January 8, 2008

"Nature: Dogs That Changed the World"

Coming up this Sunday on your local PBS stations:
NATURE's two-part special DOGS THAT CHANGED THE WORLD tells the epic story of the wolf's evolution, how "man's best friend" changed human society and how we in turn have radically transformed dogs. Part one, "The Rise of the Dog," airs Sunday, January 13 at 8 p.m. (ET) on PBS. Part two, "Dogs by Design," airs Sunday, January 20 at 8 p.m. (ET) on PBS (check local listings for both broadcasts).
You can read more and watch a short promotional video ["Ooh, border collies!"] at this link.

Quote that makes me want to beat my head on rocks:
Despite the plethora of new shapes and sizes, dogs have retained the instincts bred into their ancestors by thousands of years of work: the urge to herd or hunt, to dig and to guard. In DOGS BY DESIGN you'll discover how these hard-wired behaviors help different types of dogs, from hounds to herders, excel at different tasks (and why it can sometimes be so difficult to train them to do otherwise).
Virtually all healthy dogs will dig and guard [objects, territory, people]. Most will chase things. Digging and guarding and chasing are indeed "hard-wired." "Herding" is not. Your Sheltie is not "herding" the kids. It's a conceit of the show fancy that dogs can be bred for looks and still "retain the instincts" to be useful workers. Sorry, but no. Nature shouldn't encourage pet owners to trot out the old "We can't make him stop -- he's a herding dog" routine. [You can -- and he isn't.]


Anonymous said...

Slipshod work like this is more than silly - it's dangerous.

As you point out, there is evidence that all domestic dogs come with the same basic instincts, much like humans. Prey drive, reactivity, eyesight, nose, disease or disorder, etc, can all be inherited and seem to differ much more in individuals than in breeds.

The differences between breeds and even lines within breeds are actually very slight in terms of heritability although obviously the proven inheritable characteristics dictate suitability for certain jobs. An English Bulldog won't be a very good retriever, tracker or herder, even if he is willing - his physiology is working against him.

'Herding' is a complex behaviour like antisocial aggression, search and rescue, livestock guarding, guiding, retrieving, etc. The behavioural patterns are reinforced through handling and training and depend on individual personality characteristics such as temperament. In other words they are learned and perfected, not inherited.

It is likely true that if you breed very reactive dogs over generations, just as an example, you may end up with a greater proportion of reactive pups. This is similar to humans of great intelligence producing children over generations - the progeny are probably more likely to be intelligent - probably. It's what you do with it that counts in the end.

I know you know. It just makes me angry when widely viewed, mainstream informational programs fail to get it right.

Breeds are not species, they are races. Thanks to slapdash work, I'm afraid many people don't understand this.

I'll watch the programs and I thank you for the heads-up.

Luisa said...

I believe the behaviors that characterize a good stockdog are instinctive. Donald McCaig is on the money when he says that you don't 'train' a border collie to work stock: you summon its genetics. Breed for looks or color, though, and after a few generations the working instinct will be in tatters. The genetic balance is complex, and it has to be right.