Is there such a thing as a ‘one person’ dog? And if there is, how did the social canine become so solitary?
DO you hear people talking about Labs being family dogs whereas Spitzes are one-person dogs? I’ve been wondering for a long time now how true this is, and this week I did some reading.
Finding out which breeds are described as one-person dogs is a challenge all by itself. If you look about on the chat forums, the list is formidable. Some dogs described this way include the Akita, Bernese Mountain Dog, Chow Chow, Dalmatian, Doberman, Entlebucher, Great Pyrenees, Greater Swiss, Jindo, Kai, Spitz, German Shepherd, Pug, and Shiba Inu.
Frankly, the list seems very off to me. I know a Bernese Mountain Dog breeder back home in Spain and all her dogs are family pets. I would have said these dogs are so relaxed as to be horizontal.
The same goes for the German Shepherds, Dobermans, Dalmatians, Entlebucher, Great Pyrenees, Greater Swiss – all of them family dogs I played with regularly when I was a child. In fact, I remember sleeping in a basket with a Great Pyrenees when I was about five or six years old, which may explain a lot to some people.
So I turned to the breeder books to see what their take is. A search of The British Kennel Club dog breed manual reveals only three dogs described as one-person dogs: the Akita, Chow Chow and the Skye terrier.
What’s interesting is that there is no discussion whatsoever what this one-person dog means. You won’t find anyone saying that owners can’t board their Akita, Chow Chow and the Skye terriers when they go on holiday. Also, there are adult dogs up for adoption in shelters, so clearly they can switch homes.
As we’re talking about pets, my mind was irresistibly drawn to guinea pigs who are often one-person pets. Stories of only guinea pigs who refuse to eat and die when their owners go on holiday are not uncommon, which is why enthusiasts recommend you have two, not one.
Apart from the lack of caveats, I have a problem believing the one-person label for dogs because their wild cousins are by nature social.
African wild dog packs consist of a mum and dad, various offspring and close kin like aunts and uncles. If a neighbouring pack has a disaster, African wild dogs will adopt orphan pups, making them even more like a human family.
Dingoes, grey wolves, jackals and coyotes live in looser family structures. Packs consist of a pair, along with one or two sets of offspring. When pups mature, they set off and found their own packs.
Packs living in the same area can be a bit touchy about territory but they share water. There are also reports of neighbouring packs co-operating on hunting expeditions – but how common that is, and how closely related the packs are is hotly debated.
So wild dogs are definitely social, however; as we’re talking pet dogs here, it’s possible that human interference has bred out this natural trait. It’s possible, but it just doesn’t seem very likely for two reasons.
First, what would be the point? It would be a pain to have a dog that only listened to one person. Even the toughest working dogs, like the army and rescue canines, need to listen to others when their handlers become ill, retire or are injured or killed.
Second, it would be very difficult to do. For one thing, how would you breed for it? You can’t select for “one-person” as you might for height or fur colour because the concept is a complex one. You’d have to define what it is, find out root causes, and then try and select for it. It would be awfully difficult and the literature doesn’t show any attempts to do so.
So I was thinking, I don’t believe in the one-person dog breed per se but I know a Poodle and a Doberman whose worlds revolve around their “dads” and there’s a couple of mixed breed pets near us who live for their “mums”.
So what do they have in common? When I think of a one-person dog, my mind goes to dogs who spend all their time with one human. Like Dobermans who have a job in security, Collies who work with farmers and Pugs who live with old people who don’t get out very much.
Such dogs are a bit stand-offish with people in general, because they aren’t used to socialising. This makes sense because the Poodle, Doberman and mixed pets I think of as one-person dogs spend all day, every day, with their human family. They are pleasant and polite when I talk to them, but there’s no doubt about it, their heart belongs to their human.
What’s more, you could say exactly the same about people who live in isolated conditions. I don’t know any lighthouse keepers, but academics who work in esoteric fields, rangers, and farmers I’ve met definitely fall into the category. With the few people they know well, they are open and communicative but they’re often uncomfortable socialising in general.
As the Akita, Chow Chow and Skye terrier were originally hunting and livestock guarding dogs from remote regions, living closely with just a few people, I’m betting this is how they got their label.
Now I’m curious about turning the idea around: do you think there’s such a thing as a one-dog person?
Dog loves camera
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This month’s winners