Well, not perfect actually, the word that is being thrown around is ideal. In three separate studies, people in the UK, Australia and Italy were polled and asked to describe what they believe to be their ideal dog; the dog with whom they would like to share their love and their life. Kinda like being asked about the ideal man, I guess.
The first survey, conducted in the UK, was not scientific, but rather an informal poll conducted by a popular Sunday paper. The Express asked 2000 dog owners about what they considered to be the most desirable physical characteristics in a dog. After collecting the surveys, the editors combined the most popular answers to create this:
Pretty adorable, even if he is mythical. The ideal British dog, a chimera of breed types, is purportedly of medium size with the coat of an English bulldog, the ears of a King Charles spaniel and the happy, wagging tail of an Irish Setter. Other attributes were borrowed from Border Collies, Labrador Retrievers, and Beagles. They even specified the type of bark that the perfect pooch should have – must be “mid-range, not high-pitched”. (I guess that rules out Tollers).
Admittedly, this boy is pretty cute. However, the newspaper survey did not ask about behavior or temperament, which are really the most important features to think about in one’s ideal canine companion. Lucky for us, researchers in Australia and Italy asked exactly these questions (1,2).
What Australians Like: A group of almost 900 Australian citizens were surveyed regarding both the physical and the behavioral characteristics of their perceived ideal dog, using an on-line survey tool. The majority of respondents were current dog owners (72.3 %) and female (79.8 %). The researchers used a statistical technique called principal component analysis (PCA) to identify consistent clusters of responses among available answers. Results: The ideal dog for Australians, as measured by this survey, is medium-sized, short-haired, and “de-sexed” (i.e. neutered/spayed). Behaviorally, he is house-trained, friendly, good with children, obedient and healthy. Also of importance were reliably responding to “come” (and its corollary, not running away), and showing affection to one’s owner. Oh yeah, and a majority of the respondents said that their perfect dog was not a poop eater.
Italians are Going For: Recently, one of the researchers in the Australian study (PC Bennett) collaborated with scientists in Italy and administered the same survey to a group of 770 Italian citizens. Results: Participant demographics were similar to those of the Australian study and behavior traits of the perceived ideal dog were almost identical. The Italian perfect pooch is house-trained, safe with children, friendly, obedient, healthy, and long-lived. There were a few differences between men and women in the two studies, however.
The Gender Gaps: Australian women valued dogs who are calm, obedient, sociable and non-aggressive, while men in that culture went for dogs who are more energetic, protective and faithful. Italian men were significantly more likely than women to prefer an intact (non-neutered) dog, and Italian women were willing to spend more time with their dog than were men.
Conclusions: The researchers placed emphasis on the fact that most dogs who live as companions today are of breeds or breed-types that were originally developed for a specific purpose and work, such as herding, hunting or protecting. However, very few dogs continue to be used for those functions which may contribute to a disconnect between what people perceive the ideal dog to be and the reality of how dogs behave and respond to modern-day lifestyles. The results of both studies reported that participants valued a dog’s behavior and health more than they do physical appearance. However, the specific behaviors that were strongly valued suggested unrealistic expectations regarding a dog’s needs, behavior and training.
The study’s authors make two recommendations regarding how this information should be used:
- Education: The study results show that the general public continues to require education regarding normal and expected behavior of dogs, along with dogs’ needs for training. This education can help to reduce the obvious gap that exists between what is perceived to be an ideal dog and real dogs living as companions.
- Selective breeding: Because dogs live primarily as companions in homes today, the authors state that breeders should be focusing their efforts on producing dogs that meet owner expectations regarding behavior as opposed to breeding for physical appearance.
My opinion on this research and on the authors’ recommendations? Yeah, I got one. Big surprise, I know.
The fact that people identified their ideal dog to be one who is house-trained, friendly, obedient and good with kids should hardly come as a surprise. The last time I checked, there are not many people who are seeking a house-soiling, anti-social, disobedient baby killer as their next canine companion. I think we can all agree that most people (probably not just Australians and Italians) value, at least to some degree, the traits that these studies reported.
Where things get a little weird (for me) is in the disconnect between what people identified as their ideal dog and the degree to which (if at all) they perceived their own responsibility in trying to achieve that ideal. For example, in both studies, the majority of respondents stated that their ideal dog was acquired as a puppy. Okey Dokey then…….do the math. How exactly does house-trained, coming called, not running away, good with children, friendly and healthy come about if not through consistent training, exercise, socialization, veterinary visits and care, on the part of the owner? There was more evidence that the participants were not thinking this all the way through:
- In the Australian study, although the majority of participants stated that the ideal dog was “obedient”, when asked about the trainability of the ideal dog only 3.6 % (or virtually no one) stated that this was important and approximately one-third believed that “some dogs cannot be trained“. So, I guess the obedient dog who comes when called, does not run away, and oh yeah, abstains from poop-eating just popped out of the womb like that.
- While the Italian respondents did not share the Australians’ views regarding trainability, they made up for it when asked about exercise and grooming needs. Owners who self-reported spending little time exercising and grooming their actual dog reported much higher frequencies of these activities with their ideal dog. (Perhaps he is more active and has a denser coat?). About 1 in 10 Italians stated that they never walk their dog at all and slightly less reported that they never groomed their (actual) dog.
Who’s responsible? These discrepancies between ideal and actual dogs prompted the researchers to make their two recommendations, listed above. I wholeheartedly agree with Number 1. Number 2? Not so much. In fact, I would argue that the two recommendations are at odds with each other. Here is what I mean:
- Change expectations: If one agrees that the studies’ results reflect unrealistic expectations by owners about dogs and that these need to be corrected via education (and perhaps the occasional slap upside the head), it is illogical to follow this by suggesting that breeders attempt to create dogs who meet these unrealistic expectations.
- Change breeding focus: Certainly breeders should be selecting for stable and appropriate temperaments within the standard of their breed. And, I think most would agree that certain breeds (or breed-types) are better suited for families with children or elderly couples or an urban-dwelling professional than others. However, this recommendation appears to suggest that breeders stop selecting for behavior traits that tilt away from the (mythical) ideal dog. For example, should Border Collie breeders stop selecting for herding instinct so that little Johnny’s heels don’t get nipped at as he races around the living room? Should Golden Retriever breeders stop selecting for active dogs so that their owners have no obligation to take the dog for walks? Must Beagle breeders stop breeding sniff-focused dogs because we all know that excessive sniffiness promotes wandering off? And, perhaps breeders of long–haired dogs with double coats should cut that nonsense out right now and begin selecting for bald dogs who require no grooming (because picking up that brush a few times a week is just too much work for the busy dog owner).
Sarcasm aside, I would argue that not only are “unrealistic expectations” a problem here, but the term “ideal” itself also needs to go. Just as the ideal man does not exist (yes, sad I know, but true), neither does the ideal dog. Border Collies herd, Golden Retrievers chase things and bring them back, hairy dogs shed (and need to be brushed), some dogs are aloof with strangers, some dogs don’t like kids all that much, some bark a lot, and yes, Virginia, some dogs like to eat poop. Rather than catering to people’s unrealistic beliefs about a mythical dog, let’s instead focus on promoting caring for, respecting, and loving the dogs that we have, non-ideal traits and all.
- King T, Marston LC, Bennett PC. Describing the ideal Australian companion dog. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 2009; 120:84-93.
- Diverio S, Boccini B, Menchetti L, Bennett PC. The Italian perception of the “ideal companion dog”. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 2016; (in press).
19 thoughts on “The Perfect Dog”
Excellent Post. Thank You;)
Pingback: Happy New Year from The Science Dog! (The 2017 Pet Blogger Challenge) – The Science Dog
I am reminded of a dog walking acquaintance who was looking for her next dog. She told me she wanted a dog like Sophy – small, well-mannered, welcome everywhere. But she didn’t want to do any grooming, so not a Papillon. I suggested that there were many breeds and mixes with a good chance of having Sophy’s equable temperament – none of them were right. And when I recommended the local puppy and follow up classes I took Sophy to she told me “I don’t do training classes”. Similar sort of response to suggestions of useful places nearby for socialisation. Next thing I heard she’d got not one, but two rough coated Jack Russell x Border Terrier pups. They are now large, rambunctious young terriers – great fun, but hard work, shedding like mad, and more or less the opposite of what she said she wanted in a dog…
Let’s hope it works out for everybody but, with no interest in learning about dogs, I cannot help but think that those two are going to end up on Kajiji or at a local rescue operation. 😦
She gave in and found a trainer – a thoroughly positive one – who helped her through the most difficult stages, and she now spends hours romping with them along the river bank, dogs in and out of the water. I think she kennels them when she goes visiting. So a happy ending, but not at all what she planned!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Great news. Thanks for letting me know. 🙂
LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this article!!! I’m always incensed at how some families purchase/adopt/rescue a dog without ANY research into breed characteristics!! So often, I hear comments from pet owners about how they don’t understand why their beagle keeps escaping their backyard, how it’s not so great that their greyhound needs to be on leash all the time or how their border collie (who has absolutely NOTHING to do) has eaten 3 couches, a chair and half the dining room furniture (true story BTW). It’s a wonder dogs let us adopt them at all. When we got Penny (our amazing, hard working, screaming, shedding, food-stealing, fetching machine), it was AFTER many months of research, emails and phone conversations with other owners and breeders. She’s the centre of our world and another Toller pup is definitely in our future as the breed fits so well into our family life and activities!!!
After watching the movie “Max”, a friend of mine commented on how she’d LOVE to get a Belgian Malinois and was looking through puppy ads on the Internet. This is a woman who works 40 hours a week, is a single mom with 3 young kids and is active in school PTA. My initial reaction was: WHY?? She answered she wanted a loyal companion to also protect her and her family. I just walked away shaking my head.
LikeLiked by 2 people
“It’s a wonder dogs allow us to adopt them at all”. I think that all the time when I sit across from someone looking to adopt a dog and listing all the “requirements” they have. We joke that we should have a collection of stuffed dogs and after they list all their wants and needs, we could say “We have the PERFECT dog for you!” and then hand them a stuffed one.
I see part of my job as a trainer and adoption counselor at a open-admission shelter is to help people see dogs more realistically. I try to point out that just about everything a dog does that drives us crazy (barks, bites, chews, jumps up, pees on things etc) is pretty normal behavior in their world. The only reason it’s a “problem” is because they are living with us. Poor dogs!
LikeLiked by 2 people
So true, Cathy. The list of “requirements” that you hear from owners must make you want to stick a fork in your eye at times (or theirs…. 🙂 ). Thank you for doing this work – Although you may not always hear about it afterwards, I bet that there are many dogs in homes in which they are loved and appreciated and are a good match because of the work that you are doing with potential adopters at your shelter and as a trainer before people adopt. (Plus perhaps placing a few stuffed dogs….. 🙂 ). Thanks for writing – Linda
Completely agree Renelle – About your post and about loving Tollers 🙂 ! What struck me so profoundly in these research studies was the apparent lack of recognition by participants of an owner’s responsibility in helping a dog to become their so-called “ideal”. And let us all hope that there is not a sudden explosion of Belgian Malinois ownership because of the movie – a bad thing to have happen to any breed.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Awww… Chippy-do IS the ideal dog (if you ignore the Toller scream & not liking to be touched when “working”, etc…)! And yes, we all love him dearly! ❤
LikeLiked by 2 people
That made me laugh out loud, Pam! (And Chippy sends you hello barks and ear-piercing Toller screams).
Ah, so very well done! Now we need to look at the next question: For this rescue dog, who would be the perfect person? I am heading towards the local shelter, to start my survey.
LikeLiked by 2 people
Completely agree, Gerry. Matching dogs to people is a difficult task, that so many rescue folks work so hard to get right. That task is made especially difficult if the prospective owner does not have two feet planted in reality-world, for sure. Good luck with your survey – would love to hear more about it! Linda
Well, that reverse survey just didn’t work, as we needed to first behavior test the people, and that got awkward when some failed…But I seem to recall Dodman was trying to do a survey like that.
Had a nice one, however, several years ago with two retired people having their hearts set on a young Lab. After a few weeks of rearranging their furniture to burn off energy, back he came. But they missed him enough that I returned him together with a young Mountain Cur, who ran the Lab into the ground. Now three years later, they’re all still happy,
LikeLiked by 1 person
Our local Humane Society had an adoption request for a “really cute”(!) Husky pup. They were a young working couple (so out all day) and they lived in a small apartment in a high-rise! Their request was declined. I believe that when they were presented with the areas of total incompatibility, they were quite indignant. There does seem to be a misconception that rescue organizations are desperate to move the animals out, and therefore have no right to refuse your money! Very sad that the dog’s needs are not being considered. Very happy that our Humane Society can (and does) say “No”.
LikeLiked by 1 person
An excellent Post. Once the laughter subsided, it simply brought back memories of a dog being adopted from our Humane Society, and returned a few days later because “it was not trained.” My standard thought towards those people is simply “Please do not have children.”
LikeLiked by 1 person
Hi Colin – Ugh. I bet shelter and rescue people hear this way, way too often. As the wonderful Jean Donaldson has said (I paraphrase): “What many people really want is a stuffed toy dog, not a real dog”. These studies support that premise, for sure. Thanks for the comment! Linda
That quote reminded me of an apparent dialogue of a similar nature where the final comment was “I think what you are really looking for is a potted plant!” 🙂
LikeLiked by 1 person