Nature vs Nurture in Dog Behaviour

A study was published back in May that weighed in on the nature-vs-nurture debate. The researchers reviewed 50 years worth of twin studies and determined that who you are is basically 50-50. 50% environment, 50% genes.

This was a human study, not a dog study, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume that a similar outcome would be true of dogs. In fact, I might venture to say, with a, “I am not a scientist and basically am just making this up,” disclaimer, that with dogs, personality is even more reliant on genes, since dog breeds have been specifically bred for certain behaviours (border collies for herding, terriers for rat killing, etc), whereas humans don’t generally choose their mate based on whether they have a certain skill set…

And yet there’s this very common, “It’s all in how they’re raised,” mantra that you hear everywhere. I see it on Facebook next to photos of friendly Staffies licking their owner to death, and I hear it in person from well-intentioned bystanders who praise my Rottie for being so friendly, citing her as proof that it really is all in how you raise them.

But, if personality is at least 50-50, of course it’s not really all in how they’re raised. And this doesn’t even account for the fact that I didn’t even own Betsy for the first 9 weeks of her life, a very formative time for a young puppy (there’s probably a whole other blog post worth of research on the topic of a puppy’s first few weeks and its relationship with its mother and how it affects the rest of their life…).

The fact that genes play a very important part in personality isn’t any surprise to science. A simple google search will bring up studies about breeding a fearful line of pointers. (interesting aside: During my research, one of the articles I read talked about pointer puppies from a fearful mom being raised by a confident mom… and yet the puppies still ended up fearful. The puppies from the confident mom were give to the fearful mom, and THEY ended up fearful too! Geeze.)

Even without the studies, there’s lots of anecdotal evidence showing that it can’t all be how a dog is raised. Thousands of dogs that have been either neglected and poorly socialized, or straight-up abused, are rescued, re-homed, and adjust surprisingly well considering their background. And there are also dogs that were raised, “perfectly,” and yet still problems arise.

I’m not saying that this means proper socialization is pointless. 50-50 means that proper socialization IS STILL VERY IMPORTANT. It’s just not the whole story, and proper socialization will not be enough for a genetically unsound dog.

I’m also not saying that it’s pointless to try and help a dog with issues. I think that while a genetically fearful dog will never be a 100% confident one, with good training and management, (with some exceptions, I’m sure some dogs are just so very damaged, just like some humans are very very damaged, that this won’t work for them) that it will be able to improve and live a better life because of it.

There is a plethora of blog posts by others out there on this topic, some by professional dog trainers with their own stories, as well as a few scientific studies of interest, so I’m going to link them here if you want to read more. They are all worth reading:

So why am I bringing this up? Mostly because I think it’s a hurtful attitude to have. Imagine being someone who did, “everything right,” with their puppy and yet their dog still develops aggressive behaviours! The shame in knowing that strangers blame, “The human at the other end of the leash,” isn’t fair to these people.

Also, I think it’s important to keep in mind if you’re considering buying a puppy. Don’t think you can get a breed of dog known to be pre-disposed to dog aggression and, “raise it right and everything will be fine.” Everything might be fine, but it’s not all in how they’re raised 😉 If it’s important that you get a very friendly dog, then buy a breed known for its friendliness. Unfortunately, this still doesn’t guarantee a friendly dog, but it sure improves your chances!

So if you find yourself judging a dog owner who is obviously struggling with an aggressive dog, don’t jump to conclusions. I mean sure, it’s possible they’ve done a bad job or haven’t been seeking professional help when it became evident that they needed it… but it’s also fully possible that they are a GREAT owner who loves their dog and is doing everything they can to help it. You have no idea what the story is there!

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