Your Dog's DNA: How It Helps You Choose Appropriate Activities for Your Dog

Posted On Mar 27, 2022 |

How your dog's historical purpose affects them today!

This post is an excerpt from my Puppy Owners Course- I hope it will provide a little bit of help for other new Lab puppy owners- but if you have a different breed, check out the book below for more information about what your breed was bred to do, and what sort of activities might be best suited to unlock that historical purpose! 

There are quite a few books written about the early history of the Labrador Retriever, which you might find interesting and I would encourage you to read. We won't get into all of the specifics of the breed development here because you can find that in books such as: 

The NEW Complete Labrador Retriever- by Helen Warwick

The Official Book of the Labrador Retriever- by the Labrador Retriever Club, Inc.

(These books are out of print but you  can probably find older copies on ebay, if you're interested in nerding out a bit!)

Along with the early history of the breed, it is important for you to understand the more recent functions of Labs and how these job descriptions affect breeding programs -because this will also help you better understand your dog, their innate instincts, and how you can help focus your training to take advantage of their strengths and avoid common training issues. Proper puppy raising is important but it's not ALL how you raise them-  their genetics and environment play a significant role and it's helpful to understand how they may impact your puppy's behavior and instincts. 

In the last fifty years or so, the Labrador Retriever has become one of the most popular breeds in the world- if not THE most popular breed- in every country that it is found in! That's not an accident, and it's not just people following trends. It's because the traits we find in Labs make them a very versatile dog, capable of being both great family dogs and working dogs- which means they can fill many different roles in a wide range of living situations. I would say that their popularity is entirely because Labs are both generalists by nature- they can do well at many things based on their inherited physical and mental characteristics. But- it is important to know that even for great family dogs like labs, being 'full time house dogs' is a new phenomenon for dogs. Even breeds who were meant to live with and support families closely were not initially bred to spend entire days indoors. This is a new thing for dogs. You might want to see my previous blog post called "Dogs are Zoo Animals" for more thoughts on this. 

Because Labs have become so numerous and plentiful, there are also now 'specialist' populations found within the breed! There can often be big differences between these populations.  For example, most Labs who compete in dog shows (beauty pageants) are especially bred for that. In order to be the best in show among hundreds or thousands of dogs at a weekend or national level show,  it takes specialization! The breeders have to really prioritize the physical characteristics of a show dog in order to achieve a dog that is built and looks as perfect (to their interpretation of the breed standard) as possible. They can get away with a dog who doesn't really retrieve, or isn't exceptionally easy to train, as long as they are meeting that ideal physical appearance.

There is also a subset of Labradors bred for service work- working as guide dogs for the blind and other public-access type service situations which require a dog who both has the stamina for long work days and the calm nature to be able to function in very busy, ever-changing areas among a high level of distractions. It matters less what these dogs look like, but it matters very much how they behave and how comfortable they are around unpredictable situations. Behavior has to be very reliable! There is almost no situation in a service dog's day that require excitement or great animation- so these dogs tend to be pretty chill and low key. 

Then, we have the pool of Labradors bred for their original function- as hunting dogs (or related athletic tasks). That is the pool of Labs that our dogs come from, so we're going to talk about that a bit more! 

What makes the ideal hunting dog and why do these dogs make such great pets for active, outdoorsy families and candidates for other types of work or dog sports (and not-so-great pets for more sedate families?)  It can help to understand what a day in the life of a hunting dog looks like- because whether you are a hunter or not, the genes that make good hunting dogs live in your dog and will influence their behavior too. 

To start with, the average hunting dog IS a family dog. Labs are very common in one or two dog households of 'average' families. That means that the dog plays double duty as both a childhood buddy, and a hunting dog. It means that they are more bonded to their family and wanting to spend time with people, vs spending time exclusively with other dogs (like, say, scent hounds, who are also hunting dogs that work in a group) nor do they keep themselves busy on solo duties (like guardian type dogs- who also bond with their families but are designed to be vigilent and often less welcoming of strangers).  Labs are not expected to perform any guard duties at all actually- they are not free-roaming the property and so they do not have the instincts required to stay home. Dogs who are bred for jobs like guarding- like a German Shepherd for example- are genetically wired to be able to respect invisible boundaries, patrol a specific area, or act defensively - but these  are not at all part of a Lab's job description. So, fencing is a must. Time with the family is a must. Those things are built into their DNA!

These hunting dogs, when they aren't busy with the family, spend time hunting in various capacities. The most common type of hunting that Labs are trained for is waterfowl hunting. This involves getting up at the crack of dawn to get out to the field or marsh, and then waiting- sometimes hours- for the birds to arrive. Patience is a virtue! That off-switch we love- it's built into their DNA. But then the birds do finally arrive, and the hunter shoots- and the dog must quickly go and retrieve them all (maybe a half dozen or more, depending on legal limits, the number of hunters, and luck). Springing into action after a long wait, and without a warmup period, requires a dog that gets amped up quickly and can get straight to work. The retrieves might involve a long swim, chasing a wounded duck through icy water, long weeds, snow, tall field grasses or brush. It might involve a lengthy search by scent to find a duck that is concealed alon a murky pond edge. It may require many stops and directional signals from the hunter in order to pinpoint the location of a specific duck, or avoid hazards. After that short burst of intense activity, it's back to waiting for the next flock to arrive or back home to resume family duties. Calming down quickly after that burst of intense excitement is important so the whole cycle can start again. 

While we tend to think heavily of the 'Retrieving" aspect of Labrador Retrievers, in the grand scheme of the time they spend hunting- retrieving is just a very small part of it.  That willingness to work in cold, wet, and difficult conditions- to keep searching for a bird that is hard to find- that is built into their DNA, just like that off-switch required for hours of patient waiting. By the way, both of these things, while genetically enhanced, do require training! and a lot of it, to build advanced skills and maintain balance. But think about how much easier it is to train a dog that is bred for these things, vs, say a whippet or boxer or siberian husky- who are bred for other purposes and have other genetic predispositions that are more easily enhanced with training). 

Another type of hunting experience that a Lab is often trained for is upland bird hunting. In this type of hunting, the lab is actively searching for birds like pheasant or grouse by scent. This means strategically moving at a moderate pace back and forth, covering a lot of ground in open fields or thick brush,  until the bird is pinpointed and flushed- then the hunter shoots, and the bird is retrieved. Then, it's time to search for the next one. In this activity- you'll notice that there is a heck of a lot more searching than retrieving! In recent years, Labs have also been trained for shed antler hunting which is very similar in nature to upland hunting, minus the shooting. 

A final type of hunting job that Labs have is tracking. In this situation, the dog's job starts after an animal (usually large game like a deer or moose) has been wounded, and it is their job to track and locate where the animal. No retrieving here- this is an entirely scent based activity. If the dog was allowed to come along on the hunt, then quiet and calm would be entirely necessary, and the tracking task itself is fairly methodical and focused. 

In modern times, people who enjoy hunting with their dogs often find that there is a lot of work that goes into training a dog to do a great job of hunting- but only a very short hunting season in which to use the skills. Field Trials and Hunt Test events are competition dog sports invented to test some parts of the dog's genetic strengths as hunting dogs, the skill of the trainer in teaching advanced concepts, and to allow the fun of a hunting scenario to live beyond the few short months of actual hunting. Of course- there is no way to actually replicate every part of the hunting scenario. Nobody actually wants to sit around a cold blind for hours waiting for fake birds to show up! But, these dogs still do have to wait their turn to complete the test. At the higher levels, they have to 'honor' another dog- sit nearby, and watch while the other dog completes the test, without interfering. That is not easily accomplished without a dog who has been both well trained and genetically predisposed to waiting patiently. So- these tests aren't exactly hunting and do over-emphasize the retrieving vs the waiting- but they are about as good as we can do to simulate hunting scenarios. 

What I want you to notice is in all of these activities that your dog has been specifically bred for generations and generations to do, that none of them require continuous or repetitive retrieving. They also do not require the dog to be over-excited or amped up for long durations of time.  Those things are not built into your dog's DNA. It's not how they are meant to work, play or live. 

Baby Marlin learns to 'honor'- he's watching another dog work while calmly waiting his turn. 

The reason that I mention this, is that it is growing more common for families who are trying very hard to do their best by their dog, to engage in daily, repetitive games of fetch. While of course your Lab will enjoy retrieving, and may even seem to demand this- this type of retrieving is not congruent to what is required by their historical purpose.  Letting a dog retrieve as much as they want is the equivalent to letting them eat as much as they want. Of course they like to eat, and they like to retrieve, and both are fine for them in measured doses- but the dog's desire is not the measure of how much of either they should get. There are risks to getting more than what you are meant to have!

  Repetitive tennis ball chasing (or whatever type of toy) is hard on your dog's body- like, injury-causing hard! They are not built to do dozens of fast starts, hard stops, and crazy zig zags on a daily basis. It is also hard on your dog's mind. That level of excitement that makes your dog froth at the mouth and bark in excitement? That is not at all what a retriever is bred to do as a hunting dog, and it is a sign that your dog is overdosing on his own excitement.  We call that 'over-arousal' and while it might look like extreme happiness, it really isn't. It is possible to have too much of a good thing!  Remember -they are bred to do a lot of waiting or searching- with just a little bit of retrieving... not a lot of retrieving in a mindless or frantic fashion! Being wildly over-excited  releases the same neurotransmitters and has the same physical impact as being very stressed or very scared- it's not something that your dog should experience on a daily basis. Your dog's regular lifestyle- exercise and entertainment- should not cause your dog to get that wound up, and if it does, change what you are doing. You can start to watch for this in your puppy from a very young age so you'll know what sort of activities he can handle and adjust to make sure he's not becoming an adrenaline junkie! 

Knowing what you know now about your dog's historical purpose, you can think about ways that you can train, exercise, and entertain your dog so that the biological needs of his DNA are fufilled without being over-dosed! For the best way to tire your dog out, really focus on giving him opportunities to search using his nose. To help keep your dog in a calm state of mind, focus your training on activities that require patience, waiting, sniffing and searching- since that is where the balance of activity is meant to be spent based on your dog's DNA. A fulfilled dog is calmer, happier and healthier than one who is overwhelmed by arousal on an ongoing basis. 

If you'd like to know more about this train of thought- about ensuring that a dog's lifestyle matches their inherited traits, so that you can both exist happily together-  I highly suggest the book "Meet Your Dog" by Kim Brophey.