IT’S NOT “ALL IN HOW YOU RAISE THEM”: THE ROLE OF GENETICS IN BEHAVIOR
If you’re a dog owner, I’m sure you’ve heard this refrain.
Conventional wisdom says that young puppies come to us as blank slates. Full of promise and limitless potential, ready to be molded into your ideal companion as long as you do your part – provide lots of love, the right amount of discipline, and appropriate training along the way. If you’re a caring, responsible pet owner, there’s no reason that your puppy should not grow up to be a model canine citizen.
“Bad” dogs are the fault of bad owners, right? After all, it’s all in how you raise them.
As always, in the world of behavior – it’s not quite that simple.
There are few myths in the field of dog training that get under my skin quite as much as this one. Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen so many kind, committed owners with deeply troubled dogs break down in tears during a behavior consultation, certain that they have done something to cause their dog’s crippling anxiety or aggression issues. After all, they’ve had him since he was a puppy – so clearly, something must have been lacking in his upbringing.
Or perhaps it’s the countless number of fundamentally mismatched dog/owner pairings that every veterinarian and trainer sees on a regular basis. The gentle elderly couple, with the adolescent field-bred Lab. The busy young professionals with three children under the age of five, with the spooky English Mastiff who doesn’t like kids. Or even the lovely middle-aged woman who wants to do therapy work in a local nursing home, with her aloof and introverted Chow.
What all of these situations have in common, at their core, is a lack of understanding combined with an unfortunate and excessive sense of optimism – an unshakeable faith in the notion that any dog can be molded into the perfect pet for the owner’s particular lifestyle, as long as they’re “raised right.” That every eight-week-old puppy is a formless mass of behavioral clay, ready to be imprinted with whatever characteristics and personality traits are most convenient for their living situation and the wishes of their new family.
Unfortunately for all involved in the examples above, this is utterly and emphatically not true.
But wait, you might say! What about socialization and training? Can’t we influence our puppies’ adult characteristics through exposure to the things we want them to be comfortable with? Can’t we teach them early on how we want them to behave, thus preventing any problems later on?
In other words, a perfectly socialized and well-trained puppy should be a foolproof bet to turn out the way we want – right?
Well… the answer, as they say, is complicated.
Don’t get me wrong – socialization and early learning are very powerful things. (See my previous posts on these topics here and here for a more complete discussion of how they influence puppy development, if you’re interested.) There is a lot we can do to set our puppies up for success, and also to address possible problems or behavioral red flags early on. This is the “nurture” side of the nature-and-nurture paradigm, and it’s incredibly important – but it’s only half of the equation.
So what does nature have to say?
We all know intuitively that behavioral characteristics can be inherited. After all, this basic notion is the reason for thousands of years of selective breeding in the dog world – it’s why we’ve been able to develop specific lines of dogs who are consistently driven to retrieve things, herd sheep, guard our homes, or track rabbits without any formal training at all. Why, then, does it surprise us that other types of behavioral tendencies can also be passed from parents to offspring?
The truth is, your dog’s genetic background plays a tremendous (and often under-valued) role not only in what inborn skills he might have, but in who he is – whether he is friendly or reserved with strangers, tolerant of other pets or not, a high-drive athlete or a snuggly couch potato, easily startled by loud noises or relatively “bombproof.”
Since the 1940s, studies in canine behavioral genetics have consistently shown that traits such as fearfulness, impulsive, problem-solving ability, working drive, and even tendencies toward aggression are strongly influenced by breeding. Socialization and early learning can certainly help to sway things in one direction or another, but these forces are operating on a pre-existing genetic blueprint.
Is behavior moldable? Of course it is – to a point. You can only modify what you already have, not create the dog of your choosing from scratch. So if you have specific goals for your pup or need a dog with a certain personality type, it pays to make sure that you’re getting a temperament you can live with!
Please note that none of this should be taken as a defense of breed-specific stereotyping or discrimination, on the theory that certain breeds are bound to be aggressive or otherwise “bad.” There is a tremendous amount of genetic variability within every breed – so much so that it’s not possible to make any reliable predictions about behavior based solely on breed identification. It’s much more valuable to look specifically at the parents and littermates of a particular puppy, or at a certain line of dogs within a breed.
So, what can we do with this knowledge?
If you have specific personality traits that you need in a dog, don’t choose a puppy based on looks or a cheap purchase price and assume that you can “make it work” – this rarely goes well, in my experience.
Instead, I would strongly encourage you to look into getting a puppy from an excellent breeder, with a good track record of producing dogs with the traits that you want – this is your very best chance of ending up with a dog that will be a good fit for you and your family. Many owners need a dog that is reliably gentle and tolerant with kids, or with low prey drive because of smaller pets in the home, or easygoing and low-energy because they are elderly or disabled. Getting an adult dog from a trusted source who knows the dog well (such as a breeder, or a good rescue group) can also be a great option.
This kind of predictability may not be important for all owners – which is fine! Many of my clients don’t have any specific plans or goals for their dog, and their lifestyle is flexible enough that a wide range of personality types would fit into their household with no problems. If this describes you, then you could absolutely open your home to a puppy or older dog with an unknown background and see where life takes the two of you. There are many such dogs who desperately need homes, and the relationship that you have with a dog like this can be extremely special.
By the same token – if you are thinking about breeding your dog, or if you already have an active breeding program, please carefully consider temperament in your breeding decisions! Most good breeders know this already and are very selective about which dogs they choose to breed, but this idea can be surprising to many owners who are new to the process and aren’t aware that personality traits can be inherited. Excessively fearful or aggressive dogs should not be bred – period. These issues should be taken as seriously as hereditary physical problems like hip dysplasia or degenerative myelopathy, as they are every bit as devastating for both the puppy and his/her new family.
And finally, if you have a pup from an uncertain background (or a known, not-so-great background) who is struggling with a behavior problem despite your best efforts, don’t beat yourself up! For many of my clients, it comes as a relief to know that they have done nothing wrong – the misplaced guilt that comes with having a much-loved dog who is also severely aggressive or fearful of everything can be crushing.
It helps to understand that you can only play the hand you’re dealt; all dogs come with their own personalities and behavioral tendencies, for better or worse. We can do a lot to help these dogs live safer, happier lives with training and careful management – we can build their confidence, teach them better coping skills to handle stress, and strengthen their bond with their owners – but we can’t change who they are. And usually, that’s okay.
So if you have a dog like this, to paraphrase the famous Serenity Prayer – I would encourage you to work on the things you can change, and accept the things you can’t.
The trick is learning to know the difference.