Monday, October 23, 2017

What's Wrong With Working Dogs as Pets?

A commercial breeder of Jack Russell terriers for pet buyers writes to ask a question.

She says she is very sincere about breeding for health and that she tries to get her hands on as much information as she can, and tests her dogs "for everything available."

She goes on to note that "Temperament is important too... this is what means the most to me."

She writes that she saw a TV segment (ABC's Nightline) in which I said that if people want to breed dogs that don't work, that's fine, but at least they should be breeding healthy dogs.

But she's a bit puzzled.

She always had the impression that I disliked the breeding of "working dogs" for the pet trade.

From her end of the stick, however, it has always seemed to her that in this day and age most dogs are not wanted for work, and most dogs are merely companions.

She concludes:

"I love the JRT and everything about them. And my passion is to genuinely breed proper dogs and skillfully match them up with families. I try to take what I know and apply it to raising nice family terriers. I just do not believe I should be ashamed for breeding them for pets and breeding them as best I know how. Do you have any thoughts for me on what I can and should be doing better?"

A genuine question: What do you need to do to breed a healthy dog? And if a breeder is producing physically healthy dogs, isn't that enough?

Here is my answer ....

There are two aspects to health:

  1. Physical health
  2. Mental health

I will not go into physical health. I have written a lot about that in the past, and there is a search engine on this blog.

That said, I have not talked too much about mental health, and it is the brain that is the most important part of the dog, especially the working dog.

To begin with, let me say that I want all dogs to be self-actualized.

Self-actualized? What do I mean by this?

Simple. I want the dog to live up to its full potential, to be in harmony with its place and circumstances, and to to be free of self-loathing, fear, and long-term psychological conflict.

Step One on this road is to make sure the dog is properly socialized. How do you do this?

Well, look at the word -- there's a hint there.


No dog can be properly socialized without being in society at least a few hours a day, especially during the first 9 months of its life.

What this means is that good breeders do not have 50 breeding dogs in their kennels because they know they cannot properly socialize the progeny of 50-dogs, even if they can feed and water them and keep the kennel clean.

Step Two involves respecting the code that is within the breed.

This is where so many pet breeders -- and buyers -- fall down.

You see, what makes a working dog is not the color of its coat, the lay of its tail, or the shape of its head -- it's the frantic morse-code of stimulus and impulse that is firing off within the dog.

A border collie is not a border collie because of the way it looks, but because of that code.

This is elementary. It is fundamental. It is basic.

The code inside a working collie is different from that inside a working pointer or setter, and it is different from that inside of a working terrier.

A scent hound and a sight hound are not just different looking -- the code inside them is different too.

What does this mean for dog breeders and dog owners?

It means that a dog that has been bred for generations to point birds in tall grass and brush should not be placed in a world of parking lots and city streets far from forest and field.

It means that a working terrier should not be placed in a home with a hamster running endlessly on a tread mill and a caged parrot that squaks and flaps its wings in an inviting manner.

It means that the code inside every working breed of dog should be acknowledged, respected and valued for what it is.

And yet, how many breeders of working dogs are doing this?

By definition, none that are breeding solely for pet homes.

And in that disconnect is a lot of canine misery.

The code inside herding dogs like the Border Collie, the Sheltie, and the Corgi tells them to "gather up the herd" and keep outsiders at bay.

The code inside the Jack Russell tells them to kill the hamster, bark at all squirrels, dig up the yard, and kill the cat which looks and acts amazingly like a red fox.

And yet if these dogs obey these instincts, they get into trouble!

Yet if they ignore these instincts, they are repressing everything they are, and are ever meant to be.

For the dog, it is a lose-lose situation.

The result is predictable: Boat loads of Border Collies, Corgis and Shelties with free-floating anxiety. Flotillas of Jack Russell terriers waiting in rescue for anyone to give them a good home.

Yes, surrogate work can be found for Border Collies and Jack Russell terriers.

I have known collie owners to buy ducks and chickens for their dogs to herd, and for terrier owners to keep pet rats in their garage for their dogs to chase in go-to-ground tunnels buried in the back yard.

More commonly, working terrier and collie owners turn to fly-ball, frisbee and agility to bleed off the steam building up inside their dogs.

There is nothing wrong with fly-ball, frisbee or agility. Excellent stuff and good for the dogs. But let's be honest here, eh? Any dog can do these activities.

What makes a border collie special is not frisbee or flyball -- it is what happens when sheep, cattle, or goats, or ducks are turned loose for them to herd.

What makes a working terrier special is not that it will retrieve a ball -- it is what happens in the field, at the hole, when fomiddable quarry is found at the other end of the pipe.

I am not against dog companion dogs, but if folks are looking for a companion dog, then get a companion dog!


There are scores of breeds, and millions of mixed breeds, suitable for no other purpose than companionship.

Get one of those. I will not object.

What I do object to is getting a highly charged hunting dog or herding dog and then expecting it to be something else.

That's going to be about as successful as a bridesmaid going to Gay Pride Day in order to find the Man of Her Dreams.

"They are all so handsome," she thinks, "and I KNOW I can convert one of them to my side, if only I love him enough."


That's a program for misery
, isn't it?

And yet that happens all the time in the world of dogs (and humans too from what I can gather from reading the tabloids) .

Bottom line: It's important for us to accept dogs for what they are.

They are not surrogate children (see this post on that point), nor are they inanimate objects -- mere property.

They are sentient beings, and we have a duty to them. That duty is not simply take care of their bodies while ignoring their minds.

And to repeat and undescore the core point of this piece: The minds of all dogs are not alike.

It's important for us to accept that different breeds of dogs come with different genetic codes, and that those genetic codes deserve to be unleashed.

In short, the duty to dogs is not just to make sure dogs have physical health, but to make sure that they have mental health as well.

In order to be able to deliver on that, we need to accept each breed of dog for what it is, and to not try to change it.

Try not to change it.

This last point is fundamental.

It is about RESPECT.

You cannot tell me you respect America in one breath, and then tell me you want America to give up all its values and history and cultural ideosyncracies in the next.

You cannot tell me you respect Gay people in one breath, and then tell me you want to make them all Straight in the next.

And you cannot tell me that you respect Jack Russell Terriers or Border Collies in one breath, but that you want to breed out everything that is their essence and reason for being on earth.

To Hell with that.

That's where I come from.

That's where I stand.

And that's how I identify my duty to the dogs.

  • Related Links:
** Bad Dog Talk from the JRTCA
** Robert Bakewell's Apartment
** The Real Jack Russell Terrier: A Complete History
** Ten Reasons to Join the JRTCA
** Bad Dog: An Article for Prospective Terrier Owners
** A Question of Breed
** The Transvestite Terriers of Westminster
** Canine Achondroplastic Dwarves
** No, You May Not Pet My Dog



Dave said...

Pat, our Welsh Terrier will be 14 at Christmas. She is an ideal 'companion dog.' I do not detect any conflict with her 'instincts' and her 'job' as companion. She seems completely happy and comfortable.

I love your column.

With love, Ol' Dad

PBurns said...

Exactly why I recommended your first Welsh Terrier to you 30 years ago! Fine dogs, not too loaded for bear, but still excellent little terriers in the house. Their gene pool is now far from the field and that only improves their quality as a pet. I tell the history of the Welsh Terriere here >>

Suffice to to say that their working analogues (the working root stock) is still to be found in the Fell Terrier, an animal I think best kept out of pure pet homes.


Miki said...

For a provocative twist on this thinking, especially in terms of the influence of the show ring vs. working dog trials on breed behavior, see (abstract - pdf available for $$).

Heather Houlahan said...

I only wish that when someone selects the work right out of a breed or strain, they would have the good grace to change the name.

Calling something by a name that only its most remote ancestors earned is misleading. Calling something by a name that is still used by functional distant cousins is a disaster.

Much misery when someone buys a Siberian Snarklehound whose recent ancestors were selected for their ability to trot in a circle with a noose around their necks, and then tries to get that confused, lazy, vague animal to hunt for Snarkle.

Even more misery when someone buys a quivering beast who was born afire with the need to engage Snarkle, and expects it to lie on the hearth and look all Ralph Lauren.

Call. Them. Something. Else.

Which is why the one AKC decision of the past forty years that has been a good one (okay, one of two -- the CGC program is a good idea) was the decision to change the name of the JRT to the Parson Russell Terrier.

So now people can read the label, if they so choose.

Jolanta Jeanneney said...

Excellent post Patrick. I will be sending the link to all potential buyers of our blood tracking dachshunds.

Jolanta Jeanneney

Pai said...

"Exactly why I recommended your first Welsh Terrier to you 30 years ago! Fine dogs, not too loaded for bear, but still excellent little terriers in the house. Their gene pool is now far from the field and that only improves their quality as a pet"

Which other breeds of terrier would you say make better pets than workers nowadays?

PBurns said...

I recommended a Cairn terrier for my brother and his 3 kids and he has been happy. Westies are very soft and poodle-like -- not a scrap of fire in them at all. I cannot stand the angulation damage that has been done to fox terriers, so I would never recommend them, and Scotties have too many health issues (as do Bull Terriers and Boston terriers). Norwich and Norfolks are nice dogs and if you can find one, an Australian Terrier is a lovely animal.


Seahorse said...

I get it, I swear to you I get it... but I have to say our three JRTs were game hunters (in the barn and on the farm, we didn't formally hunt as you do, Patrick), raced like crazy at terrier races, were almost always well-behaved (the daughter was snarly to her mother, but that's same-gender issues for you) and not only lived with two cats, two parrots and a parade of horses, but never bothered any of them. I confidently say they lived healthy, happy lives and had one helluva long, good ride. Having said that, training animals is a given in our home, I'm home nearly all the time, we live on a farm with lots of room to run and play and I don't take crap from any species in our family. There is routine and order here. So, I would offer up the possibility that one can make it work with other small animals in the family but it has to be a situation more than a family wanting the next "Wishbone" puppy. I discouraged most who asked about our terriers from getting their own.

I also believe that getting two puppies at the same time is the way to go. That way they always have each other to blow steam with and their humans can get some peace.

I was disturbed by the rescue sites I was reading the other night. The symbols beside each dog's picture indicated their incompatibility with children, cats, other dogs, etc. Many, MANY of them had every "not" symbol available attached to their profiles. Damage done already, probably by human malfunction, and kid/dog/cat "rehabilitation" a pipe dream. Good thing the rescues understand each dog and (I hope) don't allow inappropriate placements.


Amanda S said...

A local newspaper in Melbourne Australia published the most popular breeds of dogs according to animal registrations at local municipalities. They turned out to be; Labradors, Maltese / Shih Tzu crosses and Jack Russells. I can't believe that the mass of the urban dwelling population is that stupid as to make a highly prey driven dog such a popular pet. That must mean that most of the local "Jack Russells" are not as prey driven as yours. One possibility is that many of them are not Jack Russells but are instead Miniature Fox Terriers or crosses thereof. Miniature Fox Terriers are a non kennel club breed ( which are endemic in Australia and New Zealand and which are actually much more common than the Kennel Club Australian terriers breeds, the Australian terrier and the Silky terrier. They're tiny little dogs who seem to have a history of being the dog kept in the farmhouse as a pet and catching the odd rodent whilst the working dogs lived outside.

Colleen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
PipedreamFarm said...

It should be understood that if your not testing the code you have no idea how good the code is (if you're not working the dogs you cannot be breeding working dogs). Here's a question to ponder. How does one breed out the code if you're not testing for the code (how do you know you're breeding out the work in working breeds if you never test their working ability)?

PipedreamFarm said...

It would be like saying I'm breeding out the white in red and white dogs without ever looking at their coat color.

Bonnie McLarty said...

One possible caveat--dogs whose function is something no longer wanted (or no longer considered moral or legal) should have good devoted breeders selecting against that instinct (basically making them pets), or not breeding them at all. Thinking specifically of Pit Bull type dogs. They don't need to have hardcore dog aggressiveness lurking in their genetic code. Some aggressiveness for hunting feral hogs etc. would be fine, and is related, but not identical to, dog aggression. Would love to see 2 strains, pet "Pibbles" (because they really aren't dog fighting or baiting pit dogs) that are a moderate short haired dog, and working/hunting dogs that are used feral hog work and similar... But tired of visiting the dog park and meeting high-drive dogs with clueless owners.

PipedreamFarm said...

Pit bull types are a good example. The only way to ensure one is selecting against animal aggression is to test for animal aggression by trying to elicit animal aggression with the right stimuli. What breeder of dogs for the pet market is able or willing to try to "explode the code" in their pit bull types before breeding?

Richard Gilbert said...

Passionate and true. This is a way to raise successful humans too: "free of self-loathing, fear, and long-term psychological conflict."

For dogs, I wonder about self-loathing, though. Can a dog be so afflicted?

PBurns said...

"Conflict" is the better term. The code inside wants to do one thing, and the code outside says something else. Since the code inside is immutable, a natural neurosis can get set up. But not always.

C D said...

What about those of us who love JRTs? I don't want a fox terrier, i don't want a cairn terrier, I love everything about my Jack Russell. Even the time i had to walk him home with woodchuck blood all over him. He was my companion, but i never asked him to be anything he wasn't. Well, I guess i did ask him nicely to leave the kitty alone. I didn't get him to hunt, or to work him, but I did take him places where he could do all of that. I will never recommend a JRT to anyone, but I know one day, when i have a place with a huge yard, maybe a forest to terrorize the local wildlife, I may just get another one. On second thought, how are border terriers as pets?

Rick said...

All of my dogs are rescues, and some are just unadoptable. All mixes, though a few are mostly one recognizable breed or another. Some are couch potatoes, some just want to play a lot, and some want to herd or hunt. My contract with myself is that I got them off the street into a safe home, usually my own. But the "contract" with them is a little more complicated, as they still have a somewhat diluted code. I've learned not to keep other animals loose around the house and yard, and to keep most of them crated separately when I'm away and can't supervise. These aren't show dogs, they don't learn any tricks, but they all learn, to some degree, basic obedience. I'm their pack leader, and there is a minor amount of shuffling of the pack order whenever an older or dominant dog dies. My job is to keep them healthy, mentally and physically, and let them live as long a life as they can, without extreme measures at the end. We all deserve a good death, including our critters.

LRM said...

My first dog was a Lucas Terrier (out of Jumbo Frost's lines). He was utterly brilliant--the complete package. Then, as now, nobody seriously associated with the breed had interest in Kennel Club recognition. But by the criteria defined here, he'd likely be considered yet another irresponsible cross.

Still, I felt beyond fortunate to have one from that era, and replacing him with another remains my first choice for a pup. Considering there were two (2) pups born during all of 2017, I'm not holding my breath, and have begun looking at Norfolks and JRTs.