Your Next Dog
Well, you've found great treats. But are you looking for a dog to feed them to, as well? If you're considering growing your family by another dog or puppy, we want to share with you a great new resource for dog lovers that connects them with ethical, responsible sources for their next companion. We're excited to reveal that below, but first want to emphasize why we feel this is so important. Where you get your next dog can be critical to not only maximizing your individual experience as an owner, but also the future welfare of dogs more generally. How is it possible your decision has such impact? We all know that long-lived, behaviorally and physically healthy dogs love life and are a joy for their owners. In contrast, witnessing the suffering of a beloved pet enduring severe behavioral or health-related issues, or losing a pet to a tragically early death, can number among the most painful experiences of our lives. It's also generally accepted that healthy, happy parents are more likely to produce healthy, happy puppies, and that people without the quality of dogs or knowledge to care for and breed responsibly should not be making puppies.
But within the last century or so, animal behavior, veterinary, and genetic science have made great inroads into a more complete understanding of exactly how we maximize the chances that individual dogs live their best lives, and that the next generation is primed for optimal quality of life. We've discussed in previous posts how young puppies go through what is known as a "sensitive" or "critical" period in which their adult temperament and behavior is extremely malleable. They are particularly vulnerable to making enduring negative associations, to the extent that bad experiences (or even just a lack of positive socialization to peoples, places, and things) can lead to varying degrees of fear, anxiety, and even aggression that impacts the rest of their lives. We've also discussed in previous posts science-based approaches to behavior modification and dog training so that all dogs - whether or not they benefitted from an ideal upbringing - can learn healthy habits, states of mind, and behaviors. But less well known and not yet covered in our blog is the fact that a dog's temperament, looks, health, and quality of life are in no small part determined (or at least predisposed to turn out a certain way) long before that individual puppy is born. And we mean long. As in, potentially several ancestors ago. To understand why, we'll need to veer a bit into a new(-ish) field of genetic research called "epigenetics".
Consider the two mice pictured here. One mouse is much larger and almost orange in color (likely not a great survival strategy for a wild mouse that must hide from predators). The extreme differences do not end there: compared to the smaller brown mouse on the right, the orange mouse actually has a significantly higher predisposition towards cancer, obesity, and diabetes. The shocking thing is that, despite their differences, these two mice are in fact genetically identical, and they have been raised in the exact same way, in the exact same environment. They are, literally, clones of one another. The only thing different about them is what their mother ate while pregnant. (For more on this fascinating experiment, see https://www.nytimes.com/2003/10/07/science/a-pregnant-mother-s-diet-may-turn-the-genes-around.html. The research paper itself can be found here: https://mcb.asm.org/content/23/15/5293.) Especially within the last two decades, researchers are beginning to understand that factors like nutrition and experience (especially those early in life) can modify how DNA is expressed in individuals, and furthermore that these modifications can even be passed down by that individual to not just the next, but multiple successive generations. It was previously thought that genetic change took centuries of evolution. That's still technically true: actually changing DNA itself seems to require evolution. But changing how DNA is actually expressed can prove just as impactful as a changing that DNA itself.
Here are some other discoveries that will give you an idea of just how critical exactly how a dog or other animal's ancestors lived is in determining the lives of its descendants:
It has been demonstrated in humans, mice, and even worms that early life experiences of food abundance or starvation prime subsequent multiple generations to experience food in ways that predispose them to unhealthy habits and even disease.
Enrichment of a mother dog's diet with DHA (an omega-3 component frequently lacking in modern human and domesticated dog diets) before and during pregnancy generates significant differences in the perceived intelligence and trainability of her puppies.
In utero stress has been demonstrated in humans and other animals to negatively influence how well offspring cope with stress after birth - and for the rest of their lives.
Both genetic and environmental factors contribute to the onset of hip dysplasia and osteoarthritis in dogs, making everything from whether or not a puppy descends from dysplastic ancestors, to if traction in their whelping environment supported healthy joint development as newborn puppies, matter in the incidence of this debilitating disease.
Increasing degrees of inbreeding in dogs has been shown to increase the likelihood of genetic disease and to reduce life expectancy by as much as years according to some estimates.
DNA testing can allow for the eradication of certain debilitating genetic disease in as little as a one to two generations (depending on the complexity of inheritance and degree of heritability).
The kinds of pro- and pre-biotics provided to mother dogs and neonates can enhance the immune response and immunological functioning of those newborn puppies for years, and potentially the rest of their lives.
Male mice conditioned to associate electric shock with a particular stimulus produced offspring for multiple subsequent generations born afraid of that same stimulus - despite never having met their father or experienced electric shock themselves. You read that right: they were literally born afraid.
The quality and quantity of maternal care has been demonstrated in multiple species (humans, chimpanzees, dogs, etc.) to impact stress tolerance and coping, prosocial behavior, and even fear and aggression.
The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behaviorists has stated that the number one killer of dogs under three years of age is not infectious disease, but rather euthanasia due to behavioral issues that could be greatly mitigated or prevented by early positive socialization and training (https://avsab.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Puppy_Socialization_Position_Statement_Download_-_10-3-14.pdf)
A key consequence of all of this is that how we obtain our dogs matters. Every single dog deserves to be born and raised under circumstances that optimize his or her chances for longevity, health, happiness, behavioral soundness, and overall quality of life. One of the best ways we can support dogs is to seek out and support responsible producers of dogs. The very best dog breeders are aware of all of the above determinants of individual puppy welfare, and of how their care for each successive generation of dogs has lasting impact. They making breeding decisions informed by health testing and nutrition, and raise puppies with early socialization, training, and total wellness programs like Puppy Culture and Avidog. They select behaviorally and physically healthy sires and dams, and care for them in ways that minimize stress, enhance nutrition, and enrich their lives with positive experiences and training to ensure optimized genetic transmission to the next generation. And the very best shelters and rescues do their best to provide age-appropriate, science-based training, environmental enrichment, nutrition, and re-homing strategies for the puppies and adult dogs they take in.
If all dog owners get their next companion from only these responsible sources, the number of dogs that end up needing rescuing or sheltering will decrease. After all, dogs with minimized health and behavioral issues (and their associated emotional and financial costs) are much less likely to ever end up requiring rescue or the services of a shelter. Those that do for unavoidable circumstances will then benefit from superior rehabilitation and rehoming services because each individual dog can receive a much greater percentage of the finite resources, time, and energy of shelter personnel. Hopefully we've sold you on why where you get your next dog is important, but you may be feeling overwhelmed by the knowledge, time, and effort required to find the perfect place. Without further ado, we encourage you to take a look at http://www.gooddog.com/ as one easy resource in informing your decisions about how to vet breeders and rescues/shelters, and as a potential listing.
Founded by the vets, scientists, academics, trainers, breeders, rescue workers, and other experts behind Avidog, Good Dog strives to educate dog owners on best practices and connect them with responsible breeders, shelters, and rescues. While Good Dog endeavors to verify the practices and knowledge of the people and organizations featured in their program, you can also get a good idea of key criteria to prioritize from their educational materials in your own searches - even if the breeder or shelter is not yet Good Dog listed. Keep in mind that while you still should verify that best practices are in fact being carried out by even Good Dog-listed sources, this is a great way to feel reassured that you are doing your best to not only maximize the chances that you and your next dog will enjoy your life together, but also that you have contributed in no small way to the enhancement of canine welfare overall.