been £1490.00 not counting the free time from helpers. All because of advice from a person who has had many years breeding experience, but doesn’t understand the basics needs of the socialisation and habituation of the domestic dog.

I believe socialisation to be the most critical factor in pet dog ownership. Dogs may look good - however, dogs must behave well, if they are to fit into our complex law driven society. More and more restrictive laws are excluding dogs from public places - it pays us all to not only train our dogs to be well behaved but also to be ambassadors for the right to own a dog because one day it may not be so.