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).