Nature vs. nurture in dogs?


You've probably heard it before, "it's not about their breed, it's all about how you raise them." And the people saying this are probably defending a specific breed they feel has gotten an unfair reputation for being problematic. They mean well. And they'll likely point out some lovely dogs they've known as evidence.

But they are wrong.

Yes, "how you raise them" matters a great deal. You can’t name a breed that hasn't bitten someone or gotten in serious fights with other dogs. I've even known aggressive Golden Retrievers. Fear is one of the easiest things to install in a dog and it's one of the hardest things to resolve. And dogs who are afraid are more likely to bite than those who are not. Getting puppies off to a good start is incredibly important. Teaching dogs that strangers (humans or other dogs) are good things is key. Training without the use of pain, fear, or intimidation reduces the probability of aggression cases.

"Regardless of breed, all dogs are capable of showing aggression if they feel threatened. Some will react faster, some slower; some reactions will be just a warning signal, other reactions will be life threatening for the victim." [Dog Bites, A Multidisciplinary Perspective, Mills and Westgarth, 2017] 

But breed choices make a big difference too.

Different breeds have different behavior traits. Sure, they are all individuals. But normally functioning Jack Russell Terriers can be expected to be active, curious, brave, little dog dogs who are intolerant of what they perceive as rude behavior. Those traits have been bred into them over many many generations by conscientious breeders. American Pitbull Terriers have been bred to be dog aggressive (a trait which often doesn't show up until the dog is about three years old). Give consideration before getting either of these breeds - they might not be right for families with kids (JRT), other dogs (APBT), or with guinea pigs or other small animals (JRT). Are there individual examples of these breeds doing fine with other dogs and small critters? Sure, you'll find examples. Proper socialization as puppies can certainly help and should be provided. But these traits have been carefully selected for hundreds or even thousands of generations.

This is true for every established breed.

One look at the American Kennel Club's breed descriptions shows a lot of "code words" for behavior traits (dare I say, "personality types?") that people might find problematic. It pays to read between the lines. Some examples:

  • Chow Chow: "Dignified, serious-minded, and aloof, the Chow Chow is a breed of unique delights"

    • Translation: not expected to be playful or necessarily friendly with strangers (dogs or humans)

  • Akita: "famous for her dignity, courage, and loyalty"

    • Translation: not afraid to tell off people outside the family

  • German Shorthaired Pointer: enthusiastic gundog of all trades who thrives on vigorous exercise, positive training, and a lot of love

    • Translation: if you don't tire out this dog with a job, they'll be holy terrors

  • Kuvasz: "bred to guard livestock, and he is a natural guardian and will protect family, house, and property"

    • Translation: make sure your insurance covers the dog biting the UPS driver

  • Belgian Malinois: "Malinois have a high prey drive and are strongly interested in moving objects."

    • Translation: will chase rabbits, children, bicyclists, skateboarders, cars, freight trains

Now, don't get me wrong. None of these are horrible things UNLESS we weren't expecting them and aren't prepared to handle the behaviors via training, management, or a combination of both. Of course, you could be the lucky one who gets that one in a million lazy Malinois or the Chow who wants nothing more than to be hugged by every passing stranger.

We should expect certain breeds to have certain behavior profiles in general. And we shouldn't "blame" (or punish) them for being the dog they've been carefully created to be. That would be unfair.

So, what's the bottom line? What's my point?

If you're looking for a dog, PLEASE consider their breed type along with their appearance. You may believe that a Chinese Shar Pei is the cutest dog to walk the earth. But if you're looking for a dog who's going to love playing with all the kids who come over to play with your ten year old, keep looking. If you are convinced that the St. Bernard you always dreamed of having is going to be your perfect jogging companion, think again. If you want a couch potato to match your introverted and somewhat lazy lifestyle, you'll want to pass on that Border Collie puppy (actually, go find that St. Bernard owner from the last sentence and trade dogs - you'll both be happy).

So, the next time you hear someone say, "it's all how you raise them" you'll know how wrong they are. It's not nature or nurture.

It's ALWAYS both.

Tim SteeleComment