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Genetics and behaviour

As a dog trainer, you meet a whole range of people and dogs, you meet the ones who look for a ‘quick fix’ and the ones who have somehow ended up with a near ‘perfect’ dog despite openly admitting they’ve made mistakes or have put no real thought into their dogs training or socialisation. And then you meet the ones who perhaps affect us the most, those people who have been dedicated to working with their dog, committed to their training and despite their best efforts, they still have a dog with ‘issues’.

When you meet these people, they’re often blaming themselves for their dogs’ struggles, especially if they’ve had the dog since it was a puppy. They blame themselves for not socialising it properly or somehow failing their dog. Sure, we all make some mistakes, but in these cases the behaviour of the dog is often beyond any mistakes they may have made.

In some cases, it’s clear that the dog simply isn’t in the right home. A working-bred Labrador owned by an elderly couple, a nervy German Shepherd in a family home with endless visitors, or a puppy rescued off the streets in Romania now living in Central London.

Whether it’s a clear mis-match of dog and home, or a well-researched and prepared owner whose dog is struggling with life, what they likely have in common is the optimistic assumption that they can mould their dog to fit perfectly into their life.

“Raise a puppy right and it will fit into any lifestyle and environment because puppies are blank slates” … unfortunately that isn’t true and the best socialisation and training can’t counter the fact that a puppy IS NOT a blank slate.

As with all things in dog behaviour though, it’s complicated. There will be examples of people who have managed to transform their dog and overcome challenges but that doesn’t mean it’s always possible.

The Genetics

Firstly, puppies are not blank slates. It doesn’t matter how ‘well-bred’ they are, they are all born with existing traits.

Behavioural characteristics can be inherited, this is why we have bred dogs for specific purposes for thousands of years and why some dogs are naturally good at certain things. Sheepdogs naturally herd and gundogs naturally retrieve or hunt.

Dogs bred within those lines will likely be good at those things, but that doesn’t mean every collie or every retriever will naturally have those skills because it all depends on the genetic line they are bred from.

A dog’s genetic background has a huge impact on who he is and what skills he naturally has. This will impact things like how friendly or reserved he is with people, how much he enjoys social situations, how active he is, how easily startled he is or how ‘bombproof’ he may be.

What’s not influenced by their genetics will be greatly influenced by their experiences in the first (approximately) 16 weeks of life … this can be looked at in two broad categories:

  • Temperament – purely genetic and predetermined BEFORE the dog is born. This makes up a large part of a dog’s identity

  • Personality – this involves every learning experience that has affected the dog AFTER it’s born. This makes up a large part too, but perhaps slightly less than the temperament. The first 16 weeks or so of life are really crucial in forming personality

All dogs have the ability to learn throughout life, regardless of their temperament and personality so it’s perfectly possible to ‘change’ a dogs’ behaviour, but you must also accept that you’re working within limitations and that may mean it’s near impossible to teach your dog something if it goes against their temperament and personality.

Socialisation and early learning can influence traits but they can only operate on a pre-existing genetic blueprint, meaning you will always be working within some limitations. Some dogs may be more adaptable and have more room for learning but others will have a relatively limited ability to learn.

Ultimately, you can modify what you have but you CANNOT create the dog of your dreams from a blank slate. This is why it’s so essential to make sure you’re choosing a dog with the temperament and personality to suit your life and expectations from your dog.

Breed will have an impact because different traits will be stronger in different breeds, but this is by no means a guarantee. Ultimately what matters most is the individual breeding line. You can have an easy-going, sociable Labrador or a more nervous, reserved Labrador, they’re the same breed but if they come from different genetic lines then their individual traits can be wildly different.

Environmental Matters

While genetics play a strong role in the development of behaviour, the environment will also have a considerable impact for many dogs. You could have two puppies from the same litter who will develop very differently based on their experiences in life. Equally, you could have two puppies from the same litter, growing up in the same environment, who will develop different traits.

We can’t always know why certain traits will develop or what will be influencing them most. Some dogs may be more influenced by their environment, certain genes may be activated or inactivated by environmental influences and this leads to different behavioural traits developing.

All you can do is be prepared. Say you choose a German Shepherd puppy from working lines, these dogs are bred for drive, they want to work and they need an outlet for their natural skills. An owner who has chosen a puppy specifically for these traits will likely work hard to ensure the puppy has good, positive socialisation, suitable outlets for their drive and watches for early signs of issues developing. An unprepared owner may have picked a puppy because it’s available and it’s cute, they’re unaware of the traits the puppy is bred for and they don’t watch for the early signs of issues, they expect the puppy to fit into their lifestyle and assume it will all work out.

A few months down the line, the first puppy is thriving, maybe there’s been a few challenges but they’ve been quickly dealt with and plans are in place to keep the puppy’s confidence growing and keep stress levels low. However, the second puppy is now barking at anyone who comes close, tearing the house to pieces and lives in a high state of stress.

These puppies will have similar genetics but their environments and experiences have impacted which genes are activated and to what extent. Both puppies are pre-disposed to nervous traits and high energy levels, but the prepared owner has seen the early signs and worked to build confidence and channel the energy appropriately, leading to a low-stress puppy who can respond positively to fear. The other owner wasn’t expecting this and the nervous traits have been enhanced, the excess energy isn’t being used appropriately and the dog is therefore living in a higher state of stress.

Both dogs likely had the same potential but their different experiences have impacted how their genetic traits have developed…

Why does all this matter?

We probably all want the perfect dog, the dog who will fit into our lives, get on with it and cause little trouble. For some people, this is absolutely essential, for example if you have a specific purpose in mind, perhaps an assistance dog, or if you have a less conventional lifestyle which requires your dog to cope in a variety of situations, or even if you live in a busy city or have a busy family life. These are often times when your dog needs to be more ‘bombproof’.

If you NEED a dog who will fit into a specific lifestyle or purpose then you need to be more careful about choosing your dog. Going for a puppy because it’s available or it looks cute and assuming you’ll be able to make it work, will probably end badly.

  • Go to a good breeder. Check they’re breeding the traits you want

  • Make sure you see a range of other dogs and puppies from the same breeding line, this will give you a good idea of how yours will develop too

  • Check what initial socialisation they’ve been doing. Those early weeks are crucial so they should have made a good start with positive exposure

  • Be clear about what you need from your dog and make sure the breeder is on-board too. If they have doubts then it’s probably not the right puppy for you.

Other people might be more flexible, they may be more prepared to adapt their life to fit their dog. Having a dog who doesn’t enjoy social situations or who doesn’t cope with change may not be an issue and something that’s easy to live with. If you’re willing to be more flexible and adapt your life to fit your dog then you may not need to be so specific. It’s still sensible to choose a good breeder but you may be in a better position to choose a puppy or adult dog and commit to enjoying your dog for who they are, the good and the bad!

Is it my fault?

One of the biggest things to remember is to not blame yourself if your dog doesn’t turn out how you expect. Many people try to do everything right, they socialise their puppy, they train their puppy and yet at some point down the line they hit some problems. It’s natural to assume you did something wrong or you missed something and caused the problem, but in reality it may simply be who your dog is.

Feeling guilty and blaming yourself often makes it harder to see beyond the problem and work effectively with your dog. Likewise, telling yourself repeatedly that you CAN make your dog fit into what you need can be very detrimental. It can be such a relief to know that it’s not your fault and, while it’s often quite upsetting to realise your dog may never be what you dreamt of, it’s the first step to accepting their limitations and setting them up for a happier future, even if that means you need to adapt your own expectations.

When you meet dogs with problems like extreme fears or extreme resource guarding, owners will often think it’s their fault. Some will have been told it’s their fault and that they’ve caused the problem, and if this comes from a ‘professional’ then naturally you take it as the truth.

Sometimes these challenges don’t appear until the dog is older, so because it wasn’t an issue when they were a puppy, it looks even more like a problem you’ve caused. However, as puppies grow and mature, different traits will develop and some of these genetic traits may not appear until later on, say at 5, 6 or 12 months, or even later on that than. There could be some learning in there which has pushed the trait to appear but most likely it was always there and it would always come out to some extent.

Dog behaviour is always changing, you can’t base an observation of one dog on something from another, which means every case is individual and specific. Some dogs may develop behaviours purely based on learning and experience, while others will develop them based purely on genetics, and for many it will be a combination of the two.

To enjoy your life with your dog, you need to learn to accept your dogs’ temperament and personality, know what they can or can’t cope with and be willing to adapt accordingly. Training and behaviour modification will always be beneficial but it doesn’t mean you can change your dog into something he’s not, so commit to the training but be realistic with your goals and expectations.

And most of all, never blame yourself, even if you might be slightly to blame, it’s never helpful to focus on that!

“All dogs have their own personalities and behavioural tendencies. We can their build confidence, teach skills to cope with stress, train alternative behaviours, and strengthen their bond and trust with their owners, but we can’t change who they are. Work on the things you can change but accept you are working within a pre-existing genetic blueprint and that may require some lifelong management and different expectations for your dog.”

Written by Naomi White

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