Lisa Hird, Vice Chair of INTODogs

Dale McLelland, Trustee INTODogs, interviews
Lisa Hird, Vice Chair of INTODogs and Joint Principal of the ISCP

Is there such a thing as ‘The Dog’?

Marc Bekoff has famously stated that we should no longer be thinking of domestic canines in general terms as ‘the dog’. He urges us to look at all dogs as individuals and to remember that there is no such thing as a ‘universal dog’. Yet, we are still bombarded with information about what dogs need, how to provide for them, how much and what type of exercise they need, and we often see heated debates and arguments via social media regarding the rights and wrongs of different approaches. Now I am not talking here about whether we treat dogs with kindness and fairness, there is simply no argument against that which stacks up, the discussions are concerning what is best for ‘the dog’. No one would be so opinionated to believe that they know what is best for every dog, but we all hold strong beliefs about this topic. It can be tempting to mistakenly go down the route of disagreeing with anyone who doesn’t have the same viewpoint. Just as we tell our clients, we must see the dog in front of us.
If we are genuinely aiming to treat dogs as individuals, we must also take into account that they are a species different from ourselves and therefore must have basic needs that go with being part of that species. Bearing in mind the diverse range of sizes, breeds and personalities of dogs, can we be sure that we are providing not the best for ‘the dog’ but for each individual dog, identifying and responding to their definite likes, dislikes, skills, strengths, weaknesses, preferences and needs.

I posed a series of questions to Lisa Hird to gain an insight into her views of this topic.

Can you share your views on this topic and why you think it’s important? 

I really love the point that Marc Bekoff raises.  My favourite mantra is “consider the individual dog“. 

While dogs of all different breeds fall under the category of Canis familiaris, they are also vastly different. Through selective breeding, we have chosen to highlight and encourage certain traits. How much these traits are evident in the individual dog varies from dog to dog.

As Dale mentioned, the only part of what is best for the dog that is not negotiable is that we must treat them with respect, kindness and not use confrontational/punishment methods.

Every single dog has a unique set of circumstances. Who he lives with, how many humans he lives with, their knowledge and experience, the accommodation/environment he lives with, health, fitness and so on. The list is endless. What is right for one dog may not be right for the other. 

Clothier, 2018 talks about asking each dog the elemental questions and seeing the dog in front of us. We really must consider the needs of every single dog as an individual.

Given that there is a vast amount of information available now online, on television and through written materials, how would carers or guardians navigate through to find good quality information and do you think that doing so could improve or strengthen their relationship with their dog?

This is a hard one to answer. In the age of Dr Google, wading through and filtering the glut of advice and information about dogs is like walking through quicksand. 

We can only caution carers or guardians to seek professional advice. After all, asking Dr Google about a health issue instead of going to a professional healthcare person is asking for trouble. It is the same for our dogs. Talking with rescue centres may be a good source of information.

The biggest piece of advice I would give is to filter any information through the following:

  • does my dog enjoy this?
  • do I feel closer to my dog?
  • do I feel the connection and strong relationship with him?

and to treat the dog as the wonderfully made individual that he is.

Of course, this goes for so many topics such as general advice about enrichment, training activities and other activities. Do you think that certain breeds automatically have particular needs, we often hear statements such as ‘collies need to chase and herd’, is there an element of truth in that?

Taxonomy is the branch of biology responsible for classifying and naming each of the living beings. There are seven main taxonomic ranks: kingdom, phylum or division, class, order, family, genus, species. When we consider the domestic dog, we see

  • Kingdom – animal
  • Phylum – Chordata
  • Class – Mammalia
  • Order – Carnivora
  • Family – Canidae
  • Genus – Canis
  • Species – C. lupus

Subspecies – Canis familiaris (sometimes called Canis lupus familiaris

After this come the various breeds. Not all members of a particular breed will have been as heavily selectively bred for that trait and they may not have such a strong desire to display these traits. We know there is a great deal of variation even within breeds with many research studies highlighting this. Mills et al, 2016 found from their study that that the differences WITHIN breeds exceeded the differences BETWEEN breed, demonstrating that generalisations based on breed are not appropriate.

So, once again, we come back to the individual dog. 

I think a more pertinent question to ask is would be “is it healthy for the individual dog”? 

While many collies need to chase and herd, is it really good for them? Has the behaviour become obsessive or highly repetitive? Can we replace the activity with something that meets their needs without encouraging them to display this trait?

Collies are a great example where we presume they need to chase and herd. We often take them to agility or encourage fast paced chase games, when they don’t actually enjoy them!

I think that you have made a really valid point, some dogs (not just collies) will absolutely enjoy certain activities while others may not find it rewarding at all. Humans have ‘created’ modern day breeds, and there will have been choices made about enhancing or positively selecting for specific traits, this is not static and is an ongoing process. 

We know that there are so many factors that contribute to the makeup of each dog, that it is impossible to tease each one out and isolate them. 

I think that going back to the original statement is a great way, to sum up this discussion: 

Look at the dog in front of you

Dale McLelland, Trustee INTODogs

Lisa Hird, Vice Chair INTODogs

Bekoff, Marc.

Hare, B, Brown, M, Williamson, C, Tomasello, M. (2002) The domestication of social cognition in dogs Science, 298 (2002), pp. 1634-1636

Miklósi, Á, Topal, J.  (2013) What does it take to become “best friends?” Evolutionary changes in canine social competence Trends Cogn. Sci., 17 (2013), pp. 287-294

Duffy, D, Hsu b, Y, Serpell, JA (2008) Breed differences in canine aggression Academic journal of canine science

Mellor D J et al (2008). The Sciences of Animal Welfare, Wiley Blackwell, West Sussex, UK: 126

Gunter, LM, Barber, T and Wynne, C (2016) What’s in a Name? Effect of Breed Perceptions & Labelling on Attractiveness, Adoptions & Length of Stay for Pit-Bull-Type Dogs Published: March 23, 2016

Clothier, S. (2018) Finding a balance. Expanded Edition. Flying Dog Press, St Johnsville, NY.

Fadel, F, Driscoll, P, Pilot, M, Wright, H, Zulch, H, Mills, D. (2016) Differences in Trait Impulsivity Indicate Diversification of Dog Breeds into Working and Show Lines