(Field) Dogs on the Beach

Mike and I and our dogs just returned from a week in Florida at a beach community that prides itself on its dog-friendliness. We met our friends Bob and Karen from Virginia, who brought their two Labs, Gus and Sally.

It was an amazing week. We spent hours with the dogs walking the beach, watching shorebirds and dolphins, hiking local trails, and visiting a nearby island preserve that is home to a pair of endangered Red Wolves (no sighting of those, but Bob and Mike did see a Bobcat while out cycling one afternoon).  A perfect winter get-away for all of us.

linda-mike-karen-dogs-on-beach

WALKING THE BEACH WITH TWO GOLDENS, TWO LABS, A TOLLER AND A BRITTANY.

The Dogs: Our four dogs included Chippy (Toller), Vincent (Brittany), and Alice and Cooper (Golden Retrievers). Ally and Cooper are field-bred, from Jackie Mertens of Topbrass Retrievers. We have a 30-year history with Jackie’s dogs and love their athleticism, spirit, and boundless exuberance. They fit with our lifestyle and are a joy to live with and to train. Karen’s two Labs are also from field lines. Sally comes from Cresthill Kennels and Gus from Southland Kennels. Like us, Karen and Bob are active folks who spend a lot of time outdoors with their dogs. They have the added good fortune of living near the water and so they enjoy swimming, retrieving and boating regularly with their dogs.

Field-bred? As many readers know, the Golden Retriever and Labrador Retriever are closely related breeds that were originally created to aid hunters by retrieving game – most commonly water fowl. As a result, they are highly active dogs that love to swim and to retrieve. As the general story goes, both breeds experienced an increase in popularity as family pets during the 1970’s. Because the attributes of a family companion are not always in line with the behaviors one seeks in a hunting dog, the breeds began to experience a divergence in selection criteria, with some dogs bred for their hunting ability and others for conformation and a more easy-going temperament. Over several generations, this resulted in two distinct  types within each breed. Although there is certainly overlap and some purposeful outcrossing between the two types, the term field-bred refers to dogs born within pedigree lines that are selected specifically for hunting ability, while conformation/pet refers to those selected for conformation and suitability as family companions.

Do field-bred dogs behave similarly across breeds? Karen and I had many great dog training conversations during our time together. One topic that interested us was the similarities and differences that we observed between field-bred Labs (her dogs) and field-bred Goldens (my dogs). Similarities included a love of retrieving and apparently inexhaustible energy level. All four dogs are intensely focused on retrieving and will chase toys and bumpers until the sun goes down (and comes back up again). Similarly, all are highly active (an understatement). Alice is known for “orbiting” – circling around us  in wide arcs, veering off on each loop to splash through the surf.  A typical 5-mile hike for us meant at least 10 miles for Ally. Similarly, Gus only slowed down when he fell asleep in his crate at the end of the day and Sally clearly has no understanding of the statement “this is your final retrieve“.

What about differences? A major difference that we observed, and something that will not surprise Lab folks, is that Karen’s dogs were more physically robust than my Goldens. While my guys love to chase and wrestle as they play, the Lab version of this involves a lot more body-slamming and chest-bumping (a play style that Alice made abundantly clear to Gus that she had no interest in participating in).

These were just a few observations from our dog days on the beach.  And of course, they may simply reflect similarities and differences of our four individual dogs. This was an “n of 2” for each breed, after all. Hardly a representative sample.

beach-with-karen-bob-and-dogs

FINAL MORNING ON THE BEACH

So……upon returning home, my immediate Science Dog query was naturally:

Is there any research that compares the behavior of Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers?”

Well yes Virginia, as a matter of fact, there is.

In 2016, a team of behavioral geneticists led by Dr. Pers Jensen at Linköping University in Sweden compared Dog Mentality Assessment (DMA) test scores of Labrador and Golden Retrievers (1). The DMA is a standardized and validated behavior profile that is administered by the Swedish Working Dog Club. The researchers’ objectives were to examine behavioral differences between field and conformation/pet lines of Golden retrievers and Labrador Retrievers. They hypothesized that because selection criteria were the same, that the behaviors of field-bred dogs in each breed would be similar. They collected DMA scores and pedigrees for 902 Golden Retrievers (204 field dogs and 698 conformation/pet dogs) and for 1672 Labrador Retrievers (1023 and 649). A statistical test called Principal Component Analysis (PCA) was used to identify a set of six primary behavior categories: curiosity, play interest, chase proneness, social curiosity, social greeting and threat display. Results were compared between both breeds and breed types, and pedigrees were used to compute heritability estimates for the behavior categories.

Results: Although the hypothesis was that similar selection criteria (hunting ability) would result in similar behavior patterns in Labrador and Golden Retrievers (two closely related breeds), the researchers actually found several significant differences between field-bred Goldens and Labs:

  1. Labradors vs. Goldens: When compared overall (combining types), Labrador Retrievers scored higher in curiosity, play interest and threat display compared with Golden Retrievers. Golden Retrievers, on the other hand, scored higher in chase behavior, social curiosity and social greeting.
  2. Field-bred vs. Conformation/pet: Within-breed comparisons showed that field-bred dogs scored higher in playfulness than their non-field cohorts in both Goldens and Labs. Other than this similarity however, there were several breed-specific differences (statistically speaking, this is called an interaction effect of breed and type).
    • Field-bred Labrador Retrievers were less socially curious and less interested in social greeting than their conformation and pet-bred counterparts. These results are in agreement with a 2014 study of hunting Labs (2).
    • In contrast, field-bred Golden Retrievers were more curious and more likely to show social greeting behavior than their conformation/pet cohorts. Field-bred Goldens also had a stronger chase (retrieve) response than conformation/pet Goldens.
  3. Heritability estimates: Analysis reflected substantial (moderate to high) genetic influence on the behavioral traits that were measured, in both breeds. However, results suggest that the genetic influences (called genetic architecture) underlying hunting ability in Labs vs. Goldens may be different.

Despite similar genetic origins and intense selection for the same type of work (retrieving birds), field-bred Labradors and Goldens demonstrate distinct behavioral differences. Most notably, field Goldens seem to be more highly social and more socially curious than other types of Goldens, while field-bred Labradors do not demonstrate this enhanced sociability. Equally striking is the evidence that the set of genes in Goldens and Labs that influence hunting ability are not identical and suggested different selective pressures and underlying genetic influences in the two breeds.

Take Away for Dog Folks

These results provide some helpful information to trainers, veterinarians and other pet professionals who regularly advise their clients regarding breed selection. First (and I know this is a no-brainer for those of you who live with these breeds)……a Golden is not a Labrador (and vice versa)…….  Second, a field Golden/Lab is not a conformation Golden/Lab (also obvious)…… And finally, a field-bred Golden is also not a field-bred Lab (less obvious). Even though field-bred Golden retrievers and Labrador Retrievers have been intensely selected for the exact same job over many generations, they still turn out, well, different (ain’t nature something?).

Practically speaking, a field-bred Labrador Retriever should be expected to be highly focused (i.e. less socially curious) and intensely playful (remember – they are the rough-and-tumble guys), and may have a higher propensity to threat responses than a Golden Retriever. And, if you go for the field-bred Golden type, expect a social butterfly who zips around at 100-miles-an-hour (Ally would be happy to demonstrate).

ally-jumping-in

ALLY DOES EVERYTHING FAST. INCLUDING CANNON-BALLING HER BROTHERS.

Most importantly, if you are considering one of these breeds (or types), find and trust a breeder with experience who knows his/her lines. The current research suggests that the behavior traits that were measured in the Goldens and Labs were moderately to highly heritable. A reputable breeder who knows her pedigrees is also going to understand how the temperaments and behavior of her dogs carry from one generation to the next and will advise her puppy buyers accordingly. For me personally, I am thankful for having met Jackie and her co-breeder, Paige, who know their Topbrass Goldens inside and out and who over the years have allowed us to have so many amazing dogs share their lives with us.

Happy Training!

Cited Studies:

  1. Sundman AS, Johnsson M, Wright D, Jensen P. Similar recent selection criteria associated with different behavioural effects in two dog breeds. Genes, Brain and Behavior 2016; 15:750-756.
  2. Lofgren SE, Wiener P, Blott SC, Sanchez-Molano E, et al. Management and personality in Labrador Retriever dogs. Applied Animal Behavior Science 2014; 156:44-53.

 

 

And Your Little Dog Too……

Little dogs often get a bad rap. People who dislike small dogs say that are yappy, hyper-excitable, nippy (reactive), untrained, and often spoiled (whatever that means) . Indeed, it appears that  even the Wicked Witch of the West had it in for the wee ones.

Ill get you my prettySo, are any of these beliefs true? Are little dogs truly as bratty as some would have us believe? And, if indeed small dogs are found to exhibit more than their share of bad behaviors, are these inherent traits that come along with the miniaturized body type or does the owner shoulder some of the responsibility for junior’s transgressions?

Harley Puppy

WHO YOU CALLIN’ LITTLE?

Once again, we turn to science for some answers.

Background: When surveyed, owners of small and toy breed dogs have indeed been found to rate their dogs as more excitable, disobedient, impulsive, and in some cases, more likely to bite, when compared with owners of large dogs (1-4). Factors that may contribute to the reported differences between small and large dogs could originate with the dog, with the owner, or via idiosyncracies of the relationship between the two.  In 2010, a group of researchers at the Austrian University of Veterinary Medicine decided to study these factors (5).

The Study: This was a large study. The authors surveyed almost 1300 dog owners in urban and suburban areas who were living with one or more companion dogs. The questionnaire collected information about owner and dog demographics, history of ownership, daily activities, dog care/training practices, and owner perceptions of their dog’s behavior and response to commands. For this study, dogs were classified as “small” if they were reported to weigh less than 20 kg (~44 lb) and large if they weighed 20 kg or more. Following collection of the completed surveys, the researchers used a statistical technique called Principle Component Analysis (PCA) to identify correlated groups of questions that suggest common underlying factors or themes. Three dog trait factors were identified: Obedience, Aggression/excitability, and Anxiety/fearfulness. Two primary owner factors that were found were Consistency and Training Methods, and the most important owner/dog relationship factor was Shared Activities.

Results: When the small and large groups of dogs were compared, several statistically significant differences were found:

  • The dogs: Small dogs were reported by their owners to be significantly less obedient and significantly more excitable, anxious/fearful, and aggressive than were large dogs. These results confirm those reported by other researchers.
  • The cause? However, contrary to many popular stereotypes about little dogs, it appears that the owners (not the dogs) were an important influencing factor in the expression of these undesirable behaviors……Dorothy, Take Note.
Dorothy and Toto

WHO, ME?

  •  The Owners: The owners of the small dogs were found to be less likely to train their dogs, less likely to play with their dogs, and were also less consistent in their interactions with their dogs.
  • Correlation: Moreover, significant positive correlations were found between frequency of play and interaction, owner  consistency, and better obedience in the small dogs. While not evidence of causation, these correlations do suggest that it is the owners who have more to do with the reputation of little dogs than the dogs themselves.
  • Training methods: This was the first study to compare the types of training methods used by owners of small and large dogs. No glaring differences were found, but small dog owners were found to use punishment (+P) less frequently than large dog owners. However, one should NOT use this result as evidence that “small dogs need to be punished more frequently”, because the study also found that the frequent use of punishment during training was strongly correlated with an increase in aggressive behavior and excitability in both small and large dogs. Interestingly, greater reliance upon punishment during training was also associated with greater anxiety/fear in the small dogs, but not in the large dogs.
  • Study strengths: Two definite strengths of this study were the number of dog owners that were interviewed and the detailed information that was collected. The large number of questions in the survey allowed the use of a statistical method (PCA) that identifies emerging concepts and that can enhance the reliability of results.
  • Study limitations: Limitations are those observed for all volunteer survey studies. A self-selection bias is expected to occur, since people who are more interested in dog-related topics and therefore probably more committed to their dogs are more likely to respond. Second, results reflect owner perceptions rather than objectively measured behavior. Although owner bias must be considered, it is also true that owners know their dog best and that a researcher would be able to obtain only a short snap-shot of each dog’s behavior and habits. Direct observation by researchers would also indisputably reduce the number of owner/dog pairs that could be included in a study of this type – consider the logistics of attempting to interview and observe almost 1300 owner/dog pairs!
  • Small and large dog categories: A final note regards the size categories that were used in this study. Dividing the dogs into two groups of less than 40 lbs (small dogs) and greater than 40 lbs (large dogs), may have missed some of the idiosyncratic dog and owner characteristics that are commonly reported in toy breed dogs, those of the 10 lbs or less variety. I would have found it interesting if results for toy breed dogs, those that conveniently fit on laps and who are often carried rather than walked, had been reported and compared with larger dogs.

Take Away for Dog Folks: 

  • For trainers and behaviorists: This study confirms what many of you already suspect – that small dogs are not inherently little jerks, but rather it is their owners’ inclination to tolerate undesirable behaviors and disinclination to spend time training and exercising their dogs that have lead to Toto’s nefarious reputation (Bad Dorothy). Keep on fighting the good fight – promoting fair, consistent, +R-based training to owners of all dogs, including the wee ones.
  • For owners of the little guys: As with certain other aspects of life, size does not matter. Little dogs, just like their big-boned cousins, require regular training and consistency and they thrive on daily exercise and play. And as this research shows, your dog is less likely to become fearful, anxious, or show aggression when trained using methods that emphasize positive reinforcement than when trained using methods that emphasize punishment.  Get out regularly with your Toto to train, walk and play with him. Oh, and avoid the witch. Rumor has it that she doesn’t like little dogs.

References:

  1. Bennett PC, Rohlf VI, Owner-companion dog interactions: Relationship between demographic variables, potentially problematic behaviours, training engagement and shared activities. Appl Anim Behav Sci 2007; 102:65-84.
  2. Guy NC, Luescher US, Dohoo SE, et al.  A case series of biting dogs: characteristics of the dogs, their behaviour, and their victims. Appl Anim Behav Sci 2001;74:43-57.
  3. Kobelt AJ, Hemsworth PH, Barnett JL, ColemanCG. A survey of dog ownership in suburban Australia—conditions and behaviour problems. Appl Anim Behav Sci 200382:137-148.
  4. Vas J, Topal J, Pech E, Miklosi A. measuring attention deficit and activity in dogs: A new application and validation of a human ADHD questionnaire. Appl Anim Behav Sci 2007; 103:105-117.
  5. Arhant C, Bubna-Littitz H, Bartels A, Futschik A, Troxler J. Behaviour of small and larger dogs; Effects of training methods, inconsistency of owner behavior and level of engagement in activities with the dog. Appl Anim Behav Sci 2010; 123:131-142.