Some dogs have to deal with a “ruff” reputation based entirely on what breed they are – or just look like. Bully breeds, Rottweilers and Chow Chows are a few that sometimes get called out as aggressive, dangerous or problematic based entirely on their looks, before they ever show signs of a snarl.
In my personal experience, every dog is different. Sure, they can display some breed characteristics like herding instincts, but really every dog has a very unique personality. That old adage about not judging a book by its cover definitely applies to dogs. I’ve had multiple dachshunds over the years and really the only thing they have had in common is liking to burrow under the covers to sleep. Personality wise, one was extremely dominant, another submissive, another goofy and playful, and another stoic and reserved.
As a photographer who works with multiple dogs weekly, I can tell you there are both myths and truths floating around about dog behavior, and that both genetic and non-genetic factors influence a dog’s temperament and appearance. Let’s look at what animal aspects are more likely to be due to genetics and what’s envrionmental.
The Doggy Debate –What behaviors do dogs learn and which are they born with?
A dog’s personality or temperament isn’t completely fixed at birth – but some doggy aspects are strongly influenced by genetics. For example, hip dysplasia is understood to be hereditary, but one study noted that Labrador puppies who were fed 25% less had a dramatically lower incidence of hip dysplasia. This is what I mean by the difference between “nature” (genetic influence) and “nurture” (environmental influence) and how they also work together.
As far as temperament, science tells us that genetics do play a role in dog behavior but they don’t entirely dictate daily behavioral traits. Every dog is an individual with individual experiences, so assuming each dog will have the traits of their parents or their breed isn’t as accurate as you might think. The following are some common misconceptions that I see shared a lot, and some information debunking why they just aren’t true about our favorite Fidos:
Common Misconceptions About Nature and Nurture
Misconception: Puppies and young dogs are a “blank slate.”
Babies of any species, including humans, are not a blank slate. Maternal stressors like abuse, trauma, and homelessness can have an impact on the puppies before they are even born. If you watch a new litter, you’ll quickly begin to see individual aspects of personality in each puppy. Some are born underweight, nervous, and skittish while others are more or less vocal – although this could be due to genetics or one pup not getting enough dinner. Remember each being is unique and comes with its own quirks and wonders.
Several years ago, I fostered two stray puppy littermates that I rescued off the side of the road. I had them from the age of about 3 months until they were adopted at around 1 year old. Both dogs had identical experiences in my home - meaning lots of good food, attention, love, snuggles, and playtime - but both dogs had grown into extremely different personalities. One was fearful and shy of new people and places his whole life and the other was outgoing and adventurous.
Misconception: You can know some dogs will be aggressive simply because of their breed.
Every day dogs prove to us that their breed doesn’t live up to their stereotype. Some dogs historically bred for protection welcome every stranger into their home, and some dogs of a breed known to be gentle can become unpredictable and snappish based on socialization and past experiences. It's important to understand the needs of your dog's genetics to help them do their best in life. So, a high-energy, highly intelligent dog that is bored is likely going to find a not-so-great way to occupy itself unless you give them something to occupy them. However, too many dogs have been maligned and passed over in shelters because of negative stereotypes created by the media that have no basis in fact. This is a great opportunity to look at senior dogs. With adopting an older dog, you will more likely have a history, and be better informed as to the personality type of the pet you are adopting.
As a shelter volunteer, most of the dogs I see discarded are young shepherds, huskies, or Malinois. These are all working breeds that require a lot of attention and mental stimulation.
The best thing is to do your research about particular dog breeds you are interested in and see if they match up with your lifestyle.
Misconception: A good dog is always a good dog.
We all have bad days— car problems, bad weather, oversleeping, and missing your alarm going off. “Good” dogs can have bad days, too, which is why it is important for dog parents to take the time to learn about canine body language.
Just as we humans can’t really know how we’ll react in a crisis, we can’t be sure how our dogs will react if they are injured or frightened.
I once had an experience where a sweet, mild-mannered dog suddenly freaked out while on a leashed walk. What happened? They got stung by a bee. I never saw the bee but after calming the dog down and doing a physical exam, I found the swollen bee sting. Unplanned experiences happen all the time. I am especially conscious of this when I get back home from a camping trip, knowing that I’m exhausted means my dogs are exhausted too. I try to keep our home as calm and quiet as possible until we’re all recovered and in better moods.
So where does a doggy’s nature end and nurture begin?
We’d love to say it’s easy to tell, but the fact is, a dog’s personality can be extremely complex. It certainly helps – and is fun – to research your dog’s breed background, for insight into their behavior and possible natural strengths. Some of those strengths – for example, the historically quick mind of a Border Collie or Belgian Malinois – will mean you have a responsibility to be prepared to provide extra mental stimulation and physical activity to meet those “natural” needs. If your Malinois mix grows up to be a gentle goof instead – at least they’ll be a well-trained goof instead of a bored, destructive Einstein!
We should give every dog the very best opportunity to be happy through good nutrition, thoughtful socialization, and learning opportunities that keep their minds engaged. Every dog deserves help in learning to navigate what humans expect of them – no matter what breed they happen to be – or just look like.
Are you dealing with a behavior challenge with your dog, or need help understanding what your dog is trying to tell you? A friend and local petpreneur can help! Pawsitive Relations based in Sugar Land, TX specializes in understanding your pet’s behavior and helps with training.