JB: The genetic isolation of breeds has brought about a dramatic change in the canine gene pool. Three inquiries have been commissioned: one by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, another by the government and a third by the Kennel Club itself, but there is still a great deal to be done. There are problems implementing the studies’ conclusions because the KC, like the AKC, is a federal structure made up of individual breed clubs. The federation has no power to tell the member breed clubs what to do.
There is also an unfortunate loophole in the UK legislation, in a macabre sort of way: the law doesn’t apply to fetuses so if there is a hereditary defect, it can be legal!
Top breeders, those who show their dogs, practice selective breeding to meet the latest interpretation of the breed standard, which is based on the appearance of the dog. The whole basis of judging rests on how a dog looks and behaves in the show ring.
Some of breeds’ gene pools are too small, and the answer has to be to amalgamate breeds to increase genetic variation. A group of people in Australia are taking on the breeding of pet-quality dogs, [selecting for] calm personality, trainability, freedom from inheritable disease and discomfort, people-focused and so forth. Dr. Paul McGreevy and Pauline Bennett are part of this group. Genetics can only go so far, though. You have to mold a dog’s personality — it can’t be done through genetics alone.
B: Many people use puppy testing to predict a dog’s adult character. Do you feel this is valid?
JB: Dogs are born to become friendly toward people, a process that starts in about the third week of their life and goes on for several months. This process of socialization is well charted. At 16 weeks, the window of socialization to people begins to close, though it stays open a bit longer for socialization to other dogs.
Young puppies try out different behavioral approaches; they change from one day to the next. It is more important to look at the litter’s environment — how is the female kept, for example? Puppy tests carried out at seven or eight weeks of age are being conducted when a puppy’s behavior is actually most malleable. Numerous scientific studies have failed to find any validity in puppy testing as a predicator of future character. The only personality trait that seems to be resistant to change after seven weeks is extreme fearfulness.
B: You write that dogs have been so heavily selected to form strong attachments to humans that many suffer from separation anxiety — up to 50 percent of Labs bred in the UK, for instance. On what is this finding based?
JB: It comes from my own research and that of others. We concluded that many dogs experience this anxiety at some time in their lifetime. In one longitudinal study, we followed puppies, 40 in all, litters of Labradors and Border Collies, from eight weeks to 18 months old. Over 50 percent of the Labs and almost half of the Collies showed some kind of separation distress. Subsequent studies, during which we filmed dogs left alone, showed that self-reporting by owners underestimates the scope of the problem.
We work closely with rehoming charities, instructing them on prevention and ways to train dogs so they won’t suffer when left alone. The key thing is to get new owners to train the dog to understand that they are coming back.
This is not a disorder at all, but rather, a perfectly natural behavior. We have selected dogs to be highly dependent on us. Research has shown that just a few minutes of friendly attention from one person on two consecutive days is enough to make some dogs in shelters desperate to stay with that person. Their attachment to humans is that strong.
B: One of the most controversial positions you take is that being in a shelter may damage a dog. Was consideration given to contributing factors such as the length of time spent in a shelter, the condition of the facility, the interactions a dog has with other dogs and humans there, and the dog’s personality and history?