Category Archives: Genetics

Advocating for the Anxious Dog

Working on behavior cases such as aggression and anxiety can be incredibly rewarding. There’s nothing like watching the bond between a dog and owner deepen as both learn to trust one another and work cooperatively together. Seeing a fearful dog blossom or an anxious dog learn to relax always gives me goosebumps.

Both of these dogs required behavior modification to deal with fear and anxiety issues. One of them (Layla) also required anxiety medication.

Working with behavior cases can also be incredibly frustrating and devastating at times, and nowhere is that more likely than when the subject of anxiety medications comes up. This is probably the biggest area, other than the dangers of punishment, where I meet client resistance and misconceptions. Perfectly reasonable people become perfectly unreasonable when I bring up the topic of seeing a veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist to discuss medicating their dog. This has to stop, for the dogs’ sakes.

Imagine that your dog is diagnosed with hypothyroidism. This means that his thyroid gland is not working as well as it should, and because of this physical problem he is suffering from a range of symptoms (possibly lethargy, weight gain or loss, poor temperature regulation, and skin/coat issues, to name a few). The vet prescribes daily medication to regulate his thyroid levels. Would you refuse to give him this medication?

Now, let’s say your dog is diagnosed with diabetes. His body can no longer regulate his blood sugar levels, and due to this physical problem he’s suffering from a range of symptoms, including excessive drinking, excessive urination, increased appetite, and weight loss. The vet prescribes insulin injections to regulate his blood sugar levels. Would you refuse to give him his insulin shots?

What if your dog is diagnosed with anxiety? His brain chemistry is imbalanced due to too little serotonin. Due to this physical problem he’s suffering from a range of symptoms such as hypervigilance, trouble sleeping restfully, irritability, and reassurance-seeking behaviors. Your vet prescribes a Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitor (SSRI) to increase the amount of serotonin in his brain. Would you refuse to give him this medication?

Here’s a news flash: anxiety is often a physical issue. The brain is an organ. As such, it can develop abnormally (in utero or due to early experiences), suffer from physical trauma, or malfunction. There is a delicate chemical balance that can sometimes, due to genetics or environment, get disrupted. We know that the brain of a dog who was given a supportive, enriched environment as a puppy is physically different from the brain of a dog kept in a sterile environment or exposed to traumatic or neglectful stimuli during development. We know that the brains of anxious or aggressive animals are observably different from those of normal animals. This is not news. This is a fact that has been proven time and time again through rigorous scientific study.

We treat other physical problems with a combination of lifestyle changes (management) and medication. Severe anxiety needs to be treated the same way. Not treating an anxious dog due to your personal misconceptions about anxiety medications is just as neglectful as not treating your dog’s diabetes or hypothyroidism. We may treat a severe heart arrhythmia by giving a dog beta blockers and limiting strenuous physical activity. Severe anxiety is best treated with both medications and behavior modification. One or the other given separately just doesn’t cut it in many cases.

So why are so many people resistant to using anxiety medication for their dogs?

There’s a large cultural bias against anxiety, for one. Because the symptoms are less quantifiable than, say, a kidney problem, it’s harder to definitively diagnose anxiety. There is still a large portion of the population who seem to believe that anxiety does not really exist. This is sad and harmful.

The brain has an amazing capacity to heal itself and return to homeostasis, which I think also causes some people to become resistant to the use of meds. It’s true, there are many cases where dogs really don’t need medication and just behavior modification alone will fix the problem. Through learning, new neural pathways can be created and the problem behavior may resolve. This is why I almost never recommend anxiety medications as the first step when working with behavior cases. However, I would say that overmedication is much more rare than undermedication in our society, and overmedication is often used by vets and owners looking for a “quick fix” without behavior mod – which is doomed for failure.

The bottom line is this: not every case needs anxiety medication. In fact, the majority of cases don’t. However, some cases legitimately do. In these cases, refusing to consider medication is as cruel and neglectful as refusing to give pain medication to a dog with severe hip dysplasia. If your dog’s quality of life is impacted by severe anxiety or aggression, you owe it to her to help her. You owe it to her to consult with a board certified veterinary behaviorist about medication.

You are her voice. Advocate for her. Do not make her suffer because of your misconceptions.

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Filed under Anxiety, Genetics, Layla, Rescue, Training

Everybody is a Genius

I hated high school. Throughout my school career, I always got excellent grades. I never caused trouble. My teachers mostly liked me. I had wonderful friends (many of whom I still keep up with today). I was miserable.

I felt bored and frustrated in class, and missed school as often as possible. I never cut school – I wasn’t going to get in trouble – but stayed home “sick” as often as I could get away with it. I was later diagnosed with a legitimate autoimmune disease, but quite honestly quite a few of my “sick days” in high school were really just “can’t stand to sit in a desk and be bored” days. I would miss whole weeks of school. I never fell behind in my schoolwork. I would spend a couple hours studying, writing papers, and filling out worksheets, then spend the rest of the day reading, surfing the internet, or playing video games. I would do anything to avoid feeling trapped in that desk, listening to the same material repeated over and over again.

Looking back at my high school career, a few bright spots stand out. Most notable were a small handful of teachers who made a profound difference.

Mr. Behrens, my sixth-grade teacher, listened to my ideas and assigned me different books to read when he found out that I’d already read the book the class was studying.

Mr. Snyder, my band teacher, wrote special passes to get me out of study hall so I could practice my flute in the tiny, echoey rooms behind his office (and looked the other way when my friends, who also had practice passes, would all cram into one little room together to play occasional cut-throat games of Scrabble).

Mrs. Dix, who came after him, kept up the practice passes and never flinched when I told her I wanted to play an incredibly complicated piece of music with 64th and 128th notes in it for competition.

Mrs. Gehrking, an A.P. English teacher, continued to expand my literary horizons with exciting and challenging work, keeping the class to a fast pace that encouraged me to attend class in order not to fall behind.

Most teachers, however, stuck to the established worksheets, rote learning, and tests. They expressed frustration at my poor attendance and seemed insulted that I didn’t participate more than half-heartedly in class. When I asked to earn extra credits towards graduation for very complicated work I had done (and documented) with color genetics in dwarf hamsters, I was told that such a thing probably wasn’t possible and given empty praise by a teacher who didn’t care to look further into the issue. In 7th grade, my English teacher told me that she would have cast me in the lead role of Titania in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” since my audition was one of the best, but decided against it due to my poor attendance (I was instead given the role of Philostrate, who has 2 lines in the entire play).

So, how does this relate to dog training? I believe that the same characteristics that make me remember certain teachers with fondness or frustration are the characteristics that shape our dogs’ training relationships with us.

When I look back at my school career, the teachers who became my favorites were those who both valued and challenged me. They never gave me challenges I couldn’t succeed at, but always pushed me slightly past my comfort zone. They paid attention to my interests and skills, and nurtured those abilities. They were honestly interested in me and in what I could do, and because of this I was willing to work much, much harder for them. Even when they gave me much more work than I was given in other classes, I didn’t mind because it was work I enjoyed and was excited to complete.

When I look at my students’ dogs, I notice the same trend. Those students who support their dogs, who play to their natural strengths, who listen to and adjust to their dogs’ individual personalities: these are the students who have happy, willing dogs. Students who challenge their dogs, setting them up for success in training but always pushing slightly, these are the students whose dogs are the most excited to work. By taking note of their dogs’ interests and inserting them into a training program, these people develop a true partnership with their pets that others can only grasp at.

Clicker training is a partnership. It can’t be done with an unwilling dog. Sometimes though, this is what ends up happening. By relying on formulaic training plans (“first you do X, then Y”) or pre-conceived notions (“all dogs love to work for hot dogs” or “all agility dogs must play tug”), we can forget to listen to what our dog is telling us. We can lose sight of what makes the dog in front of us special.

When we forget to look for brilliance, we see only mediocrity.

Every dog is an individual. Just because your last dog enjoyed working for food doesn’t mean that this one wouldn’t prefer to play. While the channel method may have worked brilliantly to teach your last dog to weave, this dog may do better with 2×2’s. Dobby was initially too frightened to follow a lure, but learned to sit and down within a week by capturing these behaviors. Layla enjoys heeling practice where I stride out and make her work hard to keep up; Dobby still goes over the top if I move this quickly. Dobby does better with very light, cheerful verbal corrections if he’s starting to make a mistake, while the same feedback would make Layla anxious (and thus, more likely to repeat the mistake).

Layla's high prey drive, which could be considered an inconvenience in conventional dog sports, makes her a phenomenal lure courser.

My parents and I didn’t know about other options, such as an alternative art school or Post Secondary education, when I was in high school, and the overworked guidance counselor certainly wasn’t concerned about looking too closely at a student who was passing all her classes. I sometimes wonder how I would be different had I had a more supportive environment where I was free to engage in self-paced study and explore my interests. Just because that may have been a good fit for me doesn’t mean that my old school should change their curriculum though. Every student is different, and my recipe for success could very well have been another student’s worst nightmare.

I’m reminded of a quote by Albert Einstein: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

Are you judging your dog by his ability to climb a tree when you could be focusing on how well he can swim? Time to change perspectives. Everybody is a genius. We just need to focus on their brilliance and help their light shine through.

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Filed under Choosing a Dog, Genetics, Rescue, Training

The Minnesota White-Toed Chipmunk Dog

(Note: As I reread this prior to posting, I realized that it may sound bitter to those who don’t know me. So if you’re reading this and are not familiar with me, please read this post with the feel of barely-contained laughter and a good dose of sarcasm in your mind!)

The Minnesota White-Toed Chipmunk Dog

Let’s talk about breeds!

Specifically, let’s talk about a brand new breed, the Minnesota White-Toed Chipmunk Dog.

The Minnesota White-Toed Chipmunk dog (henceforth referred to as the MNWTCD to save my broken hand), is a medium-sized, high-drive breed who was established for the purpose of chipmunk control. The official breed standard is below.

General Appearance  The MNWTCD is an intelligent working dog of strong predatory instincts. She is a loyal companion dog with the stamina to work all day. She is well balanced, fine boned, of medium size, with moderate muscling all over. She is attentive and animated, lithe and agile, with a fine, smooth coat that repels dirt. Her tail is carried high over her back, and her overall expression is one of vibrant intelligence and curiosity.

Size, Proportion, Substance  The preferred height for males is 18-20″, females 17-19″. Weight should be 30-35lbs for males, and 27-32lbs for females. Quality is not to be sacrified in favor of size. The impression should be of a well-balanced, square dog. Length from forechest to buttocks equal to or slightly greater than height at withers.

Head  Keen, alert expression, full of life and intelligence. Eyes: round or oval in shape, not protruding. Dark in color. Ears: Small “V”-shaped drop ears of moderate thickness carried forward close to the head with the tip so as to cover the orifice. Fold is slightly above the top of the skull. When alert, ear tips extend to be even with the eye. Skull: of moderate length and breadth, fairly wide between the ears, narrowing slightly towards the eyes. Stop should be well defined but not prominant. Jaw: powerful, without coarseness. Nose: must be black and fully pigmented. Teeth: of upper jaw should fit closely over teeth of lower jaw, creating a scissors bite. Teeth should be white and strong. One lower incisor to stick out slightly, in such a way as to benefit chipmunk ‘snagging’. Faults: weak or coarse head; light, blue, or yellow eye;  missing teeth. Disqualifications: prick or hound ears. Unpigmented or underpigmented nose leather. Overshot or undershot mouth.  Lack of protruding lower (“chipmunk-snagging”) incisor.

Neck, Topline, Body  Neck: long, clean, strong, and muscular, widening gracefully into the top of the shoulder. Topline: strong, running smoothly from the withers with a slight natural arch, not too accentuated, beginning over the loin and carrying through over the croup, with a slight dip behind shoulder blades. There is a definite tuckup of the underline. Brisket moderately deep, reaching nearly but not quite to the elbow. Ribs: well sprung but with no suggestion of barrel shape. Tail: long, carried level with the topline when at rest and over the back in a gentle curve when alert. Excessive curliness of the tail or low tail set to be considered a disqualifying fault.

Forequarters  The elbow should point neither in nor out, but straight back. Forelegs straight, giving appearance of strength and substance of bone. Joints turn neither in nor out. Both front and rear feet must be well formed. Nails strong and of moderate length. Front dewclaws should be present, strong, and positioned close to the leg. Dewclaws should be well connected to the leg, and should not be loose or floppy.

Hindquarters  Strong and powerful. The thighs are broad and muscular, smoothly molded, with long flat muscles that carry well down toward the hock. Feet as in front. No rear dewclaws.

Coat  Short, close, smooth and firm in texture, slightly thicker over the spine and along the tail. Any other coat shall be a disqualification. Old scars and injuries, the result of work or accident, should not be allowed to prejudice the dog’s chance in the show ring.

Color  Seal, black, or copper, with small white markings on the chin or chest permissable. Back toes should be white (to aid in spotting the dog from a distance in dark environments), front toes should be solid (to hide the appearance of dirt from digging up chipmunks). Faults: white markings on front toes or lack of markings on back toes. Excessive markings on chin or chest. Disqualifications: any color not listed, total lack of white markings on feet.

Gait  Free moving and animated, with reach in the forequarters and strong drive in the hindquarters. A tireless ground covering trot. The action is straight in front and rear.

Temperament  Keen intelligence and an independent spirit are hallmarks of the breed. It is in the MNWTCD’s nature to be loyal and loving with her family, but reserved and discerning with strangers. Alert, vigilant, devoted, and curious. Highly territorial, serving as a responsive companion and natural guardian. Very vocal, persistent, tenacious. Faults: extreme shyness, viciousness. Note: this breed is naturally reserved in new situations and around new people, and this trait should not be considered shyness.  

Self-stacking

Other than me, who would want this dog? Note that the official standard doesn’t mention the pre-disposition towards allergies or urinary incontinence issues that runs in this breed. There is no mention of health testing, or of working trials. How do you know if your MNWTCD is a good chipmunker? Well, function follows form – if you believe the breed clubs who write the standards. If your dog has white on her back toes but not on the front, and the chipmunk-snagging lower incisor that sticks out, and is the right size with the right ear set… then by god, she must be a good chipmunk hunter!

Of course, this is all absolutely ridiculous. 

Or is it?

Wait, isn’t this exactly how we judge every single breed at AKC conformation shows? How is this not crazy? What am I missing? And who wants to be added to the waiting list for a Minnesota White-Toed Chipmunk Dog puppy of your own?

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Filed under Breeding, Choosing a Dog, Dog Selection, Genetics, Layla

Choosing a Breeder

In my search for my next dog, I have for the first time in my life seriously considered going to a breeder. I’m not 100% convinced yet, but it’s also not an option I’m going to rule out.

Why go to a breeder? A good breeder will greatly decrease your chances of dealing with serious genetic problems (hip dysplasia, cardiomyopathy, progressive retinal atrophy) by health testing their breeding stock. They will provide appropriate socialization and make sure the bitch and pups have the best environment possible for the pups to grow up emotionally and mentally healthy. They will act as a support system should you encounter problems later on with a pup. A breeder will be able to tell you what your dog’s physical characteristics will likely be upon maturity – coat type, size, any conformation issues, etc.

So, why not go to a breeder? Being involved in the rescue world, I get emails daily with desperate pleas to save dogs’ lives. Every four seconds, a homeless dog is killed in the U.S. These dogs are every size, every age, every breed and mix of breeds (and yes, about 25% of them are purebreds). These dogs did not do anything wrong. It’s true that some of them are too damaged to be good pet prospects. However, there’s nothing wrong with the vast majority of them. Many dogs in the South are still killed by gassing, a horrible practice which causes suffering before death (many dogs in the gas chamber scream and try desperately to escape before succumbing). For those with performance goals, an adult shelter dog can begin training immediately rather than waiting for growth plates to close, and what you see is what you get: it is far easier to evaluate an adult dog’s conformation than hope a puppy grows up to look like what you hope he will. Temperament is also more easily evaluated. By evaluating an adult dog’s temperament in a stressful shelter setting, you can determine how that dog will typically act in stressful environments, and if a dog is good with other dogs or children at the shelter she will probably retain those characteristics after adoption.

In the picture below, the German Shorthaired Pointer and English Springer Spaniel, Tori and Ella, both came from reputable breeders. Dexter the English Mastiff likely came from a backyard breeder, and Layla of course came from a shelter.

Where to get a dog?

What do I look for in a breeder?

First of all, I look for a breeder who does not breed very often. The best breeders I know of breed only every 1-5 years, usually because they want to keep a puppy for a specific purpose. A good breeder will work from a waiting list and not bring puppies into the world until she already has homes lined up for them. She will have a solid contract, which you will need to sign. She will interview you and ask a lot of questions, because she wants to know what kind of home her puppy is going into. She will ensure that none of her puppies ever winds up in a shelter or rescue by requiring that any dog she places must be returned to her if the placement doesn’t work out, and microchipping every puppy with her contact info. She will have the puppies altered prior to placement, or place them with a spay/neuter contract, except in very exceptional circumstances.

A good breeder is proud of her dogs, and her dogs have a purpose. That said, her dogs are first and foremost pets. They live indoors with her. The breeder health tests her dogs, and is happy to show you documentation of the tests. Her dogs are titled to prove their working ability. They may also have conformation titles, depending on the breeder’s goals. The breeder is able to tell you all about your puppy’s relatives, and is happy to introduce you to the parent(s) and other relatives who live on site. The sire probably won’t live on site, but she can tell you all about him and his lines. Speaking of knowing her lines, she will be able to not only tell you which good traits she wanted to pass on with your puppy’s specific breeding, but also which bad traits have cropped up on both sides and what potential issues may result from this breeding.

All of the above are absolutes for me, regardless of what kind of dog I want. In an ideal world, my puppy’s breeder will also share many of my ideals. That means that she will do Early Neurological Stimulation (ENS) with her puppies, to develop a superior ability to deal with stress later in life. She will feed a raw diet, or at the very least a high-quality commercial diet, and will vaccinate minimally.

Do breeders like this really exist? Yes! But they are few and far between, and my short list mostly contains breeders whose ethics I agree with, but who are involved with breeds that don’t interest me. Finding a breeder takes some time and thought, and when you do find that special breeder, you may still have to wait a year or more for a puppy – maybe substantially longer if there isn’t the right puppy for you in the next litter.

Right now, I am seriously considering going to a breeder for my next dog (which would likely be a Patterdale Terrier in this case, a breed not yet included in – or ruined by – the AKC) . This is mostly motivated by concerns about health. Both of my rescue dogs have dealt with severe health issues, and after paying thousands in vet bills I would like to stack the odds in my favor that my next dog will not have severe allergies, as Layla does, or hip dysplasia, as Duke does. However, buying from a breeder may haunt me, knowing that a homeless dog could have been saved if I went to a shelter instead. I have seen the euthanasia room of a busy open admission shelter, and the image of barrels full of bodies is hard to shake. Statistically, I’m also more likely to get a healthy dog from a random breeding of two mixed breed dogs than from a purebred of any breed – at least according to the pet health insurance companies’ premiums. Next time I’ll talk about how to choose a dog from a shelter, and some of the myths surrounding shelter dogs.

For those of you who got your dog from a breeder, why did you choose the breeder you did? Would you go back to the same breeder again? Do you have a future breeder in mind for your next dog?

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Filed under Breeding, Choosing a Dog, Dog Selection, Genetics, Other Dogs, Rescue

Choosing a Dog

American Pit Bull Terrier

I wanted to post about choosing a dog, since that’s something that’s been on my mind quite a bit lately.

There are a lot of things to consider when choosing your next dog. Do I want an adult or a puppy? Purebred or mixed? Long or short haired, big or small, active or couch potato?

Patterdale Terrier

Everyone has a certain ‘type’ of dog that attracts them. I’m attracted to muscular, smooth-coated dogs. Pit Bulls, Whippets, and Patterdale Terriers top my list. I also like Pharoah Hounds (or their smaller cousins, Cirneco dell’Etna), Dobermans, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, Azawakhs, Italian Greyhounds, Basenjis, Jack Russell Terriers (not Parsons), and Vizslas.

But there’s a problem with looking for a specific “breed”.

The idea of breeding for specific looks didn’t come into fashion until fairly recently, in the 1800’s. Before then, dogs were bred solely for function. Dogs were bred for herding, pulling loads, guarding, hunting, or even companionship. “Breeds” came into style at the same time that eugenics became wildly popular. The idea at that time was that by selective breeding, all of the “bad” traits could be bred out, and a certain “type” could be fixed. By breeding selectively, you could create the perfect ______ (person, dog, cow, corn plant).

Whippet

But there’s a problem with this type of selective breeding. To fix a type, like needs to be bred to like. The fastest way to fix type is to inbreed or line breed. We now know that this type of breeding sets you up for problems.

State fair competitions for the “fitter family” (in which four generations competed against other families for prizes) quickly fell out out style after the world learned about the atrocities committed by one of eugenic’s strongest supporters, Adolf Hitler. However, it took a little longer for the movement to slow down in the animal world.

The kicker became productivity. Farmers discovered that when their animals became too inbred, they didn’t produce as well. A COI (Coefficient of Inbreeding) score tells the casual observer how inbred an animal is. The higher the score, the more inbred the animal. A 12.5% score would result from a half brother to half sister mating, or grandparent to grandchild. A 25% score would result from a parent to child mating. The famers discovered that scores above 5% resulted in lowered productivity. With each percent increase, a cow’s milk production drops and the age at which she freshens (becomes able to give milk) rises. Chickens produce fewer eggs. Racehorses become slower.

Azawakh

Where do dogs fit in? Most purebred dogs are very heavily inbred. The Jack Russell Terrier club, which does NOT have a closed stud book and which is the only club I’ve heard of that has a rule regarding how inbred a dog can be, does not register dogs with a COI of above 16%. Dogs with COI of 12% are common, and it is exceedingly rare to find a purebred dog with a COI lower than the 5% cutoff common in the livestock world. The majority of registries have closed stud books and do not allow outcrosses, which means that with each generation the COI becomes higher since not every dog in each generation is bred. This is further helped along by the “popular sire effect,” in which a champion dog covers as many bitches as possible.

Health and temperament problems have become a real problem in the dog world. Boxers have hearth problems. Labs have hip dysplasia. Bull Terriers (which just 100 years ago still had normal skulls) are prone to obsessive compulsive disorder. Dobermans suck their flanks, creating open wounds. Pugs can’t breathe. Corgis and Dachshunds have back problems. Even supposedly “healthy” breeds have a laundry list of genetic tests that responsible breeders must run before allowing their dogs to mate, since in such very inbred animals a 100% healthy animal can be the exception rather than the rule. Many dogs carry one recessive gene for some disorder, and responsible breeders must take care to not cross a carrier with another carrier.

Doberman Pinscher

So, if one can’t rely on choosing a breed, how do you go about choosing a dog? I plan to explore this topic more, including what the Kennel Clubs need to do to save dogs and reverse the damage we’ve done to them, how to choose a good breeder, how to choose a good shelter or rescue dog, and more about my own plans for my next dog. I promise a Layla update soon as well! In the meantime, I’m curious to hear from you. How did you choose your current dog(s)? Why did you choose the dog you did, and did you research the breeder or rescue group prior to getting your dog? Do you know anything about your dog’s lines (bonus credit for purebred dog owners if you can tell me your dog’s COI!)?

(all photos borrowed from the United Kennel Club breed standards)

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Filed under Breeding, Choosing a Dog, Dog Selection, Genetics, Other Dogs, Rescue