Monday, November 2, 2009

What dog should Obama have chosen?

It was interesting listening to Animal Behaviourist Patricia McConnell's answer to this question on NPR Radio in the USA. Everyone knew Barak Obama had promised his daughters they could have a dog if they went to the White House.
This is a question that people often ask me about beagles. Are they active, are they trainable, are they good with children, are they stubborn? I now realise this is an incredibly complicated question because it all depends on the individual dog and the lifestyle of the owner.

As far as President Obama was concerned, McConnell said it was about how trainable a dog would be in an environment like the White House where there is a lot of activity. There is a lot of coming and going not only of people but of the family itself. Firstly she felt that a dog which had a genetic code for emotional stability (not reactive i.e. over reacting to every little thing that happens) was important.

Secondly, it depended on how that dog was raised from when it was in-utero (interesting that she emphasises this) to its early learning, socialisation and habituation during the critical imprinting period of 4 months. She felt it was less about a specific breed but more about individual personality, genetics and early development and learning.

There is no breed where every dog is the same. Choosing the right dog is a about choosing the right individual with the right temperament and the right early development and learning. However it is not all one-sided. Every owner has to be prepared to accomodate the individual behaviour of their dog.

I often get asked whether my beagles are a good breed to have as a dog. I used to say that generally beagles have tolerant, stable temperaments which is why they are the unfortunate target of many experimental laboratories. Now I am more cautious in my answer having seen how temperament can differ within the same breed and even the same litter.

Of course general breed characteristics play an important role. You have to know what drives specific breeds (beagles are bred to be scent hounds and their sense of smell drives a lot of their behaviour). In most dogs, what they were bred to do is a huge indicator of how they will behave.

But I now believe that any dog can be the "right" kind of dog if it has the right temperament for your situation and there is huge effort put into its first four months of life to try and guide its future behaviour. (And according to McConnell how the mother is treated during her pregnancy will also affect the litter. Science has proven this with pregnant humans so why not animals?)

Many people ask "are beagles very active dogs?"

Well, now I believe almost every breed of dog has been bred to be active and there is no way you can "de-activate" a dog. You have to be prepared to give them outlets for their energy in order to have a contented dog. McConnell says that dogs are usually most active in the early morning and late afternoon. There is a rhythm to their life - active, sleepy and active again.

My dogs start getting restless at 3.00pm and from 4.00 to 7.00pm it's mayhem or happy hour depending on my mood. If I do not take them out to burn off fuel during this period, I pay the price. This is several noisy, hectic hours when my neighbours get irritated and I need to boost the volume of my TV if I want to watch my favourite soapie.

When I take them for walks (usually an hour) they are still very busy for some time afterwards. Some one told me this is because the endorphins released by the walk are still buzzing in their systems. I think its also because 1 hour is not really enough. When my dogs refuse to jump into the car at the end of a walk it's because they want more. The day they happily return to the car is the day I will have really emptied their fuel tanks.
By 7.30pm it is usually lights out for my dogs until day light starts to dawn.

So I think the answer to "What breed of dog should I choose?" is that every dog is individual. It's up to you how much work you are prepared to put into your dog not only during its critical first 4 months but for the rest of its life. That's the deal if you want the "right" kind of dog.