The Well-tempered Drahthaar
Updated: Aug 19, 2020
Especially here in the USA, hunters increasingly require a dog with both hunting prowess for the field, and the inclination towards pro-social behavior for the home or town. Perhaps in no small part due to the Drahthaar's legendary hyper-focus on hunting and the energy they command to facilitate that pursuit, Drahthaar may be passed over for allegedly "easier" or "softer" dogs. We have even heard it suggested that the breed is "tough" or "sharp".
This can be a controversial topic. It seems to us this matter cannot be definitively settled without a rigorous, well-designed study of a random and sufficiently large sample of the Drahthaar population. Until such scientific data are available, opinions will understandably vary, rendering arguing fruitless as there is no chance of definitive proof. What is known is that an individual within any dog breed can exhibit traits humans dislike, for example, "aggression". Estimates vary on exactly how heritable the trait or traits that contribute to aggressive behavior are (heritability refers to the degree to which genetics explains the variation in a trait seen in a given population), and the vast majority of cases suggest that aggressive behavioral tendencies are a combination of "nature and nurture" (i.e., both genetics and experience/environment). If DNA was the ultimate determinant of temperament, we would expect to see dogs with similar DNA sharing largely the same behavioral traits. However, littermates mature into a variety of temperaments despite their genetic similarities (although they do not have the exact same DNA). This suggests that their experiences and environment act as a filter for what traits are ultimately expressed from the possibilities inherent in their genetic makeup, a phenomenon known as epigenetics. Epigenetics refers to changes in organisms - be it behavior, looks, etc. - due to modification of how genes are expressed, rather than alterations in their genetic code itself.
Researchers have also shown that selecting for a single trait alone (such as tameness) seems to result in quite a bit of variation and change in other traits (such as conformation). Perhaps the most famous example is Belyaev's foxes, successive generations of which did prove increasingly "tame" and affable towards humans, but also developed floppy ears, piebald coats, and other changes.(1) Given that dog breeding - whether governed by natural selection or human intervention - seems to have focused on selecting out combinations of multiple different traits (causing the domesticated dog to exhibit the most phenotypic variation among mammals)(2), it seems to us unlikely that any breed has much of a history of being systematically, rigorously selected for solely one single temperament trait at all. Perhaps most illustrative is a look at the lesser known "aggressive" Belyaev's foxes. The experiments did not only selected out for tameness; a separate group was selected out solely for aggressive behavior. Again, conformational traits have noticeably been largely forgotten; these foxes do not look like their ancestors at all. (And if you think you're looking at a good degree of fear here rather than "aggression", I think you're probably right):
While we have our own (hopefully educated) opinions on the above topics, below we briefly summarize some of the strategies we leverage to maximize pro-social tendencies and behavioral wellness in our Deutsch Drahthaar, from choosing sires and dams to raising puppies and training adults.
Sensitive (or critical) period early socialization and training
The first 8-12 weeks of a puppy's life have been shown to be critical in
determining temperament. Of course a dog's behavior can change later in life,
and behavior modification interventions can and have been successful in adults. But puppies go through stages of development where they are so sensitive to what they learn from their early experiences that it greatly shapes their behavior later in life. Very young puppies are particularly vulnerable to making powerful and enduring negative associations based on their experiences. Additionally, puppies remain in a state for what seems to be the first few months to year of their lives (and sometimes even beyond) in which expressions of fear or discomfort are likely to be more muted or subtle compared to adult dogs, making puppies appear deceptively "okay with everything". The resulting false sense of security that deliberate socialization and other conditioning are unnecessary threatens a dog's behavioral wellness, and thus quality of life.
Thus Ca' Rigada puppies undergo the Puppy Culture protocols, including ENS ("Super Dog" program), early house and crate training, and steps to ward off sound sensitivity, resource guarding (RG), and separation anxiety (SA). We feel a key element to this approach is the awareness that socialization is not just exposure; it is positive exposure. To learn more about this powerful program, see the website, books, and films: https://shoppuppyculture.com/pages/puppy-culture-1
Above is a photo of a newly minted custom-order anti-RG feeding station for use with our next litters, which is just one of the ways we endeavor to prevent resource guarding of food. (It also ensures the smaller or less-pushy pups - and their future owners - can feel secure they will receive the food they need to thrive.) Similar to how puppies begin eating with their mother (each has an individual milk source), this feeding station provides easy access for each individual puppy to their own portion of food while minimizing the potential for stress or conflict. The behavior of guarding food and other valuable resources is thought to be a natural one - all animals exhibit different degrees of stress and inclination to prioritize securing access to resources. While this food trait may have been encouraged through natural selection until now, it is typically maladaptive for modern dogs with human providers. It can even be a life-safety issue in severe cases that result in a bite to a human - particularly a child - depending on applicable law. Additionally, moderate to severe RG can be a chronic source of stress in a dog's life, especially if it occurs daily or multiple times a day. A bite isn't necessarily required; dogs may be feeling uncomfortable and anxious about possession of their food every time they eat. These kinds of chronic stressors are physically and mentally draining - to humans and dogs - and warrant targeted preventive measures. The less a puppy feels it lives in a resource-scarce environment in which it must defend its access to valuable resources to survive and thrive, the less resource guarding we anticipate it to exhibit later in life.
Adult dog maintenance of socialization and training
Dogs, like humans, never stop learning. They are continually updating how they feel about what they encounter (e.g., strangers, men, children, loud noises, other dogs, etc.). Socialization - again, defined as positive exposure - must be deliberately carried out for the entirety of a dog's life. In particular, traumatic experiences may still serve as single trial learning events that forever alter behavior for the worse (such as an attack or fight with another dog). Equally impactful and more pernicious might be the gradual accumulation of negative experiences, resulting in an often allegedly "unexpected" or "sudden" behavioral change. These can be hard for even experienced owners to detect in the moment. Take a young puppy who attends the dog park and is frequently bowled over by larger dogs roughhousing. As a pup, their reaction may be to yelp, or to run away. But they may also seem to simply "bounce back" or endure it, sometimes to the owners' delight as they feel they have a "tough dog". These experiences, if perceived by an individual puppy as painful, intimidating, frightening, or uncomfortable, seem to add up. It is not uncommon in our experience to see dogs that previously "were totally fine" with rambunctious larger dogs escalate to displays such as growling, barking, and biting to re-gain a sense of safety and peace when older. (Some have observed this can coincide with physical maturity, and the attendant teeth and physical stature that allow mature dogs to create outcomes they were not confident or physically capable to cause earlier in life.) Similar scenarios are seen in homes that have recently welcomed a newborn. Sometimes, all is well until the dog "suddenly" seems uncomfortable once the baby becomes a mobile infant and is crawling towards their crate or food bowl. Or in homes where two dogs that have had underlying tension are now biting or fighting. In these cases of consistent low-grade, chronic stress, it seems reasonable to think that maybe the dogs were never really "okay", and their behavior change may not be sudden at all. They just have finally been pushed to their limit, and no one noticed their ongoing discomfort until it was overt. (And unfortunately, more time-consuming, costly, and difficult to resolve with behavior modification than it would have been to prevent in the first place).
One recent study in particular has been of great interest to breeders and dog professionals. While previously it was thought that genetic change was a slow, evolutionary process carried out across generations, mounting evidence suggests that particularly salient learning experiences can in fact impact the very next generation. This is not just epigenetics determining an outcome in a single individual (where the genetic code remains the same, but what is ultimately expressed of it changes); in this case, the epigenetic refinement to the code is somehow preserved and passed along. For example, in their 2013 paper in Nature Neuroscience, Dias and Ressler (Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta, Georgia, USA) showed that male mice who were electrically shocked after exposure to a certain scent actually passed on the resulting fearful association to their offspring.(3) To be clear, the pups in the F1 and F2 litters were literally born afraid of this scent, without having to associate the shock to the scent in advance for themselves. As they state, "Our findings provide a framework for addressing how environmental information may be inherited transgenerationally at behavioral, neuroanatomical and epigenetic levels." Read this important paper here: https://www.nature.com/articles/nn.3594
Maternal environment and experience
Research in humans (as well as other animals more frequently studied than canids) has made it increasingly clear that a pregnant female's experiences and physiological and mental states impact her puppies' development well before they are born. A 2013 study found that pups from mice lacking a protective enzyme that mitigates the effects of cortisol exhibited reduced fetal growth and developed associated mood disorders later in life (cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal system to assist the body in coping with stress in the short term, but which can be debilitating if present frequently or for prolonged periods).(4) Pre-natal stress is also thought to act through epigenetic mechanisms in dictating what genes are ultimately expressed.(5) While a wary, reactive, anxious human or dog may very well have been better suited to survive in what their mother's biology communicated to them was a threatening environment, always being physiologically primed for fight or flight can be maladaptive for modern life (and even debilitating if severe).
Based on the two above, we confess we even get a little superstitious and ensure our adult dogs - including our pregnant females - continue to hunt or otherwise exercise their olfactory and hunting-related skills as often as their comfort, safety, and condition allow. Our dogs do not just complete their exams; they continue to hunt on a regular basis even as we transition to allocating more training time to upcoming breeding prospects. Simone is in the field every day, regardless of weather or whether or not he can actually harvest what the dogs find. This is because he feels there is a marked difference between a true hunting dog, and a dog whose hunting experience has largely been in the service of maximizing points at trial. In general, we make every effort to minimize acute as well as chronic, low-grade stress for the lifetime of all our dogs - in everything from our interactions with them and in their training, down to their environment.
(1) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dmitry_Belyayev_(zoologist) For an interesting read and alternative take based on successive research, see https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/03/science/foxes-tame-belyaev.html
(2) Cruz, F., Vilà, C., Webster, MT. "The legacy of domestication: accumulation of deleterious mutations in the dog genome" in Molecular Biology and Evolution (2008) 25(11): 2331-2336. doi:10.1093/molbev/msn177
(3) Dias, B., Ressler, K. Parental olfactory experience influences behavior and neural structure in subsequent generations. Nature Neuroscience 17, 89–96 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/nn.3594
(4) British Neuroscience Association. "Fetal exposure to excessive stress hormones in the womb linked to adult mood disorders." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 7 April 2013. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/04/130407090835.htm.
(5) L. Cao-Lei, S.R. de Rooij, S. King, S.G. Matthews, G.A.S. Metz, T.J. Roseboom, M. Szyf,
"Prenatal stress and epigenetics" in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews (2017) ISSN 0149-7634, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.05.016.