Which Dogs are Best with Children?

That question was intended to be ironic… and also to hopefully entice those curious internet searching parents to learn just why they should never trust ANY type of dog to be better or worse with children. It is up to them as responsible dog owners to manage dogs who have healthy interactions with their kiddoes. Don’t believe me? Below I will share the scientific fact behind my position.

If you’ve been following along with us for very long, you probably know that we think the folks at  Animal Farm Foundation are just about the best thing since bully sticks and peanut butter kongs… and if you’re new, you can check out some proof of our admiration, here, here and here! The biggest goal of AFF is to spread the knowledge that dogs should be judged based on their individual qualities, as opposed to breed labels or statistics. Their latest infographics (shown and explained below) share the science behind why an individual approach is not only more fair, but actually also more successful!

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(All of the images in this post are courtesy of Animal Farm Foundation.)

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Did you know that while 50 out of 20,000 (0.25%) of a dog’s genes determine physical appearance, those genes are entirely separate from the genes that influence brain development and function? Therefore, it is scientifically proven that there is NO link between appearance and behavior. And yet our politicians continue to make giant, life-changing assumptions based on that less-than-one-percent. Don’t judge my dog by his cover! Just because a dog looks like a pit bull, does not actually confirm that they have any genetic ties to a staffordshire terrier (think boxer x lab, as just one prime example).

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One reason any vet worth their weight in Acana dog food might suggest that a mixed-breed dog has better odds than a purebred of staying healthy for its lifetime, is because in a closed gene pool (see above) all of the genes are concentrated… the good, the bad, and the hairless (sorry, Chinese Cresteds). Did you know that most purebred dogs originated from only a handful of foundation sires and bitches, which was sometimes as few as 5? Talk about inbreeding! A 1994 Time magazine article on the effects of overbreeding reported that as many as 25% of the 20 million purebred dogs in the US are afflicted with a serious genetic problem. In the world of agriculture and animal breeding, this trend of improved health in mixed-breed animals is called hybrid vigor. By mixing two or more separate gene pools, overtime the recessive genes that carry health and other genetic problems are minimized. All of this contributes to the conversation about individualism in dogs, because a physical appearance really can only tell us so much.

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“Wait, so AFF is telling us that identical twins have identical DNA, but even dogs in the same litter have different DNA? Well, I’ve met identical twins whose attitudes and personalities were nothing alike! I guess it would be crazy to assume that dogs who look similar would have similar behavior…”

Even when dogs are 100% purebred, we cannot predict their behavior. Even in the case of cloned pets (genetically identical animals) scientific evaluation of these animals still shows differences in their personalities and behavior. This is because the behavior of all dogs (or any being!) are not just influenced by genetics and breeding, but also by many outside factors including training, management, environment, and socialization.
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Not only does physical appearance have little to do with behavior, but scientific studies from AFF peers have proven that attempts at visual breed identification by animal welfare professionals (vets, scientists, shelter workers) are incorrect more than 75% of the time. Even worse, those incorrect evaluations are not even the same across the board… those assigning the breed titles cannot even agree! This is because our personal experiences play a large role in the comparisons we draw between a dog’s appearance and their breed of origin.

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This is an interesting way to look at it. Tonka is the offspring of two purebred dogs, and the rest of his 12-pup litter looked very similar to my boy. Any guesses as to the parents’ breeds? (Seriously, would love it if you’d guess in the comments below!) Spoiler alert…

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If I had a dollar for every person that literally ARGUED with me that my dog was at least part black lab, I would be able to take more than one reader out to dinner. Nevertheless, the facts remain that Tonka’s father was a brindle boxer (deep chest, athletic body) and his mother was a golden retriever (long snout, expressive almond eyes, floppy ears)… where did the rest of him come from? I’d like to think that much of his behavior comes from a very conscientious upbringing by me, and thanks to the research from Animal Farm Foundation, I can be confident that this may largely be the truth.

Animal Farm Foundation says it best when they say that: “The only way we can accurately determine what a dog’s needs are is to look at the individual dog in front us for the answers. In other words, we can’t judge a book by its cover (even if that cover looks like other ones we’ve seen before!)”

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AFF: “Treating all dogs as individuals means that we let go of biased thinking, recognizing each dog for who they really are, not who we assume they are based on looks, labels, or past experiences. In doing so, we set all dogs free of the baggage and consequences caused by our assumptions, prejudices, and discrimination.” Hmmm. That sounds kind of like the way most of us agree we should evaluate the people in our communities. From a genetic standpoint alone, why should dogs be any different?

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So maybe (hopefully!!) you already new and totally agree with all of the facts shared above. But more importantly, do you understand why they are so important?

It matters to families and communities…

Regardless of ‘breed’ or ‘type’ of dog, false expectations (positive or negative!) can be dangerous or unfair to the animal, and to the families they love. For example, if we assume that every lab is going to be naturally comfortable around children and have an affinity for water, we might not take the time to set the individual dog up for success through careful introduction and training. This may create a dog that has fear or anxiety issues. You can turn this around in the other direction by recognizing the truth behind confirmation bias… In any situation in life, if we approach with negativity and trepidation, we oftentimes set ourselves up for failure, and unintentionally cause the very events we are anticipating. No breed description should be considered a fool-proof road map of a dog’s preferences, personality, or ability. These qualities are heavily influenced by environment and management. If we approach each dog as an individual, and let the animal tell us more than we assume based on their appearance, we are much more likely to wind up with a dog that is a happy member of our families, and of our society.

It matters to those in the animal welfare industries…

As rescuers, shelter workers, and animal advocates, it is always in our best interest to be as honest as possible with potential adopters, volunteers, and the general public at large. By labeling dogs without factual knowledge of their true backgrounds, we are unintentionally being dishonest, and may be setting the dogs up for failure. Instead of meeting an adopter who wants a Golden Retriever, and providing them with dogs that match that physical description, we need to start advocating for “types” of dog. Maybe to the average dog owner, a Golden Retriever fills them with ideas of a dog who will happily play fetch and join the family on hikes, while snuggling in their childrens’ beds at night. Perhaps your shelter has 3 dogs that match this description, but who may or may not look like a Golden Retriever. In this case, you are providing the family with a variety of dog types, all of whom are more likely to be compatible with their lifestyle long-term, and giving many of your rescue or shelter residents an opportunity at a proper home. At the same time, you are doing your part to not reinforce stereotypes or set up false expectations. No breed description entitles an adopter the guarantee that a dog will act a certain way, or have specific preferences… only each individual dog can tell us that!

Additionally, these preferences, personality traits, and abilities, have a large propensity for change over time. If we assumed that a dog’s genetic composition determines their personality traits (Georgia), we would have never taken the opportunity to improve her associations with other animals… we would have assumed that her preferences were intact and not subject to change. This refutes the common pit bull advocacy statement that ‘it’s all in how they’re raised,‘ because it is in fact, more in how they are managed, that matters most. If we assumed that all dog behaviors were set by their genetics or their early life experiences, we would never give cruelty or neglect victims a chance, and everyone searching for a new family member would be getting their dogs from breeders. And that would be a huge problem!

It matters to politicians and law makers…

Once and for all, it is time to put an end to laws passed on the flawed idea that you can determine how a dog will act based on how they look or their breed label. Rather than punishing all dogs and their owners based on the negative or criminal actions of a few, let’s start legislating and enforcing responsible dog ownership laws for owners of all dog breeds and types. In this way, we hold all owners equally accountable, and thereby truly create safer communities. Dogs should be labeled based on their actions or behavior, not on their breeds or physical traits. No one, human or animal, deserves to be persecuted (or even killed!) based on stereotypes.

The AFM5 Moral of the Story:

The world of animal rescue and advocacy is a huge one, and perhaps because of that, it is constantly evolving. That is a great thing for the animals, because it means that we are always being presented with new tools to improve our understanding, and become more competent at finding homes for unwanted pups, cats, rabbits, horses, etc. We have all been guilty of unintentionally spreading misinformation a time or two. What matters is that you take the time to educate yourself as thoroughly as possible, and keep your own missions and morals at the forefront of your mind. Let’s make sure that when we are well-intentioned in advocating for our animals, that we are doing more GOOD than harm.

 

AFF CITATIONS:

The Dog and It’s Genome by Elaine Ostrander

Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog by Scott and Fuller

National Geographic

Kristopher J. Irizarry, PhD

Janis Bradley, The Relevance of Breed in Selecting a Companion Dog

Dr. Victoria Voith

AFF ABSTRACTS:

Brachycephalic traits

Morphological traits

Brain development genes

Cranial facial development and here

Canine skull development

Animal Farm Foundation: Adoption Approach

Happy Sells!

There is a saying in animal rescue that ‘no one buys the loser’s T shirt’. This is in reference to sports events like the Super Bowl and the Stanley Cup. Every year, paraphernalia that reflects the champion team is sold out in stores and online. While the losers are realistically only #2 in their profession, their items go unsold.

In our industry, some rescues and shelters have a tendency to approach the marketing of their animals as though they are ‘selling’ them to one another. As animal advocates, we are always interested in saving the underdog, the victim, the innocent, the project. However, the majority of our society is looking for a happy, well-adjusted animal that can be added almost effortlessly to their family. We need to consider our audience, and market our dogs accordingly. Don’t focus on a dog’s past, or make assumptions based on scarring or physical manipulations like ear-cropping… the dog who needs a home has probably recovered more quickly from enduring any supposed ordeal, than you have from imagining or hearing about it! They just want to know when lunch is! Focus on their adoptability, and all of their characteristics that should make potential adopters fight to make him or her a member of their families.

Finally, remember that there are unfortunately still individuals out there who are misguided in believing that shelter and rescue dogs are somehow ‘damaged goods,’ and less-desirable than purebred or pet store pets. By only highlighting the sob stories of our available pets, as opposed to their many appealing characteristics, we are reinforcing the negative stereotypes some hold in regards to shelter animals.

The goal for every advertisement and marketing opportunity should be to make your reader imagine how much better their life could be with a new pet in it!

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Protecting or Killing?

When it comes to adoption policies, even the most well-intentioned among us can be hurting the dogs more than we are helping them. So often, we enact policies based on rare events that may or may not ever happen. (Ex: No adoptions in the ***** area code, because many dog fighting crimes occur there.) This also occurs when shelters and rescues make blanket policies in regards to the ages of children in the home… remember, dogs can’t read birth certificates! As much as we want our dogs to be judged as individuals, we need to make sure we are offering our adopters the same opportunity. In these cases, we are ruling out an entire group of potential adopters, in order to protect our dogs from the few that might have cruel or misguided intentions. When it comes to dogs facing time-limits in open-admission shelters, these types of policies are essentially protecting the dogs to death.

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Every Application is an Opportunity

Remember to approach every adoption application with a positive attitude. A willing adopter is a potential to get a dog into a home, and out of your rescue or shelter, which opens up another spot for a dog on the street or in poor condition. If nothing else, an application that may not seem perfect at the onset may be an opportunity to educate! For example, someone who says that their dog will be left out on a chain may not understand the consequences of this. By educating them, at best you have an opportunity for them to learn and improve their approach to dog ownership. At worst, you avoid the conversation and deny the application, which causes them to go to a shelter or breeder with less stringent application processes. The dog they adopt may live its life on a chain, all because you didn’t take the time to approach the conversation. (And who’s to say that some time spent on a chain is worse than euthanasia or life in a shelter? But that is a conversation for another time…) If nothing else, their application may not be appropriate for the dog they are applying to adopt, but perhaps there is another dog in your organization that would suit their needs. Just because your dogs may be safe in your rescue or your No-Kill shelter, does not mean that there are not many other dogs facing euthanasia in shelters in your community… why is one life any more precious than the others?

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Every Adoption is a BIGGER Opportunity

By maintaining communication with your adopters, you are able to help them resolve any issues they might be facing with their new family member before it becomes a seemingly insurmountable problem. Many rescues, which often have more available resources than some municipal shelters, employ a 3 day, 3 week, and 3 month check-in policy. Furthermore, these conversations are an opportune time to advocate that they share their positive experiences with your organization with their friends and family.

Marketing

Through the grants Animal Farm Foundation makes available for marketing, many of the advertisements in this post have been made possible! There are lots of creative ways to showcase your adoptable shelter, rescue, or foster pets. In the name of finding homes for available animals, feel free to use their ideas to be inspired. Don’t get caught in the trap of selling to people like US!

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Intrigued by this post? Visit Animal Farm Foundation’s Marketing page to learn more!

Animal Farm Foundation: Mission

History

Animal Farm Foundation was founded and funded by a private individual, Jane Berkey, in 1985. A competitive dressage rider, Berkey originally intended AFF to serve as a haven for all animals, but most especially horses. She donated 25 of her 400 acres to AFF . In 1989, the focus shifted to serving dogs who were the victims of discrimination, and today, to restore the image of the pit bull dog as a member of the family. Their goal is simply that pit bull dogs be judged in accordance with all dogs, being no better or worse. A dog is a dog, after all! Because of this, AFF is careful to share their grants and programs with organizations that serve dogs of all types, not just pit bull dogs.

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This pooch was rescued from the Spindeltop hoarding and neglect case

Pit Bull Placebo

AFF believes that pit bull discrimination comes from a basis in fear. However, this fear oftentimes does not come from personal experience with a legitimate pit bull dog. Instead, it often takes place as a socially constructed image. For example, many people do not understand that pit bulls are a breed or type of dog… instead, they assume that any dog that is aggressive or vicious or dangerous is considered a pit bull. This can largely be attributed to the ignorance in some of our media ‘professionals’… every negative dog story describes the dog as a pit bull, whether or not that has any relevance. These uninformed individuals are not able to understand that there are pit bull puppies or senior pit bull dogs or pit bull family members, because the perception of a puppy or fragile senior does not align with their concept of a snarling animal. You can understand then why they would not consider adopting or embracing a dog labeled as a pit bull.

All Dogs are Individuals

One of the most interesting studies (and there were many!) that were shared with the interns during our time at AFF, was one in regards to visual breed ID. It has been proven that not only are our attempts at breed identification incorrect at least 75% of the time (yes!!) but that professionals (vets, scientists, shelter workers) cannot even agree on the breeds each dog should be identified as. This is because our personal experiences play a large role in the comparisons we draw between a dog’s appearance and their breed of origin. The problem with this? An incredibly tiny percentage of DNA determines the entire physical appearance in our dogs. Out of approximately 20,000 genes, less than 100 play a role in physical appearance. Wow!

Does this look like a golden retriever and boxer mix to you?!

Does this look like a golden retriever and boxer mix to you?!

Labeling

Aside from the obvious, what are the issues with labeling our dogs?

Well for one, it makes them disposable. Think about your favorite ‘brand’. Oftentimes, our society proudly aligns themselves with brands they use regularly (Ford, Oakley, Steelers, etc.) That may be all well and good, but if you prefer a specific brand, you probably find yourself comparing it to others by minimizing the competition. You prefer Ford because you think Dodges are unreliable. And in dogs, many well-intentioned but misguided attempts at pit bull advocacy have the speaker spouting off unfounded statements about bite statistics in pit bulls compared to Chihuahuas. To see value in our dogs, they need not be a specific breed, and we need not bash other breeds. By viewing our dogs as individuals, we can appreciate them for all that they are. Your lab might be a phenomenal dog, but that has so much more to do with his individual personality and experiences than his breeding and lineage.

Furthermore, labeling can lead to confirmation bias. Many first-time pit bull dog owners tell silly stories of bringing home their dog, and watching them cautiously, waiting for them to ‘snap’ or otherwise lash out. Of course, in these stories the dogs teach their owners a thing or two by cuddling up to them on the couch and licking them into submission, but this can end poorly. In any situation in life, if we approach with negativity and trepidation, we oftentimes set ourselves up for failure, and unintentionally cause the very events we are anticipating.

Regardless of ‘breed’ or ‘type’ of dog, false expectations can be dangerous or unfair to the animal. For example, if we assume that every lab is going to be naturally comfortable around children and have an affinity for water, we might not take the time to set the individual dog up for success through careful introduction and training. This may create a dog that has fear or anxiety issues. No breed description should be considered a fool-proof road map of a dog’s preferences, personality, or ability. These qualities are heavily influenced by environment and management. If we approach each dog as an individual, and let the animal tell us more than we assume based on their appearance, we are much more likely to wind up with a dog that is a happy member of our families, and of our society.

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Additionally, these preferences, personality traits, and abilities, have a large propensity for change over time. When Georgia came to us, she was deemed ‘aggressive’ with other animals, and we saw this with our own eyes. However, by carefully evaluating her actions (her lashing out was not in fact aggressive, but defensive based on fear and lack of comfort) we were able to manage her interactions with other dogs. She is now an entirely happy and confident member of our home, which includes 2 other dogs (one male, one female) and a cat. If we assumed that a dog’s genetic composition determines their personality traits, we would have never taken the opportunity to improve her associations with other animals… we would have assumed that her preferences were intact and not subject to change. This refutes the common animal rescuer statement that ‘it’s all in how they’re raised,‘ because it is in fact, more in how they are managed, that matters most. If we assumed that all dog behaviors were set by their genetics or their early life experiences, we would never give cruelty or neglect victims a chance, and everyone searching for a new family member would be getting their dogs from breeders. And that would be a huge problem!

As rescuers, shelter workers, and animal advocates, it is always in our best interest to be as honest as possible with potential adopters, volunteers, and the general public at large. By labeling dogs without factual knowledge of their true backgrounds, we are unintentionally being dishonest, and may be setting the dogs up for failure. Instead of meeting an adopter who wants a Golden Retriever, and providing them with dogs that match that physical description, we need to start advocating for “types” of dog. Maybe to the average dog owner, a Golden Retriever fills them with ideas of a dog who will happily play fetch and join the family on hikes, while snuggling in their childrens’ beds at night. Perhaps your shelter has 3 dogs that match this description, but who may or may not look like a Golden Retriever. In this case, you are providing the family with a variety of dog types, all of whom are more likely to be compatible with their lifestyle long-term, and giving many of your rescue or shelter residents an opportunity at a proper home. At the same time, you are doing your part to not reinforce stereotypes or set up false expectations. No breed description entitles an adopter the guarantee that a dog will act a certain way, or have specific preferences… only each individual dog can tell us that!

 

The world of animal rescue and advocacy is a huge one, and perhaps because of that, it is constantly evolving. That is a great thing for the animals, because it means that we are always being presented with new tools to improve our understanding, and become more competent at finding homes for unwanted pups, cats, rabbits, horses, etc. We have all been guilty of unintentionally spreading misinformation a time or two. What matters is that you take the time to educate yourself as thoroughly as possible, and keep your own missions and morals at the forefront of your mind. Let’s make sure that when we are well-intentioned in advocating for our animals, that we are doing more GOOD than harm.

 

 

While these sentiments come from my time spent at the Animal Farm Foundation internship, any errors, omissions, or miscommunications are my own. The information comes from my own notes and understanding, but I have referenced AFF literature, and the inspiration is owed to them.

Animal Farm Foundation: The Experience

I’ve had a hard time getting started on the posts revolving around my experience at the Animal Farm Foundation Language and Advocacy Internship. There is just so much important information, some of which I haven’t even fully wrapped my head around! I will be splitting it into a few parts, for those of you interested in applying in the future, or at least improving your advocacy abilities.

I left my house in Pittsburgh early Wednesday morning, as I had 7.5 hour drive before I had to be in New York at the Animal Farm at 5:00. I was also planning to stop along the way for some puppy snuggles with some of the dogs in our rescue!

This is what the drive looked like…

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We were having torrential downpours and flash flooding! But I still looked like this:

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Because I was so excited for what the next few days would hold.

Fast forward a few hours later, and this is what I was surrounded by…

Pictures just don't do it justice

Pictures just don’t do it justice

Even though I was in a hurry and anxious to reach my destination, I couldn’t resist stopping every few miles to capture some photos of the breath-taking scenery. The area was dotted with stunning estates, farmland and horse farms.

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This was the lane pulling into the farm

This was the lane pulling into the farm

The next few pictures are of the Animal Farm Foundation property

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Agility Field

Agility Field

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All of the interns were split up between a few different houses. I was lucky enough to stay in the lake house, which was just a short drive (or long walk) from where our meetings were held each day.

This was the view from the porch on the front of our house

This was the view from the porch on the front of our house

The best part about the trip?! This adorable face!!

DSC_0006Her name is Marilyn. She is an absolute snuggle-bug with a slight giant ball obsession, and exceptional house manners. She was our house dog for the time we were there. She slept with us, and we were responsible for her care. It was so hard to say goodbye to her!

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The other interns came from all over the country. There were local visitors that drove in each day from a No-Kill shelter in Duchess County. There were rescue advocates from Cincinnati Pit Crew in OH, Pets Alive Sanctuary in NY and Pit Bull Crew in FL, as well as an education and advocacy group in Las Vegas called Incred-a-bull. Finally, there were women from municipal shelters in VA and NJ.

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It was inspiring to meet so many bright, driven, compassionate, and competent women who were passionate about the same cause as I. However, it was also at times difficult to hear the challenges and struggles they face in their endeavors with advocating and rescuing pit bull dogs… as much as I feel that I put myself in the midst of the issues in our area, it was disturbing to learn that there are so many locations where pit bull dogs face much worse discrimination and difficulty.

However, if there is one thing I learned during my time at Animal Farm Foundation, it is that we must always focus on the positive. If this is just a small sampling of the individuals who are advocating for pit bull dogs, then it is just a matter of time before discriminatory tendencies are a thing of the past!

This post has highlighted the overview of the experience, but in the next few posts I will paraphrase the actual content and information that Caitlin from AFF shared with us. This trip was immensely educational, and part of my goal was to be able to convey the things I learned to all of you. So please stay tuned!