Unrealistic Breed Expectations: Approaching Breed-Based Conversations with Clients amid Paradigm Shifts
Summary: The effect a dog’s breed has on their behavior is partially determined by their genes, partially by their early puppyhood environment, and partially by their owner’s expectations of how a dog with that breed label is “supposed” to act. For dog behavior consultants, having some knowledge of all of these is important for working with clients and their dogs. As different breeds become more popular, consultants will need to learn about both a breed’s standard and the reason for its new-found popularity.
After watching my first Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in February 1992, in-depth knowledge of dog breeds became my passion. I was only 6 years old, but I could tell you the difference between an American cocker spaniel and an English cocker spaniel without hesitation, and I knew the complete history of my favorite breeds—the rough collie, German shepherd, and Pembroke Welsh corgi—as though I were simply recounting my own family lineage. Breed knowledge translated to owner/fancier intelligence. But if you, like me, are a dog trainer or behavioral consultant, you know that although breed standard is part of a dog’s story, it is far from the whole story. Owner assumptions and expectations also play a key role in our jobs.
No one can deny that a dog’s breed makeup largely defines its form and function. As preservationist Scottish collie breeder Denise Maher states in a message to her club members, “what temperament a dog is born with will not change…they are all individuals, [but] normally functioning Jack Russell terriers can be expected to be active, curious, brave little dogs…Chow Chows [are] dignified, serious-minded, and aloof, [and] border collies tend to be very high drive with a strong herding instinct, attach strongly to their person, and tend not to make good family pets”.1 Most would-be dog owners have some understanding of the concept of temperament, even if misinformed, and when they search for a new four-legged companion, the traits they think they know factor into their decision-making process. This is precisely why the Labrador retriever and golden retriever top the list of most commonly owned dogs in America every year—they are known to be smart, trainable, and good with families. They have practically woven themselves into the fabric of the American Dream.2
We also know, however, that a significant percentage of dog owners adopt shelter dogs as opposed to purchasing purebreds, meaning they are often willing to compromise on what they want if the dog they choose looks enough like the breed they have in mind. Shelters can ill afford the cost of testing every animal’s DNA, so identifying residents comes down to little more than guesswork based on physical appearance. Does the phenotype of a dog always match its genotype? Absolutely not. In fact, in one study cited by Linda Lombardi in a January 2022 issue of Bark Magazine, 55 of 120 dogs in one shelter were identified as pit bulls when, in reality, only 36% of those 55 actually had American Staffordshire, Staffordshire bull, or bull terrier lineage.3 Astonishingly, these same shelter staff members also misidentified 20% of the actual pit bulls present in the population, and such errors in labeling can lead to dire consequences for adopters—for example, in many cities and states across the U.S., “bully breeds” are outlawed, or at the least, heavily stigmatized and often refused for pet insurance policies. In another recent study of shelter dogs, Lisa Gunter, PhD, CBCC-KA, and colleagues Rebecca T. Barber and Clive Wynne maintain that “breed labeling influences potential adopters’ perceptions and decision-making [and that] given the inherent complexity of breed assignment based on morphology…removing breed labels is a relatively low-cost strategy that will likely improve outcomes for dogs in animal shelters”.4 This conclusion leaves us with a bit of a paradox: Aspiring dog owners choose pets based upon visual perception of what the breed or breed mix might be, but nixing breed labeling as a mainstay in shelters causes adoption rates to rise.
As trainers, I recommend we focus on this nugget of wisdom: Regardless of a shelter’s labeling practices and regardless of a breeder’s fervent attempts to explain to potential owners the typical temperament, nature, and abilities of their dogs, dog owners will make assumptions about their pets based upon their prior experiences with that breed, the behaviors exhibited by that breed in movies, television, and other media, and their own opinions about what that breed should embody or how it should behave in particular circumstances.
Let us take, for example, the effects of the most famous dog of them all: Lassie. After the film Lassie Come Home premiered in 1943, rough collie registrations saw a 40% increase, and that increase only continued after the Lassietelevision series made its debut in 1954.5 Breeders capitalized on the fandom of this elegant, classic, all-purpose dog (often to the detriment of its health—but that’s a story for another time), but in many ways, the growing collective of new collie owners was duped. Contrary to then-popular belief, most collies cannot, upon seeing their human caught in a cougar trap, listen to detailed instructions, run home, procure the C-clamp buried in the kitchen junk drawer, and return just in the nick of time before an actual mountain lion makes its pounce.6 As a collie owner myself, I can attest to their general intelligence and willingness to work, but I cannot in good faith recommend the breed to everyone—the rough-coated variety requires regular and extensive grooming, and both varieties are highly vocal, independently motivated, and can become destructive (at times even neurotic) when lacking a task or adequate exercise. Because Lassie was unwaveringly obedient, empathetic to every human she met, and capable of incredible feats of power, strength, and intuition, the average viewer assumed the average collie would be likewise talented. Consideration of Rudd Weatherwax’s tireless training techniques came as an afterthought, or perhaps not at all.
In the year 1959, a similar phenomenon occurred with the old English sheepdog’s popularity after The Shaggy Dog made it to theaters;5 German shepherd registration skyrocketed after Rin Tin Tin appeared in silent films in the 1920s and ’30s and then again on in-home television sets across the country in the 1980s and ’90s with the adaptation Rin Tin Tin: K9 Cop.7 When did Dalmatian breeders see increased demand most prominently? Why in 1961, 1996, and 2021, of course, when Disney released 101 Dalmatians in its original animated form, its Glenn Close-centered remake, and Cruella, respectively. Pay no mind to the fact that Dalmatians are high-energy dogs that have a propensity for unilateral and bilateral deafness.8 They look adorable on screen, and those black spots are too unique to pass up. If in need of more examples, look to mastiffs after Turner & Hooch in 1989, great Danes after The Ugly Dachshund in 1966, and perhaps most unfortunately, Belgian malinois after Dog in 2022.
As many of us in the training profession already know, “personality differences within [a given] breed [can be] as large or even larger than the character differences between breeds,” and sadly,
“labels influence people more strongly than the behavior of the dog in front of them” in most scenarios.4 We have to expect that when we work with a new client for the first time, they will more than likely bring the baggage of breed bias with them, and this baggage will impact what they ask us to “fix”—or hopefully shape—in their animal.
Keeping in mind the above reasons for the breed baggage phenomenon, we should also analyze breed-specific training requests we receive in light of three major paradigm shifts that have taken place in the canine world in recent years:
- In the eyes of the general public, our dogs are our babies rather than our working companions (as they were in every century prior to this one), meaning many owners believe they know best when it comes to training techniques and outcomes.
- Because social media is king, dog owners across the globe have unprecedented, unfettered access to misinformation about dog training and breeds.
- Fear-free, force-free positive reinforcement has happily taken center stage in canine training and is backed by modern scientific research, but much of the general population is ill-informed about this shift and does not know to seek out trainers who prioritize positive reinforcement techniques.
If you’re lucky, you may primarily encounter clients for whom breed expectation is less important than the desire to have a happy, healthy four-legged friend with whom to engage. In late 2022, I worked with exactly such a client. Her name is Krista, and she has a 1-year-old English cream golden retriever named Reagan, who was approximately 4 months old when we began working together. Reagan was all puppy—a barking, wriggling, warm ball of fluff who made it his mission in life to befriend everyone around him, snag as many free treats as possible, and teethe on absolutely every item in sight. During our first session, Krista began with a story about her previous golden retriever, a female named Missy, who was “the best dog you’ve ever met.” This said two things to me: first, that Krista is a fan of goldens for one reason or another, and second, that she sees her pets as family worthy of the highest praise. But did she continue at length about the virtue of goldens and a narrow view of their characteristics? No. Instead, she simply told me what she hoped Reagan could learn and asked me how I planned to teach those desired behaviors. I gave a mini-lesson on positive reinforcement, shaping, the benefits of using clickers, and the definition of a high-value reward, and the contract was sealed. Reagan is now a pro at the basic sit-down-stay, his recall has improved drastically, he no longer mouths guests, he can go up and down the stairs without fear, and his manners on leash are a thing of beauty. I love this success story because it is a straightforward one: owner researches puppy, owner purchases puppy, owner seeks out professional assistance, owner is open to scientifically backed methodology, puppy blossoms into nurtured dog.
Not all stories lack the connection to breed expectation, and for an example of this, I think back to a German shepherd named Mya. Found roaming the streets of rural Kentucky, Mya was transported to a rescue organization south of Minneapolis, Minnesota, and when I came into her life, she was fearful of other dogs, could barely be handled on leash at all due to her sheer strength and anxiety, and was frighteningly aggressive to any human beings she encountered outdoors. The rescue organization that took her in immediately recognized she exhibited some of the least attractive possible GSD traits—nervousness and fear-based aggression. Knowing that undersocialized GSDs are prone to such attributes, they did directly ask me to use training techniques that labeled Mya a “potentially dangerous German shepherd dog.” They recommended I use a prong collar to encourage good leash walking, and for them, that meant walking directly next to their sides, never pausing to sniff the grass or stop to mid-stride assess her surroundings. When I voiced my disdain for prong collars, they provided an alternative—use a head collar, they said, and if she lunges at a passerby, pull back hard and to the side, letting negative reinforcement do its job. As you might imagine, I did not work with Mya for long. The organization and I agreed that she needed an immense amount of work, but we disagreed on how to move her in the right direction. I viewed her as Mya first, then GSD; they viewed her as GSD, but never Mya the individual.
I am far from the only trainer who has lost clients as a result of unrealistic breed expectations or stereotypes. IAABC members Nickala Squire and Lisa Bach indicated to me that they have lost German shepherd and Rottweiler clients because owners demanded they “establish dominance” by using prong collars or other aversives, and fellow IAABC trainer and GSD owner Alissa Beth says, “We have a local rescue that claims German shepherds don’t need treats, as they respond to being given a job, and that is their reward. Even when I point out my own working-line GSD as an example [of using treat rewards], they insist, because they heard it in their Facebook group.”9-11
Social media pages like the one Alissa references can post whatever they like with no oversight from professionals, and when coupled with dominance-based training techniques portrayed on TV shows like The Dog Whisperer or YouTube channels like “Will Atherton Canine Training,” we have a recipe for confusion, poor and even harmful human-to-dog interaction, and damaged relationships.
Breeds like the GSD, Rottweiler, Doberman, and bully breeds may suffer most from owner stereotyping and misinformation, but other dogs are not exempt. Take, for instance, trainer Brittany Mierzejewski’s long history of working with huskies and their owners. Despite years of expertise, she has been dropped by clients on more than one occasion due to her refusal to use aversives and because, in one owner’s words, “huskies are stubborn and won’t listen if you don’t [use aversive tools].”12 In trainer Kat Kay’s region, owners of livestock guardian dogs (LGDs) like the Pyrenees, Anatolian shepherd dog, and mastiff are common clientele, and she has time and again heard from owners that such breeds need “a strong hand,” an “alpha,” and perhaps most egregiously of all, a male trainer who can harness those qualities and communicate more effectively and physically with the dogs.13 I have come across the Labrador retriever owner who claims their dog “doesn’t need to learn basic skills, only tricks” because he is a Lab, and thus naturally gifted; the Malamute owner who insists we cannot use a body harness because that would only enforce her sled-dog tendency to pull; even the Chihuahua owner who says that “little dogs just bite for no reason, but since they’re smaller, it’s not that big a deal.”
So many misconceptions, so little time. But there is good news. As educated practitioners, we can use accurate breed knowledge, developed both through study of breed standards and experience in the field with real individuals, to guide client conversations about breed in a more fruitful direction. Remember Brittany Mierzejewski’s huskies? They, like the vast majority of other huskies, are energetic, curious dogs who would gladly roam miles every day if given the chance, but often, their owners lack the time necessary to dedicate to their much-needed energy expenditure and ask Brittany if purchasing a doggy sibling might create a useful dynamic to tire both parties out. It can be challenging to openly disagree with a client, but when faced with this sort of “ask,” Brittany takes the opportunity to inform them that yes, they are right: huskies do exhibit high energy! She can then, after finding common ground rooted in real breed expectation, guide them more smoothly to the conclusion that a puppy friend will likely not be enough and may in truth add to their already full plates.
Perhaps Suzanne Clothier, longtime trainer and author of “Hard to Train?” best exemplifies the kind of breed-expectation conversations we need to have with our clients when she writes:
“Every breed has its idiosyncrasies, characteristics, and ways of perceiving and interacting with the world. That’s the starting point, from which you can have the conversation of ‘Funny how many people think [insert misguided belief about breed]. What I love about these dogs is [insert breed specific characteristics reframed], as it really helps them respond to [insert training methodology].’”14
In other words, meet the client where they are, rework their current understanding of what “x breed” does or is, and move forward as two people who share a fondness for the dog and a desire to bring about positive change in their behavior. Clothier goes on to say,
“When an owner feels you have an appreciation of [their] breed,” or as we might add in today’s increasingly dog-centric culture, their baby, “they are much more likely to engage with you than if you tell them that all dogs are more or less the same and just need training. Better still, become skilled at assessing the individual dog’s temperament in ways that help the owner really understand their dog instead of an average.”
Clothier’s words embody my belief that every dog is influenced by their genetic make-up, but that every dog also has a unique history, unique likes and dislikes, and a unique personality.
Sometimes our knowledge of canine breed history benefits us from day one in working with a new client, other times it proves neutral, and still others, it creates a barrier thanks to inaccurate portrayals of so-called good training on television, larger-than-life expectations seen in film, and unregulated social media postings claiming to have all the answers for your dog training woes. I, for one, am glad to see people becoming more attached to their pets, seeking out professional assistance with training, and treating their animals as valued family members instead of lawn decorations, but I also see the one sticky pitfall with this societal shift—the erroneous belief that anyone and everyone is a dog expert simply because they bought one. The world of dog behavior and training has moved forward leaps and bounds since the days of promoting alpha leadership, and it’s our responsibility to bring the general public along with us. It’s our responsibility to educate clients about things like genetic disposition, working companion history, and most importantly, the power of positive reinforcement to enhance any dog’s well-being, not to mention the human-dog bond. We can balance these paradigm shifts because we have the skills and commitment. As trainer Karen Peak so plainly puts it, we should be “concerned with the human ability to give the dog what is needed and have expectations reasonable for the average example of the breed [as well as] what to consider if they find the dog to be an outlier in the curve.”15 Breed realities, owner assumptions, and individual dogs’ backgrounds, environments, and personalities all play roles in this complex field we love so much, and we owe it to ourselves and our clients—two-legged and four-legged alike—to situate ourselves in a position of providing accurate information, listening well, and doing our best to enrich and empower.
- Maher, D. (2019), Scottish Collie Preservation Society. Online forum post.
- American Kennel Club, (2023) Most popular dog breeds in America. Last accessed 5/31/2023
- Lombardi, L. (2016) A Shelter Dog’s Fate Can Rest on What Breed He is Labeled. The Bark Magazine.
- Gunter, L.M., Barber, R.T., and Wynne, C.D.L. (2016). What’s in a name? Effect of breed perceptions and labeling on attractiveness, adoptions, and length of stay for pit-bull-type dogs. PLoS ONE 11(3): e0146857.
- Morrell, V. (2014). The Lassie effect: Movies drive our preference for certain dog breeds. Science: ScienceShots, 9/10/14.
- “List of Lassie (1954 TV Series) Episodes.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Last accessed 5/31/23.
- Orlean, S. (2011). Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend of the World’s Most Famous Dog. New York: Simon & Schuster.
- American Kennel Club. Dog Breeds: Dalmatian. Last accessed 5/31/23.
- Personal communication, 3/1/23.
- Personal communication, 3/1/23.
- Personal communication, 3/1/23.
- Personal communication, 3/1/23.
- Personal communication, 3/1/23.
- Clothier, Suzanne. (2018). Hard to Train? Suzanne Clothier: Relationship Centered Training. Last accessed 5/31/23.
Samantha Robinson-Adams is an Iowa State University English professor and IAABC member, and she works with both dogs and cats through her private training practice, Samantha’s Positive Pet Pedagogy. From the time she received her first copy of Simon & Schuster’s Guide to Dogs in 1988, her love for canines has never wavered, and in 2018, she began to pursue professional involvement in the training and behavior sphere. Robinson-Adams has taught group puppy classes and leash skills for a Des Moines area nonprofit organization and obtained certification in both Mental Health first aid and Psychological first aid in preparation for work with therapy animals and animal-assisted crisis intervention. Over the last 33 years, she has been the privileged guardian of a Pembroke Welsh Corgi, two German Shepherds, a Great Dane, and a Rough Collie, as well as nine cats and two beautiful human children. She lives in Ames, Iowa, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for inquiries or consultations.