Pet Connection by Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

Know Your Dog

Before choosing a breed, research its historical purpose and decide whether you’re prepared to live with its associated behaviors

By Kim Campbell Thornton

Andrews McMeel Syndication

The dog trainer received a phone call from a couple wanting to hire her to help train their new 9-week-old German shorthaired pointer. “You must like those high-energy hunting dogs,” she commented as they spoke.

“No; why do you say that?” the man replied.

She learned that he had chosen the breed because he’d always thought they looked nice, and he wanted a dog to hang out with. The couple didn’t realize that their highly active puppy would grow up to be a highly active dog. They were prepared to walk the dog around the block, not go running or hunting with him.

As human lifestyles have changed, from hunting mammoths and gathering roots and berries to pushing a cart through the supermarket, it’s easy to assume that our dogs have evolved right along with us to have a more relaxed lifestyle. In fact, the brains of different breeds have evolved differently depending on the traits for which they were bred, according to a study (”Significant Neuroanatomical Variation Among Domestic Dog Breeds”) published earlier this month in the Journal of Neuroscience.

That’s right. Now there’s science behind the advice to consider working heritage before choosing a breed.

Researchers looked at brain scans of 62 pet dogs representing 33 breeds. Their findings established that brain anatomy varies significantly in dogs, likely in response to human selection for particular behaviors. “Through selective breeding, humans have significantly altered the brains of different lineages of domestic dogs in different ways,” the researchers write.

Those differences in brain anatomy aren’t simply linked to the dogs’ body sizes or head shapes. Their neural networks are actually different, based on the traits selected for in particular breeds. For instance, breeds that tend to have cognitively complex jobs such as herding or police work have larger prefrontal cortexes, the area of the brain involved with planning and decision-making.

In an interview with Jill Radsken of The Harvard Gazette, lead author Erin Hecht, Ph.D., assistant professor of evolutionary biology at Harvard, said she and her collaborators could see that breed differences weren’t randomly distributed, but were focused in certain parts of the brain. They identified six networks of the brain where anatomy correlated with types of processing important for different breeds: reward; olfaction; eye movement; social action and higher cognition; fear and anxiety; and scent processing and vision.

The finding? Dogs have multiple types of intelligence that suit them for specific types of work, such as retrieving, herding, seeking out scents, guarding and, yes, companionship. They aren’t born knowing how to round up sheep or retrieve pheasants or sit in a lap, but they do have a propensity to learn those behaviors.

So if you’re thinking about a Dalmatian, for instance, know that they were bred to run behind carriages for long distances.

German shorthaired pointer: bred to seek out and retrieve all types of prey in rough terrain.

Border collie: bred to run miles daily and control challenging livestock.

Siberian husky: bred to pull sleds with endurance and speed in snowy, icy conditions.

Beagle: bred to hunt rabbits over hill and dale.

Jack Russell terrier: bred to chase and dig out prey.

Rottweiler: bred to drive cattle to market and pull carts for butchers.

Miniature poodle: bred to be a circus dog or truffle hunter.

Papillon: bred to be companions, but with the highly active nature of their spaniel ancestors.

Greyhound: bred to sprint after and bring down prey.

Labrador retriever: bred to retrieve bird after bird, all day, every day.

Chihuahuas: bred as companions and ratters.

You get the picture. Do your research and choose wisely.


Sink the stink!

Reduce urine odor

Q: Ugh! Why does my cat’s litter box stink? -- via email

A: We hear you! Poop can be removed with a scooper, and so can a certain amount of urine if you use litter that absorbs liquid and forms a clump, but the pungent reek of ammonia can still remain until the litter is changed or the box itself is cleaned.

No one likes the smell of ammonia, which has a characteristic odor best described as “decaying fish.” As urine decomposes, ammonia is the primary compound released by odorant molecules.

Urea, the primary component of urine, is odorless, but as it goes through bacterial decomposition, an enzyme called urease forms and converts urea into ammonia. Cat urine tends to contain a higher amount of urea than the urine of other animals, including dogs and humans.

Another chemical compound that contributes to the scent of cat urine is felinine, a urinary amino acid. Like urea, it has no odor -- until it starts to degrade. Then it releases sulfur compounds, known as thiols, that cause a sour odor.

Other factors include the cat’s age and sex. Older cats typically have less efficient kidneys, and that can contribute to extra-stinky urine. Male cats also produce urine with an especially offensive odor, thanks to the presence of testosterone. They also have higher levels of felinine in their urine.

Cats have a highly developed sense of smell. If they stop using the litter box, it may well be because they find the stink as offensive as you do. To keep odor down, scoop every time you see that your cat has used the box, dump old litter after two weeks and replace it with new -- after you’ve cleaned the box with warm water and a mild, unscented soap. You’ll both be happier. -- Dr. Marty Becker and Mikkel Becker

Do you have a pet question? Send it to or visit


Frenchie aids 49ers

emotional health

-- Zoe, a 1-year-old French bulldog, has become the NFL’s first emotional support dog. Acquired by Austin Moss, the team’s director of player engagement, she hangs out with players and helps them relax, especially if they’ve had a rough day. She’s good for their mental health, players say. That’s especially true for Solomon Thomas, who experienced depression after his sister died by suicide last year. Spot Zoe on Instagram (@the49ersfrenchie), where she already has 2,467 followers.

-- Heads up! Did you know that cats’ heads come in three basic shapes? They are typically round, such as on Persians, exotics, Himalayans and British shorthairs; square or rectangular, as seen in Maine coons and Norwegian forest cats; and triangular, such as Abyssinians, Siamese, Bengals and Cornish Rex. Most random-bred cats tend to have more of a triangular, or wedge-shaped, head.

-- Meet the Xoloitzcuintli (say “show-low-eats-queent-lee”). This hairless dog from Mexico dates to pre-Columbian times and is characterized by a barenaked body; large, erect ears; and a wrinkled brow. A coated variety has short, smooth hair. The Xolo, as he’s known for short, comes in three sizes: toy (9 to 18 pounds), miniature (13 to 22 pounds) and standard (20 to 31 pounds). The exotic, clever dog gives all his love to family members, presenting strangers with an aloof demeanor. To keep their skin in good condition, Xolos must be bathed weekly and moisturized regularly. Sunscreen is a must when they’re outdoors. Coated Xolos need weekly brushing. The best thing about a Xolo? Because there’s no hair to insulate you from his warm skin, he serves as a living hot water bottle on cold nights. Just remember that if you’re bundling up because it’s cold -- indoors or out -- you’ll need to keep him warm, as well, with a cozy coat or sweater.

-- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker


Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet care experts headed by “The Dr. Oz Show” veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker, founder of the Fear Free organization and author of many best-selling pet care books, and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. Joining them is behavior consultant and lead animal trainer for Fear Free Pets Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.