Choosing the right dog for you
Different breeds have different needs, so getting to know your dog’s personality and behavioural needs is vital to keep them as happy as possible.
While their basic needs may be similar, different breeds of dogs have very different emotional needs. If you have a Terrier, for example, he will love digging, whereas a Scenthound would prefer to follow a trail to a hidden stash! A Livestock Protection dog may be happy on his own for long periods of time, but a Toy Dog needs lots more attention from you to feel content. These very different behavioural differences between the breeds, and the different dog personalities can come from the different working roles dogs originally played over the years.
A brief history of dogs
Now widely referred to as ‘man’s best friend’, today’s dogs are mainly descended from the wolves of the Middle East and Asia that began interacting with humans and then changed their hunting, feeding and breeding behaviours to become village dogs.
Certain village dogs were then chosen to help perform various tasks like guarding, hunting and protecting livestock. This selection meant that dogs soon developed into distinct ‘behavioural types’ with the ability and desire to perform specialised roles, many of which are still easily recognisable today.
As choosing different dogs for different jobs meant that their suitability to perform a role largely defined their size and shape, dogs have become the most diverse species on Earth in terms of their physical appearance and behaviour. There are now over 500 breeds of dog and countless crossbreeds and, even though few modern pet dogs still perform the job they were originally bred for, their brains and emotional systems are often still hard-wired for it! So, in order to help your dog be happy, this means you need to give him the chance to express his natural, type-specific instincts.
Dog psychology: how your dog’s mind operates
An animal’s emotional make-up is the result of a number of specific factors; among them, the three key systems - Reward Seeking, Care and Play - that give positive feelings of wellbeing. These three systems are present in all pups, along with Lust, Fear, Panic and Rage.
The systems are common to all species of mammals, from mice to monkeys and, of course, in dogs to cats. Without experiencing emotional responses, animals are deprived of the chance to learn, form bonds, enjoy life and even survive. Therefore, understanding your dog’s psychology and individual emotional needs is vital to his wellbeing.
Each type of dog has a slightly different version of their wolf ancestors’ “eye-stalk-chase-grab-bite-kill” hunting motor patterns, adapted and made safe by our selective breeding to be able to fulfil different roles. So, if you find your Border Collie ‘herding’ (eye-stalk-chase/circle) your family on a walk, he is not only carrying out his adapted version of this pattern, he is also enjoying doing it!
Behavioural problems can develop when dogs don’t get the chance to give in to these hard-wired behaviours, so letting them perform their original role, or simulating it by chasing balls, or exercising their ‘mind and body’ by playing on dog agility courses, is crucial to your dog’s psychological wellbeing.
The care system evolved in mammals because bonding and caring for our young for a longer period after birth than most other creatures gave us a competitive advantage. The Care system also provided us with the emotional building blocks needed to form social relationships of all kinds.
What constitutes good care isn’t that different between different types of dog, but their original role, age, gender, personality and even size definitely make a difference. Toy Dogs, for example, are usually far more emotionally dependent on their owners because they’ve been bred with an enhanced Care system to provide companionship for us. In contrast, the more aloof Livestock Guarding Dogs were bred to watch over sheep and goats without much direct supervision or contact with us. When understanding your dog’s personality, it’s important to think about your breed’s role in the history of man’s relationship with dogs and how that might influence your pet’s emotional needs.
Traditionally, scientists believed that play simply provided a safe opportunity for animals, young ones especially, to practise and maintain hunting and courtship skills. But now the play system is actually recognised as a key emotional system in its own right, and one that is crucial to maintaining an animal’s overall sense of wellbeing.
When they play, you may see young dogs expressing some of their emerging predatory behaviours. Many of these are adapted from their ‘hunting’ instincts – including behaviours such as stalking, chasing, mouthing and jumping on each other – and some others from their ‘Lust system’ as they mount each other momentarily in their excitement.
Physical contact is also very important for dogs. When dogs play with each other, or us, it releases pleasure chemicals called endorphins. And because playing dogs are relaxed, the Play system also promotes the growth and maintenance of good social relationships.
Different breeds, different needs
Years of canine behavioural research have helped us better understand how different dogs have developed different needs and different personalities. These can be divided into nine distinct types – each with its own set of innate, emotional needs.
Read more about the emotional and behavioural needs of your dog according to their type (guarding dog, gun dog, livestock herders, livestock protection, terriers and Dachshunds, Scenthounds, Sighthounds, Spitz or Toy Dogs), and what you can do to help keep them healthy and content.