What is your dog’s purpose?
The qualities of different breeds, based on what they were originally bred for!
There are approximately 400 different breeds of dogs, and among them, there are thousands of cross breeds and lines of breeds that all have different idiosyncrasies. I find the origins of each of the breeds so interesting, and it has a significant bearing on the temperament and qualities of the dog today.
In this blog I take a look at a few common breeds, what they were originally bred for and the good and challenging ways this might affect their behaviour today.
However, please note – all dogs can be trained, and you can override breed dispositions (like hunting instincts) especially if you train and socialise your dog during its Formative Period (2-4 months). So this is not to say that any of these dog breeds can’t or don’t make fantastic dogs in this modern world we live in!
Each breed has its own breed DNA signature. We have artificially selected for particular attributes, to hard wire in these traits like retrieving, pointing, guarding, fighting, herding, gathering and so on. We also select for size, colour and coat.
As we line breed (shaping purebreds), we decrease their genetic variability which can throw up negative traits (deleterious recessives) and if not bred knowledgeably and carefully we can weaken the breed. In contrast, “mutts” or cross breeds often have hybrid vigour and so often show less of these inbreeding deficiencies. Humans also breed at times for attributes that we don’t want in the dog lines, such as fighting behaviour, excessive guarding, and physical attributes like too short a nose (hypocephalics) which compromise breathing, eyes and other traits that aren’t healthy contributions to dogs physical development.
Understanding the various breed predispositions will help you choose a breed or cross breed that suits your lifestyle and preferences. Doing your homework on each breed is well worth the effort. Of course early training and the environment you raise them in will also greatly effect their behaviour!
Original job: retrieving nets and fish from the water / later retrieving ducks for hunters
Resulting qualities: energetic, people-pleasing, confident, stable and reliable, soft-mouthed, love water & playing fetch, like to work, high pain threshold, highly trainable, great family dog although can be excitable and rough and tumble.
Can’t go past NZ’s most popular breed!
The Labrador Retriever was originally the St. John’s Water Dog, bred out of Canada some 500 years ago to help in the fisheries, where they would haul nets and long lines, dive for cod that slipped off the hook and even retrieve the hats of fishermen! They were later used by duck hunters to retrieve birds which became their main function in latter years.
With these early origins, Labradors are bred to be energetic and people-pleasing with a soft mouth (must be gentle when retrieving delicate fish or ducks!), as well as stable and confident so as to be able to cope with gunshots etc. This is part of what makes them such an excellent family pet.
In their hunting origins, they needed to be willing to follow a hunter’s commands from a distance while locating a downed bird. They are intelligent and very willing to work for their favourite humans. This is why you’ll find still labradors performing many important jobs now such as being guide dogs for the blind, or detecting explosives and illicit drugs, relying on their intelligence, cooperative nature and emotional stability and resilience.
More challenging traits include over-exuberance (jumping up, pulling, over excitability), mouthiness, and a tendency to overeat if given an opportunity or eat inappropriate items such as socks and stones. Their physical robustness and high pain threshold can mean they seem clumsy, and insensitive. They can appear stubborn too when aroused by prey or other things that excite them.
Overall, an excellent family pet!
Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
Original job: warming laps, companion dog.
Resulting qualities: small, relaxed, sociable, affectionate, not highly energetic
These dogs descend from small toy spaniels, and are loveable lapdogs through and through. They were bred to warm laps in drafty castles and on chilly carriage rides – their other job was to attract fleas and thereby spare their masters!
They were named after the breed’s biggest fans, King Charles I and II, and were developed in 17th century Britain. They are relaxed, sociable, affectionate and not highly energetic. Aggression is very rarely an issue with this breed, they are excellent with children and love interaction with people. They can be prone to noisy greetings, but I don’t consider them “yappy” (if you’re careful not to reward barking!).
Given their affinity for being in close contact with their humans, they are more prone to separation anxiety so healthy separation needs to be taught (ideally in puppyhood).
This breed is now frequently bred with a poodle, to form the popular Cavoodle cross-breed. This makes a nice hybrid, they tend to have a similar though more active temperament and you get the poodle smarts and low allergy coat with the calm sociable Cavalier temperament as well. This is a hybrid I particularly like, and you get the hybrid vigour (though, as always, choose a good breeder).
Original job: circus performers / retrieving shot game birds, lost arrows and bolts for waterfowlers
Resulting qualities: intelligent, trainable, lively, active, attention-seeking, sensitive (smaller varieties), water loving
There are three main varieties of poodle – Standard, Miniature and Toy – each with varying qualities. They likely originated in Germany or France, where they were originally bred for retrieving shot down ducks or arrows from the water. Later in France, they were selectively bred down in size to create what is now known as the Miniature Poodle, a smaller sized dog that was easier to handle and transport in a travelling circus. The poodles would perform all manner of tricks including tightrope walking, acting out comedies and even performing magic tricks. The Toy came about as a result of selective breeding to downsize again to create a popular companion dog.
While it’s hard to generalise qualities across the different size varieties, across the board poodles are notorious for their intelligence (takes a lot of brains to perform in a circus, after all!). They’re athletic, easy to train and high energy. They are people pleasing, but their sensitive nature can result in hypersensitivity and anxiety (especially in the Minis and Toys), so they need to be taught emotional resilience early in life!
Fun fact: the extravagant hair-dos you often see them with have a good purpose! Hair gets heavy when wet, so to make swimming easier, owners learned to shave hair in certain areas while keeping in thicker over the vital organs and joins to keep them warm while working in cold water.
Original job: driving foxes out of their hiding places in a fox hunt
Resulting qualities: powerful hunting and digging drive, escape artists, diggers, high energy, independent thinkers, determined, loving and loyal
These peppy little pets have more “go” than you might imagine by the look of them! They were originally bred in England to assist in fox hunts by driving foxes out of their hiding places and into the open for hounds to chase. But nowadays, you’re more likely to find them as a loving family pet. They are loyal and affectionate companions, who love their humans.
Border Terriers have a powerful drive to hunt and dig, and high energy levels given their smaller stature (they had to keep up with hunters on horseback, after all!). They were bred to think for themselves, which can be both an endearing and frustrating quality! They are determined, energetic and vigorous, and can be predatory with small animals if not socialised with them carefully as puppies. They are a terrier so have gaminess (tough) temperaments to be able to drive out a fox.
As they were bred to dig down into fox holes, and be able to cross any wall, slip through narrow holes or navigate wire entanglement, they can be escape artists! They have a reputation for digging, climbing fences or slipping through holes in fences to go exploring.
They are alert barkers, having been bred to bark when they find a fox, and they are happy dogs who love companionship with humans including children. If you like terriers they are one of the better ones for a family.
Original job: hunting foxes and rats
Resulting qualities: lively, independent, clever, easily distracted, high energy, prey-driven
This breed was developed in England around 200 years ago to hunt foxes and rats. They’re lively, independent and clever, but can be a handful! Jack Russells are from the terrier family, and have a very strong prey drive. Their desire to follow their nose can be very strong, which can make them prone to wandering, so good fencing definitely a must if you have a Jack Russell!
Given their background, they are likely to have predatory tendencies and be very interested in chasing small animals like rabbits, rats or birds. Cross-fostering with other species in the formative period is really critical.
They’re great little dogs with cool personalities, however steer clear if you’re looking for a small dog because you think it will be more chilled out and require less exercise. As hunting dogs, JRTs have high energy needs and won’t be easy to manage without adequate exercise and stimulation! They thrive on running around, playing games and constant activity, so wouldn’t suggest as an apartment dog unless you’re out with your dog A LOT.
Original job: rat catcher and guard dog
Resulting qualities: protective, energetic, strong-willed, predatory, intelligent, feisty, sociable with people but tend to bond to certain individuals and be a little independent.
This breed originated in Germany, and was originally bred as a rat catcher and guard dog.
They come in 3 sizes – mini, standard and giant (and that’s a large dog!)
They’ll alert your household to potential danger, but due to their watchful nature this can lead to persistent barking. They can be a bit feisty with other dogs they don’t know, so as a result they need to be socialised very well with other dogs during their Formative Period (2 – 4 months). But they’re usually sociable with new people, but as always, socialise well and early
They tend to be fairly independent and can be a little stubborn, which means you need to put a bit more work into bonding with your schnauzer and encouraging them to look to YOU for direction rather than just doing their own thing. Learn how to do a good meet and greet technique to make sure they are broadly sociable.
They’re lively and playful and will benefit from stimulation through training. Originally a hunting breed, they can have high prey drive so to prevent them chasing cats, rabbits, rats and mice, make sure you ‘cross-foster’ with small mammals early in life (2 to 4 months).
They’ve got great character and certainly have a bit of spunk!
Original job: coursing hares
Resulting qualities: fast, gentle, quiet, intelligent, laid-back energy levels, sociable, affectionate, sensitive
Greyhounds are the oldest purebred domesticated dog breed, with the first confirmed records of greyhound-like dogs appearing around 8000 years ago, the Egyptian greyhound and the Saluki. They appear in both Greek and Roman mythology and are even apparently mentioned in the Bible! Until around 1700, owning a greyhound was the exclusive right of the nobility.
In slightly more modern times, greyhounds were bred and used for coursing – catching prey by speed and running by sight, not scent (why we call them “sighthounds”). They are the fastest dogs in existence! In the 1920s, modern greyhound racing was introduced in many Western countries, where greyhounds race on a track chasing a hare lure by sight. Only 7 countries allow greyhound racing now, including NZ although that comes under challenge this year (2023).
The greyhound is built for speed, but despite what you might assume they don’t have huge energy levels and require less exercise time than most dogs. They’re quite happy to spend much of the day sleeping! Having been bred to hunt and run in groups with other dogs, they don’t tend to be dog-aggressive. However they do have a very strong prey drive and instinct to chase, so are highly likely to chase small animals such as rabbits (they’ve got a good chance of catching them, too!).
Care needs to be taken when rehoming them into family homes from racing homes, as they may be predatory to cats and the like. Even though they are highly social, racing dogs may not have had a lot of contact with kids, so be careful to determine their sociability and sensitivity to kids.
They make wonderful pets but need to be carefully introduced to the new family.
Original job: gather and control sheep (heading dog or eye dog)
Resulting qualities: highly intelligent, unlimited energy and working drive, hyper vigilant, stimulated by and potentially reactive to movement and eye contact
Border collies were originally bred to gather and control sheep in the hilly border country between Scotland and England. They’re known for their intense stare or “eye” which they use to control their flock. They gather sheep together silently using eye and pull the sheep towards the shepherd (as opposed to huntaways that bark and drive sheep away).
These dogs are seriously bright with unlimited energy, stamina and working drive, ideal for their days spent running at speed across a farm.
Border collies are still very much used for their original purpose of herding sheep. Being highly trainable and intelligent, they also excel in agility and obedience competitions.
They are VERY high energy and hyper vigilant, so if they’re not in a working environment then they need a hugely high level of exercise and stimulation. I don’t recommend them for an average family, as many people just don’t have the time (or energy!) to invest into giving a border collie the kind of mental and physical stimulation they need. But those who enjoy doing agility with their dogs might be well suited to a border collie, or those that spend a lot of their day active and enjoy doing ongoing training with a dog.
Being eye dogs, border collies are reactive to eye contact and movement so can be prone to chasing inappropriate things (cars, other animals, feet etc) as well as snapping at others or nipping. They also sometimes do a stalk-set behaviour in which they freeze or “set” with a stare to target another animal – this is related to their herding behaviours, but can cause other dogs or people to feel threatened. This behaviour normally isn’t a real issue, but can appear so.
I find they often bond intensely with their owners, and form a very close relationship with one person.
Border collies can be fantastic dogs, they are so very smart, but they need the right environment given their energy and intelligence and lots of enrichment!
Staffordshire Bull Terrier (Staffy)
Original job: bull baiting, dog fighting and hunting
Resulting qualities: courageous, athletic, stable, playful, high stamina, faithful, needs good socialisation with other dogs and species.
Staffys originated in England, where they were bred for bull baiting, a blood sport that involved pitting a bull against a dog. Once this was outlawed in 1835, they were used in dog fighting. However though they still have the stocky stature of a fighting dog, these days responsible breeders are producing sweet-natured, family-oriented staffys who were even nicknamed the “nanny dog” for their reputation as a child’s playmate and guardian.
They adore people, and are faithful and loving with their families, as I’m sure you staffy owners will attest!
Though they are gentle, their fighting roots mean they require really good socialisation with other dogs during their Formative Period (2-4 months). I recommend this for ALL dogs of course, but for staffys it’s particularly important otherwise there is a risk of fear, reactivity or aggression developing.
Staffys are playful and LOVE a bit of boisterous rough-housing, or a competitive game of tug of war.
Desexing at 4 to 6 months will decrease the risk of them becoming too dominant and scrappy.
They’re not considered highly trainable, but they love to connect with people so will get there with time and patience. If training is started young, and you are diligent, they can learn most things.
Original job: herding sheep, later security and police and service activities and guarding.
Resulting qualities: mental stability, intelligence, energy, loyalty, watchful nature.
The German Shepherd (also known as an Alsatian) is a German breed of working dog bred in the 1800s for herding sheep. It has since been used in many other types of work including disability assistance, search and rescue, police work and warfare.
This breed is hailed as the world’s leading military, police and guard dog. They have loyalty, courage and intelligence, making them a great working breed and very versatile. They formed part of the search and rescue team after the 9/11 attack, crawling through the ruins of the World Trade Centre looking for survivors and comforting rescue workers and families.
German shepherds have some amazing traits, but they’re not the dog for everyone! They need a lot of activity and exercise, or they may become bored and frustrated. They can have a suspicious nature, which makes them a good watchdog, but requires management and training to ensure they’re not threatening to visitors. They are a large powerful dog, that needs a confident strong owner.
I personally love German Shepherds, and particularly like them included as part of a hybrid mix. My special dog Reggie who passed recently, was a Labrador German Shepherd cross and he was smart as anything, super stable and resilient (so much so, that we even taught him to fly a plane – which he did, independently!). They are one of the smartest dogs with great rapport with their handler. The latest recent research on breed intelligence put the Belgium Shepherd at the top. These two breeds are very similar.
Original job: unknown
The Chihuahua from Mexico is one of the most ancient dog breeds, but it’s unclear why they were bred. It’s pretty obvious they weren’t bred for hunting or herding like many of the other dogs on this list, it’s possible they carried some religious meaning or were bred as watchdogs due to their watchful nature and inclination to alert to people entering their territory!
But although they are small in size, they are big in personality! This breed is fun loving and busy, but they love being close to their person. They’ll often follow you around the house, and adapt well to being carried about in tote bags (the classic “handbag dog”!) as you do errands. Being affectionate and attached to their favourite person, they can become demanding and develop separation anxiety if not taught healthy separation from a young age. They’re smart, fast learners and can compete in agility and obedience trials with enthusiasm!
Being so little, careful fencing is a must, they can squeeze through a very small gap and they are curious explorers.
Because they’re so small, they are fragile, so very special care must be taken if they’re in a house with young children. Young kids can easy damage their delicate bodies.
Chihuahuas are good watchdogs and can be mistrustful of strangers, so socialise them early to ensure they know how to meet people in a friendly manner and don’t become too yappy.
Their confidence is bigger than their size, and they often won’t back down from bigger dogs, so care also needs to be taken that they’re sociable with other dogs and therefore don’t start an altercation that they won’t come out well from! As they’re so little, sometimes people keep them out of the way of other dogs to their detriment, resulting in some mal-socialisation. So socialise early with dogs of all sizes, while taking care to make sure they aren’t injured by bigger dogs.
That’s all I’ve got for today, I’m sure I’ll add to this list as I have the inclination to do a little write up about various different breeds!
Training matters most!
Research shows that breeding does impact many aspect’s of a dog’s unique personality, however what you do still plays a HUGE role in shaping your dog’s behaviour. All of the qualities I have listed here are neither a guarantee (in the case of positive attributes) or an excuse (in the case of challenging attributes). Research says about 60% of a dog’s personality comes down to the way you raise and train them and 40% to genetic predispositions.
ALL dog breeds can be sociable, and ALL dog breeds can be aggressive or mal-socialised.
ALL dog breeds can be confident and resilient, and ALL dog breeds can be fearful.
ALL dog breeds can be obedient, and ALL dog breeds can be disobedient.
You’ll get the best result for your life by choosing a dog breed that fits best with your lifestyle AND doing the necessary training while your pup is in their Formative Period (2-4 months) to ensure a happy, relaxed, confident, sociable, well-behaved dog. Though don’t despair if you are working with a teenage pup or adult dog, we have Virtual Training Schools that are designed to help you solve problems later – it can be done, it just takes more work.