#28 - Dr. Jessica Hekman:
Does Dog Breed Affect Behavior?

[00:00:00] Jessica: We thought this was one of the, the biggest, most important pieces of information from the paper, was that dogs are individuals and just because there’s something that’s more common in a particular breed doesn’t mean that it’s going to be the case for your dog, even if your dog is a member of that breed.

[00:00:16] Allie: Welcome to Enrichment for the Real World, the podcast devoted to improving the quality of life of pets and their people through enrichment. We are your hosts, Allie Bender…

[00:00:35] Emily: …and I’m Emily Strong…

[00:00:36] Allie: …and we are here to challenge and expand your view of what enrichment is, what enrichment can be and what enrichment can do for you and the animals in your lives. Let’s get started.

 Thank you for joining us for today’s episode of Enrichment for the Real World, and I want to thank you for rating, reviewing, and subscribing wherever you listen to podcasts.

The voice you heard at the beginning of today’s episode was Dr. Jessica Hekman. Jessica is a veterinary researcher who is fascinated by dog behavior. After 11 years working as a computer programmer, she decided to go back to school to research the causes of behavior problems and dogs. She received her veterinary degree in 2012 from the Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Massachusetts, where she also received a master’s degree for her work on stress behaviors and hospitalized dogs.

After graduation, she completed a yearlong internship specializing in shelter medicine at the University of Florida Maddie’s Shelter Medicine program. She received her PhD in genetics at the University of Illinois Urbana Champagne, studying a group of foxes, also known as the Siberian Silver Foxes, which have been bred over many generations to be friendly to humans.

She has worked at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard as a computational biologist, studying the genetics of behavior in pet dogs through the Darwin’s Arc Project and the Working Dogs Project. Today she runs the Functional Dog Collaborative, a nonprofit group, which supports ethical breeding of healthy and behaviorally solid dogs.

She also frequently teaches online classes and webinars about canine genetics and behavior. Jessica lives in Raymond, New Hampshire with her husband and three dogs. Jessica has an amazing gift, which I’m sure she’s actually spent years honing and refining, of taking really complex topics and distilling them into digestible tidbits of information that the average non-sciencey person can understand, and she does so with so much humility.

She’s a great example that experts are comfortable saying, “I don’t know.” In this episode, you’re going to hear Emily and Jessica talk about under education overstates, especially when it comes to super complex topics like nature and nurture, breed specific enrichment, and why it may not be as important as you think it is, the nebulousness of science and why pseudoscience is attractive, and Emily and Jessica’s thoughts about solutions for decreasing animal overpopulation.

All right. Here it is. Today’s episode, Dr. Jessica Hekman: Breed and Behavior.

[00:03:12] Emily: Okay. So,, let’s get started by telling us your name, your pronouns, and your pets.

[00:03:19] Jessica: I am Jessica Hekman, she, her. I have four pets, a human husband whose name is Chris. And I acquired him about 15 years ago through a friend and I have three dogs. My eldest is Jenny, who is a 35-pound-ish, fluffy spitzy mixed breed. Very sweet, but very shy of strangers, and I got her from a shelter. And then my middle child is Dashel. He is a purebred English shepherd, who I got from a lovely breeder. He’s five now. And he is very handsome and very smart. And then my youngest child is Fitz, a border collie. Fitz and I have had a rough ride. He’s been with us for not quite two and a half years. He’s a lot better than he was so those are my three. My four, sorry, my four.

[00:04:12] Emily: Your four, I was about to say, I appreciate that you adopted your husband from a friend. I like it. I like it. All right. So, tell us your story and how you got to where you are.

[00:04:21] Jessica: Yeah, I was just talking with my father a couple days ago and he said you’ve done so many things. Like I’ve had this life of doing a zillion different things. I studied medieval studies in college, and then I graduated in 95 when they were hiring warm bodies off the street to do computer stuff.

And I was interested in computers. So, I was a, I was an online publishing, a computer programmer for 12 or 13 years. And then I was getting really into dogs. I got my first dog Jack, a really wonderful golden retriever. Shortly after I got my first house. Cause I, got the needed a, a property before I could have a dog, got the dog, got into, I had rescued him, I got it from a rescue group.

And so, I started working with a, another rescue group and getting really interested in dogs and I decided I was ready for a career change. So, I decided to go back to school and become a veterinarian. And I had to do all my basic sciences first. That was a good time. Chemistry will haunt me to this day. And so, I went to veterinary school and come to find out there’s not a whole lot of really learning about sort of dog behavior and body language and all the stuff that I was interested in veterinary school was gonna be a veterinary behaviorist, but realized I was not that interested in fixing broken dogs.

I was really interested in figuring out why they broke in the first place. I did a master’s degree as part of my veterinary degree. I took an extra year to do that, and I, midway through that realized that I loved research. So, I knew I was gonna do a PhD afterwards, but I also knew you couldn’t do a PhD and then go back and do an internship.

And I was also really passionate about shelter medicine. So, before the PhD, I did a shelter medicine internship at the University of Florida, learned so much about population management. Got to actually be in some deep south shelters, which was really fascinating. And learned a lot about interacting with people.

A lot of shelter medicine is about, “we know the best way for you to run your shelter. So, we’re gonna come in and tell you how to do that.” And how that doesn’t always go over so well. And there’s, you really need to build a relationship with someone before you start telling them what to do, come to find out. That I did a PhD studying behavioral genetics of two populations of foxes that had been bred to be either very tame or very aggressive. And after that, I was really ready to be working with pet dogs. And luckily the Darwin’s Arc project was just starting up at the time. And so, I was there for, I wanna say. It was four, four and a half, five years, not quite five years. And helped them with doing that research, which was a dream job.

Started teaching at Virginia tech teaching in their online animal behavior and welfare program and started teaching online a lot about how dog brains work and founded the Functional Dog Collaborative, which is what I am full-time on now.

Sort of trying to get Functional Dog Collaborative off its feet, get it funded, make it be a force for change in the world. We are trying to, uh, build a new culture of dog breeding. Breeding dogs to, with a really not just the primary goal, but the primary goal, and then no impediments to breeding a dog to really do its job really well, whatever that job may be, but there is a real deficit of, people breeding dogs to be really good pets with no other goals aside from that. And that is where I am.

[00:07:34] Emily: I love that. First of all, I love your journey. Because I also had a pretty circuitous journey to getting where I am. So, yes, I identify with that, but also I love how you’re, as you went through your process, you are refining your goals, and now you’re at this place where you’re doing this really important and interesting research, because that is a trend we’re seeing, right?

I think all of us you know, really care about, not killing animals and shelters for space and making sure that good pet animals get adopted out, but also the side effect of the no-kill movement is that there’s a lot more dogs out in the world that aren’t really great pets and are really hard for pet owners to live with.

And there’s a dearth of people who are putting out really behaviorally sound dogs. So, there needs to be a balance between those two realities. So, I love that you are working towards that. That is that’s really important work.

So, I’m gonna start this interview by telling a story about you actually, because one of the things that we tell our students in the Mentorship Program and the members in Pro Campus is that under education overstate, and this is kind of a big deal because the animal behavior professionals, you know, all of them, dog trainers, behavior consultants, we rely on the work of a lot of different researchers from a lot of different fields.

So, an occupational hazard for us is that because we’re undereducated about the fields we borrow from, we are particularly at risk for making overstatements. And it’s super important for us to learn how to receive corrections and feedback from researchers, acknowledge our overstatements when they happen, and refine what we do and say as a result.

So, this happened with us where in the process of researching our book Allie and I didn’t yet know how to be really organized in collecting and collating our research. And we tried to do a good job of really reading carefully and, and understanding what was going on. But we’re not researchers ourself and we weren’t as organized as we are now for sure.

And so, I made an error in interpreting a paper that, that we cited in our book. And then in Mike Shikashio’s podcast, I had made a comment like, we were talking about sensory processing sensitivity, and I said, you know, it’s just a gene that does this and you emailed me and were like, “So about that, just a gene thing. Where’d you get that information?” I sent you the study and you were like, “Yeah, let’s talk about this because that’s not actually what the study says.” And you were super kind about getting on zoom with me and going through it with me and helping me to refine my understanding and interpretation of what the paper actually said.

And that was really helpful. And I have taken measures to correct the misinformation I had put out at any opportunity. Since we’re here and having a conversation for the podcast, can you help me to publicly correct my error now by explaining for everybody what you explained to me?

[00:10:36] Jessica: As I recall, the paper didn’t find a particular gene associated with that. I think what it found was that, was a biological significance to it. So, some, one of the questions people would have when talking about processing sensitivity would be, is this just something that’s a hundred percent due to environment? Something happens to you when you’re very young and as a result, you have heightened processing sensitivity or is there a genetic root to it?

And we would certainly expect that if there was a genetic root there would also be environmental influence, but is there genetic root and my recollection is that the paper basically said, yeah, there is, they were able to find some heritability, some genetic root to it which is interesting and exciting, right?

It means that it’s something that we could breed down the risk of. Um, but that’s different from actually identifying which gene or probably multiple genes are in control of that risk level.

[00:11:33] Emily: So, I think that’s a type of overstatement that my profession is prone towards is oversimplifying genetics and saying there’s a gene for aggression or a gene for fear or a gene for, whatever. And what I’m learning from you and others is that there’s a whole constellation of genes that contribute.

I think Steven Lindsay was the one who termed the biological substrate, or maybe it wasn’t him who coined the term, but he at least used it. And I like thinking of it in that way, this like biological substrate, that it’s a lot more complicated than like, is there a gene or not?

Okay, let’s break down the term biological substrate. A substrate can be defined as the materials that make up a surface that organisms live on or interact with. For example, our most common substrates include hardwood floors, carpet, grass, concrete, asphalt, and dirt. Biological substrate refers to a substrate that is in itself composed of living organisms and is perhaps even an entire ecosystem unto itself.

Soil is a good example of a biological substrate because it’s made up of lots of living things. In the context of genetics and behavioral biology, biological substrate is a metaphor for how genes affect behavior. There isn’t a single gene that causes any given behavior. Instead, an entire constellation of genes create a kind of soil that creates ideal conditions for behavioral trait or tendency to occur.

I’m seeing that overstatement happening a lot as well, that like if a dog, had a bad experience with a man, then all of their children are going to be afraid of men type of thing. Can you speak to that over statement as well?

[00:13:21] Jessica: Yeah. So, epigenetics, I can’t blame the dog community for overstating it in a way because the popular press got so excited about some early epigenetic studies that showed some very cool things, but then the popular press just focused on this tiny little part of what epigenetics is, and that was all they wanted to talk about.

[00:13:42] Emily: Epigenetics is defined as the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code. A really oversimplified analogy would be to think of genes as having light switches and the environment can turn the light on or off. Of course, it’s more complex than that, but the general idea is that lived experience can change how the genes are expressed.

[00:14:09] Jessica: And so that’s all, anybody understands about it. I’m just trying to think how to give a good overview. So, what the popular press focuses on is that concept that a parent can pass down information to their offspring by this recoding, not of the actual letters of the DNA, but of information that sort of stuck onto the DNA and that the parent can pass that down to the offspring. And so, that if the parent has an experience, the offspring will behave as if they had that experience. And it’s something that we, it’s a very cool idea, and it’s also something that we all resonate with because we have these dogs who grow up, fearful and were like, where did it come from? Well, maybe mom had an experience that I wasn’t able to see, and she passed that on. Here’s one way of thinking about how very rare it is to pass on any information between generations in this way. Is that if you, if you think about it the DNA that gets passed from parent to child is a single cell. So, all of the information that would have to be passed on would have to be collapsed down into that single strand, double strand, but that single bit of DNA. And the way epigenetics works is it tells different cells how to behave. So, as you’re growing up and you have different experiences yeah, there is this encoding that gets put on top of your DNA and it tells certain cells in the brain how to behave and certain cells in the liver how to behave. The most important thing that it does is as your cells start dividing from, you know, where you start out being a single cell and then your two cells and then your four cells, and as cells start turning into brain cells and skin cells and liver cells, they all have the same DNA. So, they, how do they know which genes are the brain genes and which genes are the liver genes, epigenetics, like the most important thing of what epigenetics does is say, you’re this kind of cell. That is really the heart of the importance of it.

It’s a way that your cells encode information about the experiences that you’ve had throughout your life, so that as you’re growing up, your liver understands that you’re gonna be getting a lot of food or not very much food, and so that it knows how to be prepared to function for that. And your brain knows if you are living in a very scary environment or not very scary environment, and it knows how to be prepared, how to deal with that.

Does Information actually get passed from parent to child through that route? A tiny little bit? Yes. We have done some studies where we do see that happens. But for the most part, we know when it is time for the parent to hand their DNA to the child, there’s machinery in the cell that wipes all of the epigenetic information clean, and then after conception, it’s all wiped, clean. So, by default, we know that all of that information is cleared out and not passed on. We don’t actually know how some of it seems to manage to escape that because we have a few very exceptional cases where some information passed on, but it’s something we don’t understand very well yet.

We do understand quite well, some really cool things about epigenetics. There’s these really neat studies, Michael Meaney studies rats about mothering behavior, where we can see um, and he’s mapped out just beautifully, mother rats behavior towards the pups and how she licks and grooms them and allows them to nurse tightly correlates with specific gen genetic markers in a specific part of their brain, and that correlates with some specific machinery, how much of it is made. So, there’s the turning the gene on or off. It’s not an on, off switch, it’s a volume control. So, it can turn up the volume control on how much of this machinery is made. And that in turn that machinery interacts with the stress response and that interaction with the stress response affects pup’s behavior into adulthood. That is so cool. And that is one of the things that we know about epigenetics. I love epigenetics. I think it’s one of the neatest things and something I would love to have a job actually studying someday.

But the information passing from parent to child doesn’t tend to happen through epigenetics very often at all. It does happen in lots of other ways. The egg, and then the embryo, and the fetus is inside the mother. The placenta is actually a very active organ, so we of think of the placenta as just this thing that attaches the baby to the mom. But it’s actually very actively almost making decisions, to anthropomorphize a bit about, oh, here’s some information coming in the mother’s blood, it is information about nutrition.

It is actual nutrition. It is stress hormones, and it makes decisions about what it’s gonna filter and what it’s gonna pass through to the babies. So, all of that information then is coming from the mom and just being in the utuerus, baby is learning in air quotes, learning a lot about what kind of world to expect.

So, if you, if you have a mom who’s been going through a really scary, hard time, like she’s a stray and on the streets while she’s pregnant. That is a time period when her baby’s epigenetics probably are getting encoded. Not because they were passed through directly from mom, but because her placenta is allowing stress hormones through to say, “Hey, be prepared. It’s a very scary world. And so, as you’re growing set up these epigenetics to remind your body to be prepared for scary situations.” And that’s mom passes information on in her milk, she passes information on through her maternal behavior, there’s some really cool studies documenting that as I said in rats, but also in dogs. So,me interesting studies also about humans. All of that is setting epigenetic information. Other behavior, certainly puppies are able to learn just by watching their mother. So, There’s all kinds of ways that parents pass on information to their offspring, but epigenetics, we would call it transgenerational, epigenetics, where the DNA is set before conception, that is not a major one. It’s a very minor one, and one that I wouldn’t be that concerned about for a dog that I was owning or breeding.

[00:19:55] Emily: That is fascinating. And thank you so much for summarizing an incredibly complex topic for us in a way that was easy to understand, cause that is a gift that not everybody with your level of education has. Thank you for being a kind and clear educator. I so appreciate how you interact with my profession, because if more people in your position spoke with us the way you do, I think people would maybe be less defensive about getting feedback.

Thank you so much for all of that.

[00:20:28] Jessica: That’s very kind.

[00:20:28] Emily: It’s also true. So, I think this is where I’m leading us with these questions. This is an enrichment focused podcast, and this is where I really care about this stuff a lot. Is how our lay people understanding of genetics impacts how we view and implement enrichment.

And one of the things that I’ve been seeing that a little bit concerns me, I think concern is maybe too strong of a word, but I definitely want to make sure that we’re all moving in a right direction, it’s become trendy to talk about breed -specific enrichment.

And as you know, in our book we really place an emphasis on taking a descriptive approach to enrichment where we’re looking at the animal in front of us, figuring out what their needs are and working to meet their needs. And what I’m seeing coming from this belief about breed-specific enrichment is that it’s lending itself to a more prescriptive approach,

“Because I have a border collie, therefore I need to do treiball.” Or “Because I have a bulldog, therefore I need to play tug.” Where I’m seeing that be problematic is some of the trainers are implementing things that aren’t actually appropriate for the animal or meeting their needs because they have this belief like, because X breed therefore, Y enrichment.”

 As you are well aware because of the recent paper that you published and all of the hubbub surrounding it, people have really strong emotional attachments to their beliefs about breeds. And so, this is kind of a tricky subject to navigate. So, I would really love to hear you talk about the role that breed can and should play when considering an enrichment plan.

And what’s a more accurate way for behavior professionals to think about breed when they’re considering an enrichment plan, like how much does breed actually impact behavior in that way?

[00:22:14] Jessica: Yeah, that’s a great question. So, what we looked at in that paper was we asked people a specific set of questions about their dog’s behavior. And then we looked at how much, those questions differed by breed. We looked at a whole lot of other things as well, by the way which tend to get forgotten, but that was the, that was the big takeaway for a lot of people from the paper. We did not ask; I can’t think of any questions that we asked that were specific about enrichment. Some of them could be like we asked about whether the dog liked toys and liked retrieving things. So, yeah, so let’s use retrieving as a really great example then. I don’t remember what percent of Labrador retrievers came out.

So, so the question was basically true false, we make it a true false statement. So, the statement was along the lines of “my dog enjoys chasing after objects and picking them up in his mouth” or something like that. This is basically retrieving. Um, it may have had us a bit about bringing them back or it may not. And then people could say strongly agree, neither agree nor disagree, disagree, or strongly disagree. And so, we had this, zero to four, one to five ranking how much a dog’s behavior was described by that particular statement. I forget what percent of Labrador retrievers came out, strongly agree on liking to chase balls or liking to get in water was another one. And was high as you would expect, um, because we do expect Labrador retrievers to enjoy retrieving and enjoy getting in water, but it was not a hundred percent of them by any means. I wanna say it was for them, it was on the order of 80%.

And then, you know, there was some that the owners were sort ah, maybe, and somewhere they were like, not really. And some, it was like, no, my dog definitely doesn’t like this. And that was one of the strongest signals that we had for those kinds of enrichment questions of which, again, we had very few because the paper was not about enrichment.

So, what I took away from that was. Labrador retrievers are more likely to enjoy retrieving than other breeds. Certainly, other breeds, they have large percentages of dogs who enjoy retrieving as well. Including breeds that weren’t bred to retrieve like German shepherds but not a hundred percent of Labrador retrievers enjoy retrieving. And gosh, I guess you could go a lot of different ways with that.

I mean, you, you could try to argue that the people whose dogs didn’t enjoy retrieving, but they were labs, maybe the people just hadn’t tried hard enough or hadn’t done it right. The way I take it, and a lot of the rest of the paper, I think corroborates, this is that dogs are individuals.

We thought this was one of the, the biggest, most important pieces of information from the paper, was that dogs are individuals and just because there’s something that’s more common in a particular breed doesn’t mean that it’s going to be the case for your dog, even if your dog is a member of that breed.

The paper showed that while we are very, very good at, fixing morphology in breeds by which fixing, I mean that a hundred percent of the dogs in that breed are that way or within a particular set range. By morphology, you know, I mean shape, and size, and coat type, and coat color we’re very good at that.

Particularly the things that are controlled by very few genes like coat color, right? So, we’re very good at saying there’s only gonna be these coat colors or these coat lengths in this breed. And for the most part, that then will be true that, you know, you’re not gonna find a long-haired Labrador retriever, but when it comes to behavior, we are not capable probably no one as capable of entirely fixing behavioral traits within a breed.

And that is just due to the nature of the genetics of behavior, which is that first of all, there are a whole lot of genes that affect behavior. We have found very few of them in the human research. Um, the genes that we found affect very small percentages of the whole amount of variation in behavior, less than 1% per gene often, much less. And there’s actually, there’s an ongoing debate even about how many genes affect behavior, hundreds, thousands? There’s probably about 20,000 genes in, uh, dog and human DNA. I feel like I’ve even read an argument that sort of maybe all of them have some effect to some amount. So, there’s a really large number of genes.

So, fixing that genetically where each gene is set, with the allele in the direction that you want to go, increasing the particular behavior would be astronomically, difficult to begin with, but then behavior is also very much controlled by environment. It’s, environment is so complex. Um, I mean, I was talking earlier about how your environment starts at conception with your mother’s intrauterine environment and all the information that your mother gives you. Stuff that happens when you are in the nest with the other puppies. So, are you the smallest and you get bullied and you learned that it’s hard to get the food, because the bigger puppy is always shoving you out of the way? Or are you the big puppy and learning other things learning that all you need to do is, is try and you’ll get whatever you want?

[00:27:01] Emily: Alleles are different versions of the same gene that are found at the same place on the chromosome Alleles occur through mutation. So, for example, if a parrot species is typically green, but it has a mutation that makes certain individuals of that species blue or yellow, instead, that’s because there are alleles for green, blue, or yellow coloration of the feather.

[00:27:25] Jessica: There’s been fascinating studies in humans where they would look at identical twins. And you’d think a pair of identical twins living in the same household, so they share the genetics, they share the household that they’re living in, and so you would say, “Oh, they share the same environment, but they end up having somewhat different personalities.”

And if you know, any identical twins you’ll know that this is true, they can often have very different personalities. Turns out that you know, one of the big parts of your environment is the friends that you make. And identical twins may have different friends and that’s a big part of your environment. Um, and again, just like I said, puppies play off of each other. Identical twins can play off of each other and you know, one ends up being the confident one and the other one learns that the first one is gonna take care of them, and so that can affect their personalities.

All kinds of stuff. I had a fascinating experience in veterinary school, a friend who was pregnant with twins, I don’t remember whether they ended up being genetically identical or not, but she said she knew them apart, even in the uterus that one of them always moved towards the ultrasound probe, and one of them moved away from the ultrasound probe. She knew, which was which when they came out of birth order and that, that echoed their personalities going forward. So, their personalities were already developing in the uterus, and presumably partly as a response to this this environmental stimulus of the ultrasound probe, which maybe one of them felt differently cuz they were in different positions who knows?

So yeah, so environment is a very big deal as well, and that is definitely one of the reasons that we definitely cannot ever truly fix a behavior in a breed. We can certainly increase the uh, what geneticists like to call risk. If it’s a good thing that we don’t, you know, you, you don’t always call it a risk, but that we can increase the likelihood that a dog will like something particularly like retrieving.

And we have successfully done that in, in breeds. But that doesn’t mean that all dogs are going to, so I hundred percent agree that it makes sense to look at the dog in front of you. Describe what I assume, what you mean by descriptive is you’re looking at what the dog actually enjoys and provide them with that. If you have a dog that you don’t know well, or if there’s something that you haven’t tried, so if you had a purebred, Labrador retriever, and for some reason, you’d never tried throwing a ball for them, you might use your knowledge of the breed to try it and see if they liked it. If they don’t like it, I’d move on.

[00:29:55] Emily: That’s exactly what we are trying to get people to, to pay attention to is instead of just thinking, because lab ergo fetch see what the dog is offering, and then yes, try things based on what you know about the breed. So, you brought something up that I wanna kind of circle back to, and that is morphology and how it can sometimes be easier to breed for, or not sometimes it just is easier to breed for morphology than for behavior. What do you feel about the resurgence lately of this idea that you can predict behavior based on morphology?

[00:30:30] Jessica: I had missed that there was a resurgence of that from my perspective, that sort of always been going on, do you wanna tell me a little bit about what you’re seeing? Cause I’m curious.

[00:30:37] Emily: It’s kind of becoming popular this idea that like you can measure a dog’s skull and then predict their behavior based on the size of their skull or how, how big their head is relative to their body or just things like that. And so, I was curious to hear your take on that.

[00:30:53] Jessica: Yeah, I had entirely missed that that was going on. So, I have seen no evidence that you can measure the size of someone’s skull and predict their behavior. That is something people used to like to do with humans about a hundred years ago or a bit more. But it’s been discredited. Certainly, there is the fact that we are able to fix morphology and breeds a bit more, and so there’s correlations, right? So, a dog with a head of a particular shape, let me do that from the other direction, actually. A dog of a particular breed is both likely to have ahead of a particular shape and likely to have particular behavior. Again, not for sure, but there would be a correlation there between the behavior and the head shape, but that correlation is due to the breed. It’s not due the head shape, controlling the behavior, if that makes sense.

I like to explain it, sometimes about how, when I would be walking my dog Dash in the woods when he was younger and fresher, he would run away and I wouldn’t see him for a couple minutes, but he had a GPS collar, and so after he’d been gone for a, a certain amount of time, I would reach for my pocket to turn on the GPS, to see where he was. And inevitably, just as I was reaching for my pocket, he would come back. So, the correlation is between me reaching for my pocket and the dog coming back. That doesn’t mean that me reaching for my pocket caused the dog to come back.

But there is a real causative relationship there, and the causative relationship is how long he’s been gone. He tended to only stay gone for a certain amount of time. I tended to only tolerate a certain amount of time before I reach for my pocket. So, when you’re looking at two things that are correlated like that, it can be really interesting to ask, is there a third thing that is the actual causation that is controlling both of those two?

So, in the case of something like head shape and behavior, I would argue that in a lot of cases, there is this third thing which is breed, which is correlated both with head shape and with particular, you know, elevated risks or likelihoods of particular behaviors. And that, that’s what you’re seeing in a mixed breed dog, I would think that’s just out the window. In a mixed breed dog, I wouldn’t expect head shape to correlate with behavior very much at all. And again, I would just refer people to the scientific literature that has not shown any correlation there that I’m aware of.

If certainly if someone knows of a paper let me know. There, there was one interesting paper, a couple years back where they looked at the shape and size of different brain regions in dogs of different breeds. And they found that there were shape and size of brain regions in dogs of different breeds. However, those dogs, again, because they were different breeds had different skull shapes and the shape of your skull very much affects the shape of your brain. Um, you can look at radiographs or MRIs of dogs with very flat faces compared to dogs with very long faces, and you can see that the shape of what the brain fits into changes, and that is gonna change how your brain grows into and what shape it grows into. And so, that again is what I would. say those differences were probably explained by.

[00:33:57] Emily: Yeah, that’s really interesting, and also it just sounds like another instance of overstatement, right? Like, this is what we’re, as lay people trying to understand the research that we are learning from, we can confuse things. Thank you for that clarification. It’s really interesting.

[00:34:14] Jessica: Can I say something about overstatement actually, which is that as I’ve been teaching. So, I’ve been teaching this class at Virginia Tech. It’s actually, so it’s people who wanna get a master’s degree in animal behavior and welfare, it’s a great program. I teach a class about behavioral biology.

So, I talk about all this kind of stuff. And one of the things that I hear from my student. That I wasn’t really prepared for is they keep saying, “Wait, we don’t understand this?” So, I’ll be explaining something and I’ll, say, “So, here’s what we know, and here’s what we don’t know. What we don’t know is huge.” And people and their students are just constantly coming back with I thought this was understood. I thought we knew exactly the effects that testosterone had on behavior. I thought that we knew exactly the effects that genetics had on this particular trait. And they’re just very surprised. To learn the nebulousness of science, of how there’s, the way scientific studies work is that we learn these very specific pieces of information based on how the study was designed. And as scientists we can’t extrapolate that much wider, and so the world of scientific knowledge is these pieces of information, which then they start to come together and we start to be able to make larger conclusions, but there’s large areas, very particularly of behavioral biology, of understanding the biology of behavior. Behavior’s hard and there’s large chunks of it where we just don’t know. And I think that is something that, that science education, at least in the US but I think probably in a lot of other countries, doesn’t do a good job of preparing people for the unknowns.

You go through high school science, and it is very much, we know this, and we know this, and we know this and a lot of oversimplification so that you can really, be able to clearly answer questions on your multiple-choice test about genetics, But it’s not so good at, we don’t really know, we have some idea, there’s some link between testosterone and aggression. What does it actually mean? Can you, neuter a dog and decrease its aggression? Um, probably not. That seems surprising why? Uh, well We have some ideas, but we don’t really know. Um, just all of, of that, big cloudy, murky like, uh, we kind of, but we don’t really, people aren’t taught that about science and, but that’s the reality of where we are.

[00:36:29] Emily: Thank you for bringing that up. I super agree with that, and it’s really understandable, right? Because we want cer, certainty is comforting, right? Being able to say this is definitely the case, it’s just a very comforting position. And it’s why uh, pseudoscience is so attractive. One of the defining differences between science and pseudoscience is that science has academic humility, and it’s conservative, and limited in its claims, whereas pseudoscience tends to make these broad generalizations. And that’s really attractive to us because we find comfort in that certainty, being able to say, neutering dogs makes them less aggressive because testosterone makes dogs aggressive. That there’s, it’s an easy thing to understand, and then there’s something very easy that you can do about it. And so, it’s really alluring. And I think that what you just said is really important and we need to keep saying it over and over again is science is not about having absolute answers. Science is about asking more questions. And that’s maybe less comforting, but it’s also more honest and accurate.

And I appreciate you helping us to understand that and remind us of that.

Okay. So, the most popular question from Pro Campus, we already talked about a little bit but I think there’s a little bit of a different spin on what they were asking. And also by the time this airs it, this will be a few months old.

It’s probably old news by the time people get this, but right now uh, your paper just recently came out. It’s still fresh. There’s a whole lot of conversation around it. So, people in Pro Campus and the Mentorship Program wanted to know what are the main takeaways from that paper that we behave professionals need to know, think about and incorporate into our practice.

[00:38:14] Jessica: Yeah. I mean, well, as you said, we’ve been talking a lot about how dogs are individuals and to me that’s really what it is that when someone comes to you and says, I have a dog of this particular breed with this particular problem, you’re gonna be starting to set your expectations about the dog based on the breed before you meet the dog.

And I think that’s reasonable, honestly. You’re gonna sort of have this broad idea of this aggression is more likely to be territorial or it’s more likely to be resource guarding, or it’s more likely to be fear based. But you have to not decide before you meet the dog. You have to really look at the dog and you have to try to, to, to keep, um, your assumptions based on the breed fluid and such that you can change them when you actually meet the dog. There’s, there’s been a lot of press coverage that has said that breed has no influence on dog behavior, and I firmly believe that’s not what the paper says.

It does show that breed has a larger influence on behavior than sex or age or size. It definitely, the influence that breed has on behavior varies by the particular trait that you look at, and so for some traits, it was up to 25% of the variability was based on breed and for some traits the breed didn’t have any effect at all. Those numbers are not surprising for someone who studies the genetics of behavior. That lot of people go into this sort of thinking that breed is gonna be a really massive effect on behavior. But pretty much, nothing is a really massive effect on behavior. You could say that environment is a massive effect on behavior, but I’ve said so many times that environment is actually lots of little things and that we shouldn’t think of it as just a single thing. Behavior is an incredibly complex, no one thing has a overwhelming effect on it.

For something to have even a sort of 25% of, of variation is pretty impressive actually. But just remember how complex behavior is, how many things affect it and how every dog really is an individual. We’re not just saying that it’s really true yeah.

[00:40:10] Emily: All right, so I have a few questions that I ask everybody at the end. So, we’re going to launch into those now. What is one thing you wish people knew about this topic, your profession, or enrichment your choice?

[00:40:22] Jessica: I mean, we’ve covered the two big things that I would say.

The whole idea that epigenetics is passed on trans-generationally. It bugs me, I’m not sure how important it is. Like how much of a, an effect it has on how someone manages their dog. But it’s, it’s a really strong belief in the dog community and I’ve been sort of trying to get the word out there.

It’s, you know, it’s like peeing in the ocean, but, uh, we talked about that a lot. And then the other one is that. Dogs are individuals. That’s probably much more important that people really understand that and that they can’t judge a dog entirely based on its breed. But we’ve talked a lot about that as well. I think we have it covered.

[00:41:03] Emily: Next question. What is one thing you’d love to see improved in your field?

[00:41:07] Jessica: So, let me define my field first. and I will say that my field right now is working through the Functional Dog Collaborative working with, helping people breed dogs to better fit into the homes or the jobs that they’re placed into with obviously an emphasis on pet dog homes, because that’s where there’s a real crying need right now. And I think there’s so many places, so many ways that can change. I was at a summit recently with a lot of people in animal welfare, talking about how most people get their dogs, and we realized that there’s the two ways that, people have been historically told is the right way to get a dog.

And one is from shelters, and one is from a very competent qualified breeder. And right now, it has become incredibly difficult for the average person or even the dog geek to identify which breeders are really good breeders. And we realized at this conference that there’s this massive, we started referring to it as the black hole because we feel like we have no information about it, of people buying dogs off the internet. And, um, there are some very good breeders on the internet and there are high volume, low animal welfare breeders who are straight up actively lying about the kinds of conditions that they keep their dogs in, how much socialization they’re doing with their puppies, whether they’re health testing and it can be really hard for the average person to tell them apart. So, that’s one thing I’d like to see change.

And the other part of that is that those really good breeders who are doing a great job, there are not enough of them to provide the replacements for the dogs who die of natural causes every year or unnatural causes. So, if you look at, there’s about 80 million dogs in the us right now, sorry for this to be US centric, but it’s where I have the numbers for. And roughly 10% of them die a year. If you assume a dog lives about 10 years. And in order to keep that number stable, although the number is slowly growing, um, in order to keep that number even stable, there need to be 8 million puppies born into, into, to, born or, or imported into the country every year. And there are to my mind, there’s certainly not enough puppies being born in shelters. There’s puppies that are born elsewhere and move through shelters, but there’s not enough being born in shelters to, to provide those replacements nor should there be. And there’s also, I don’t believe that there’s anywhere near enough really competent, good humane breeders, doing a great job of thinking about genetics, which is important. In early socialization, which is important. And finding the right home, which is important. Telling people no, and sending them to a different breed if you know their particular dogs, aren’t gonna be a good fit, also important. There are not enough of those people, and so how can we make more? And we happen to have a lot of social structures in place that make it very challenging for people to move into that role. And actually particularly people of color, BIPOC have, there’s a lot of barriers for them to move into that role as well. So, it’s, we’re sort of in this tangle where we really want to produce a large number of good dogs that make good pets every year. And is set up to make that hard. So, that is what I would really like to see change. Hope I can help be a part of that change, um, but there’s a lot of other smart minds thinking about this too, so I’m hopeful. We’ll figure it out

[00:44:36] Emily: I love that. I think it’s a really important message. I have the privilege of having both come from a background of working with a lot of breeders and also having spent 30 plus years in shelters and rescue. The more far more common scenario within animal welfare is people are either in the breeding circle or they’re in the shelter circle, and there’s, fewer people who have the kind of overlap that I do. And I think one of the things that’s hard for the people on the shelter side, the people on the shelter side, just see overpopulation and abandonment. And so, it’s really easy to adopt that don’t breed or buy while others die rhetoric.

And I think what’s hard for them to understand is that ethical, responsible breeders actually would help alleviate that population because those breeders have a contract with the people who adopt their puppies. That if at any point you can’t keep the dog, you bring the dog back to me. And so,, those breeders are acting as their own rescue group, and if there were more of those breeders out there and fewer dogs being bred and puppy mills or on the street, in the back in backyards or whatever, it would also help the shelter population because there would be more dogs who, first of all, wouldn’t be rehomed as easily because there’s been more thought and care put into placement, but secondly would be going back to the breeder instead of ending up in the shelter.

You know, it’s a really complicated, multifaceted issue and I understand both sides of it and the pain that both sides experience, but really the best solution is working together in that balance between responsible breeding and responsible sheltering. It’s not as cut and dried as adopt don’t shop.


[00:46:19] Jessica: No, I totally agree. I totally agree. And a lot of the, a lot of the pain that people are feeling in shelters right now, I think is from long stay dogs. And so, you have, shelters that are full, but a large part, the reason it’s hard to move through the dogs that are moving through is that there’s a lot of these longer stay dogs that are very hard to adopt out because of behavioral problems.

And, you know, we talked about at the beginning of this podcast interview that about how my perspective has changed as I’ve been of feeling my way through. And I feel like I’ve been moving back to a more and more place for keeping dogs out of shelters. So, to me right now, the best way to keep a dog out of a shelter is to give it good genetics, a good early start, and those two things together mean that even if it ends up in the wrong home, and even if the breeder doesn’t take it back and it ends up in a shelter, it’ll be a good, solid, resilient dog that will be easy to place. And I love this idea of shelters being places for just help dogs find new homes and for dogs to not be hard to place, not get stuck there, but the shelter to, to facilitate them moving from one home to another. That’s what they should be.

[00:47:21] Emily: And I think that’s, what we can work towards. Yeah. I love that. Thank you. All right. The next question is, what do you love about what you do?

[00:47:29] Jessica: I love learning things. So, I love learning about genetics, but I also love right now interacting with so many fantastic breeders and learning about what they do, how hard it is to produce a really solid litter of puppies, and all the work that they go through to do it. I’ve also been having a lot of fascinating conversations, you just mentioned how it’s important for the animal welfare side, the sheltering side and the breeder side to work together. And so, some of the work that I’ve been doing lately has been trying to build bridges there and learning about what’s going on in animal sheltering. How different it is now from when I did my shelter med as an internship 10 years ago. What’s, what’s happening in the shelters as they respond to COVID and the, all the changes in, in the world with difficulties in the supply chain, the veterinary shortage, people being out of work, people going back to work, all of that, and how that affects fluidity of shelter populations, the length of stay, um, all that kind of stuff is fascinating.

So that’s what I love about what I do.

[00:48:34] Emily: I love that about what you do too. That’s awesome. So, what are you currently working on? If people want to work more with or learn from you, where can they find you?

[00:48:42] Jessica: Yeah. So, two places if you want to get on my mailing list for when I do webinars and things like that, go to dogzombie.com and there’s a mailing list sign up there. That is the best way to follow me personally, if you’re interested in all this stuff that I’ve been talking about, making dogs better and building bridges, you know, making a new kind of dog breeding culture. The Functional Dog Collaborative is the place to go for that. So, there’s a website, functionalbreeding.org, and that will point you to all the other stuff. There’s a lot of stuff on the website actually for a lot of content there, but you can also go to the Facebook groups. The website will point you there. It’s a big Facebook group, very active there’s a lot going on. So, come check that out. And then I am struggling to get the podcast going again. So, there’s, I would say there’s about 20 episodes of The Functional Breeding Podcast, again, the Functional Breeding website will point you there. Some great stuff in the past, I had a concussion was, had trouble doing those kinds of computery things. Um, Since I’ve been coming back from that, I have one new podcast episode and I’m right now in the middle of scheduling, recording for the next episode, but it’s gonna be a group conversation. And so, getting everybody on the same page has been taking a couple minutes, but um, that is where I would recommend people go to find out more about me.

[00:50:02] Emily: Excellent.

All right. Thank you so much for joining me today. This has been a fascinating and informative conversation, and I really appreciate the work you do and how you show up for both your profession and mine. So, I really appreciate you joining us today. Thanks so much.

[00:50:18] Jessica: Thank you. It was really fun to talk with you and thank you for having me on.

[00:50:21] Allie: I love the turn this episode went into talking about animal homelessness and overpopulation, which is the animal welfare issue that brought me into this field in the first place. And I love that Jessica is trying to bridge the gap between shelters and responsible breeders, and I’m just so excited to see where her work continues to go from here. Next week we’ll be talking about breed typical enrichment.

Thank you for listening. You can find us at petharmonytraining.com and @petharmonytraining on Facebook and Instagram, and also @petharmonypro on Instagram for those of you who are behavioral professionals. As always links to everything we discussed in this episode are in the show notes and a reminder to please rate, review and subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts a special thank you to Ellen Yoakum for editing this episode, our intro music is from Penguin Music on Pixabay.


Thank you for listening and happy training.

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