Doggy DNA Misconceptions About Nature vs Nurture
Dog DNA tests today are popular because it influences both looks and behavior. Some dog breeds are known for specific tendencies. But socialization and training, and even mom-dog’s nurturing influence, also impact dogs.
Some dogs have to deal with a “ruff” reputation based entirely on dog dna and what breed they are – or just look like. Pit Bulls for instance seem to get lots of bad press for dog-on-dog aggression, but we also call them the “Nanny Dog” because they’re so darn good with kids. Other muscular dogs, big dogs like Rottweilers, Dobermans, German Shepherds, can get called out as aggressive, dangerous or problematic based entirely on their looks, before they ever show signs of a snarl. Of course, ALL dogs have teeth that can do damage, so understanding dog communication keeps you (and your kids) safe.
Sadly, these misconceptions can lead to problems. Bigger dogs popular in the media for protection or aggression get overlooked for adoption. People miss out on glorious family companions.
As a certified animal behavior consultant and multi-published author (including a book on Pit Bulls!), I can tell you there are both myths and truths floating around about dog behavior. Both genetic and non-genetic factors influence a dog’s temperament and appearance. In fact, both nature AND nurture impact everything about your dog. Nothing is exclusive to genetics or to socialization and training.
If you have a mixed breed dog or one with a known heritage, but want to learn more, take a look at the EMBARK DNA test. It can help identify your dog’s heritage, plus potential health issues to watch out for.
Nature vs Nurture: Does Dog DNA Matter That Much?
A dog’s behavior, personality or temperament develop from birth on, influenced by experience, training, and more. But genetics strongly influenced some doggy aspects.
For example, hip dysplasia is understood to be hereditary, but one study noted that Labrador puppies fed 25% less had a dramatically lower incidence of hip dysplasia. This is what we 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. All dogs TEND to eat food in the same way due to dog dna genetics, but individual tendencies occur. 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: “All that matters is how you raise them”
It’s not safe or fair to either a dog or you to lay a puppy or dog’s entire temperament upon training – although training is absolutely the best way to help dogs and their human families understand one another and live their best lives together. Most dog breeds came to be because people were purposefully attempting to breed certain characteristics for certain jobs. So dogs can’t escape every single aspect of that long, long, history of purposeful breeding.
Purpose-breeding made Border Collies genius at herding. Bloodhounds live through their noses. Labradors retrieve naturally. And these intrinsic behaviors like hunting behavior and prey drive influence many ways dogs interact with their world, making dogs like Golden Retrievers wonderful service animals, and German Shepherds excel at police work. While training can certainly steer the natural impulses of certain breeds so that we can better live and work cooperatively together, we still can’t expect that training will turn a puppy bred for high activity into a couch potato.
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. Puppies can inherit the tendency toward fear or act nervous, but socialization can help shy pups feel more confident. Remember, each being is unique and comes with their own quirks and wonders.
Misconception: You can know some dogs will be dangerous 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 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 themself unless you give them something to occupy them. However, too many dogs get passed over in shelters because of negative stereotypes created by the media that have no basis in fact.
Should you have concerns, look at adopting senior dogs. Adopting an older dog you will more likely have a history, and be better informed as to what the personality type is of the pet you are adopting.
Misconception: A good dog is always a good dog.
We all have bad days. You have a bad day at work, and “snap” at your kids when you come home. Somebody cuts us off in traffic and we take it out on the cashier at the drive through. “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.
Always supervise dogs with children. Just as we humans can’t really know how we’ll react in a crisis, we can’t be sure how our dog will react if they are injured or frightened.
Misconception: If a dog is “bad” it’s because they have lousy socialization or training.
Sadly, some dogs are born “broken” just as some people develop emotional, psychological, or health issues through no fault of their own. With help from a veterinary behaviorist and proper medication, you can sometimes moderate some of these problems.
But you can’t train away or completely “fix” an abnormal chemical reaction that starts in the brain. Please do not blame, punish yourself–or others–who struggle with one of these dogs. Sometimes there’s no simple answer with dangerous behavioral issues. Dogs (and the people who love them) shouldn’t be forced to put up with a dangerous or emotionally painful situation, so talk with your vet for advice.
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 temperament and innate behaviors are 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 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 grow from a puppy into a well-adjusted adult dog. 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 to understand what your dog is trying to tell you? You can find general answers to LOTS of pet questions here on the blog (just type the topic in the SEARCH bar at the top). You also can find more detailed answers in one of my award-winning dog books. And if you’re struggling, here’s how to find professional behavior help.
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Amy Shojai, CABC is a certified cat & dog behavior consultant, a consultant to the pet industry, and the award-winning author of 35+ pet-centric books and Thrillers with Bite! Oh, and she loves bling!