“It’s all in how they’re raised.”

“All puppies are blank slates.” “If you do everything right with your puppy, you’ll have a great adult dog.” “If dogs have behavioral issues, we should blame the handle end of the leash.”

These are common misconceptions I hear as a trainer, and they make me so very sad. Behavior is a combination of nature and nurture, and if we could just take a moment to look logically at these myths, we would see just how silly they are.

Photo by Tavallai

Photo by Tavallai

Genetics influence behavior. This is part of the reason we have breeds: if you want a dog to work your sheep, you’re going to choose a Border Collie, not a Brittany Spaniel. Even though the two dogs have the same basic size and shape, one is more likely to have the instinctive motor patterns to do the work than the other. Getting a Border Collie whose parents successfully work sheep further increases the likelihood of your dog having the necessary genetic ability to be a great sheepherder.

In the 1970’s, Murphree and colleagues began to study the difference between normal and fearful lines of Pointers. In cross-fostering experiments, puppies from fearful parents were raised by normal mothers. These puppies still turned out fearful, in spite of proper socialization and a confident role model.

Interestingly, puppies from normal parents who were raised by fearful mothers also turned out fearful. Environment also influences behavior, and the best genetics in the world can’t create the perfect dog without a supportive upbringing.

If we believe that the way a dog is raised is solely responsible for his adult behavior, how can the tremendous success of the Pit Bulls from Michael Vick’s kennel and many other fighting operations be explained? With their neglectful and abusive upbringing, we would expect these dogs to be vicious and unsalvageable. Yet many of them have gone on to become wonderful pets. Some compete in agility or work as certified therapy dogs. Many Pit Bull enthusiasts are adamant that it’s all in how the dogs are raised, yet the success of many former fighting dogs tells us that it’s more than just that. These amazing, resilient dogs also have to have a sound genetic basis to explain their ability to overcome adversity.

On the other end of the spectrum, many of my clients have done everything right, yet continue to struggle with anxiety or aggression issues in their dogs. Certain lines of Golden Retrievers are known for severe resource guarding issues that often show up even in tiny puppies. Most of my German Shepherd behavioral consults occur when these dogs hit 12-18 months and growl at or bite a stranger. Miniature Australian Shepherds are likely to come to me due to extreme fear issues at 6-10 months of age. Terrier owners often call me when their dog hits social maturity and begins fighting with housemate dogs. While these traits may be common in my area, trainers in other areas of the country report completely different issues in the same breeds due to different lines of dogs with different genetic potentials living and being bred near them. I also see hundreds of friendly, stable, solid Goldens, German Shepherds, mini Aussies, and terriers in our Beginning Obedience and Puppy Kindergarten classes.

The truth is that dogs are born with a certain genetic potential that will influence which behavioral traits they display. This could include a dog’s sociability towards people, dogs, or other animals; their level of boldness or fearfulness; their likelihood to display anxious or compulsive behaviors; whether they are calm and confident or nervous and neurotic; and many other behavioral factors.

Let’s look at one trait to make this more clear. We know that dogs born from fearful parents are more likely to be fearful and that dogs with bold parents are more likely to be bold. There is a behavioral continuum, with boldness on one end and fearfulness on the other. Here’s what that spectrum would look like. A dog on the left end of the spectrum would be incredibly fearful, while a dog on the right end would be exceedingly confident. Most dogs wind up somewhere in the middle, and dogs on both ends of the spectrum present challenges for their owners.


A dog with bold parents is born with the potential to be quite bold. He is physically capable of bold behavior. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that he will become a bold dog. If his experiences as a puppy and young adult are very limited or if he has negative, scary experiences, he may develop into a fearful adult due to environmental influence. His genetic potential gave him the ability to be bold, but his environment did not nurture that ability.


On the other hand, consider a dog who is born from fearful parents. This dog does not have the genetic potential to be bold. Even given an incredibly supportive and nurturing environment as a puppy and young adult, this dog will always be somewhat fearful because the physical ability to be bold is just not there.


These dogs may present identically when we look at their behavior, in spite of the very different levels of dedication their owners had to socializing and supporting their puppies. However, the genetically bold dog may make a lot of progress with appropriate behavioral interventions, while the genetically fearful dog makes little or none. This has nothing to do with the skill level of each dog’s owner, but rather with the raw material each dog started with. (This is also, by the way, why ethical trainers do not make guarantees: without knowing what genetic package a dog starts with, there’s no way to know how much progress that dog can make until we try.)

Do you see how very unfair statements about how “it’s all in how they’re raised” are to committed, wonderful dog owners who have dogs with more difficult baselines? Just because your dog flew through a behavior mod program doesn’t mean every dog can or will, and assuming that it’s all because of the owner is unrealistic and downright cruel. I regularly work with wonderful people who do the best they can with difficult dogs, and that adage about walking a mile in someone’s shoes is applicable to their situation. As if living with and training a more difficult dog weren’t enough, these people are often subjected to comments and insinuations that if they were just a better handler, a better trainer, or a better leader, their dog would be perfectly fine. This is untrue and incredibly hurtful, and it needs to stop.

Do you know anything about your dog’s parents? What environmental and genetic factors do you think contributed to your dog’s behavior? Please share your stories in the comment section below!

153 responses to ““It’s all in how they’re raised.”

  1. I totally agree Lisa. I’ve been breeding Australian Shepherds since 1978. It drives me nuts when someone contacts me & asks if I breed Mini Aussies. I tell them, there is no such thing as a Mini Aussie. As long as the “Mini breeders” keep telling people that they are true Aussie, only smaller, people will keep buy them. I wish people would do their home work before looking for an Aussie. Bev

    • I had a fearful standard size, working line Australian Shepherd. She came from a reputable breeder. She was extremely fearful of people (never aggressive, just trembled and shut down), but not of anything else (not generally fearful). The breeder could not recall seeing the behavior before I brought her home, and didn’t recall any traumatic events during puppyhood. She claimed it was “in the lines” and that I should just work the dog, not force her to interact with strangers, and that she would likely overcome it. Once I stopped making her submit to friendly strangers giving her treats or attention, and told people to not look at her, reach for her, or engage her in any way, she was able to be around people if she was working. (She was a search dog — trailing and human remains detection). She LOVED her work, and would approach her search subject — not because she liked people, but because it was her job, and she wanted the frisbee that the search subject would throw for her. Over the course of a few years, though, her general attitude towards strangers improved. We “forgot” that she was fearful. She “forgot” too, and appeared to be fairly normal. It took time and lots of low-pressure exposure. In her case, I think it was genetic, and we were able to work with her genetic strengths (work ethic, prey/play drive for the reward, love of being out and exploring) and manage her training and environment to overcome her weakness.

  2. This is a hot button issue for me. I got my dog at 7 months old – he was not well socialized. I was a first time pet owner when I got him and missed the “red flags”. When I was looking at a pen full of puppies, he was the one cowering in the back. I felt sorry for him. That was 7 years ago. Despite constant, consistent training, socialization, working with pet behaviorists, medication, thunder shirts, Chinese herbs, and a million other things he is better but still a fearful/anxious dog. Relief for both of us came when I realized that instead of trying to make him into a happy-go-lucky, people-loving dog that I wanted (and which he could never be), I should deal with the dog that I had. It doesn’t mean I don’t still work on desensitizing him to things that cause him fear/anxiety every single day, it just means I had to reset my expectations and look for ways to manage his fear/anxiety. Sometimes isn’t possible to avoid situations that cause him to react (lunging/barking) and the looks I get still annoy me.

    • I know how you feel. I didn’t go to the extent you did but I brought my puppy places a lot to socialize her but she still grew up to be a yappy sterotypical toy pomeranian. People stare at me too and I try but really unless I want to drug her I have just accepted it and just tell people she is just neurotic.

    • It’s the same with my reactive girl, Katie. She has improved a bit but she is never going to be an easy dog, in the house or outside. I find it frustrating that she can walk past one person with not a murmer but the next she acts like she wants to kill them. However she is what she is, I try and walk at quiet times and we street walk only so we are unlikely to meet dogs off lead.

    • That sounds like my Buzz. He is the sweetest boy with any animal he knows by proper introduction and he is the sweetest around any babies (human, kittens, puppies, chickens, etc) that he is allowed to be near. He becomes aggressive when he is approached by an unknown dog. Believe me when I say I have tried everything under the sun with him, except medication which I don’t believe in 😁. I have learned to ignore all the looks and learned to be a very responsible dog owner because of him. And I wear proudly my t-shirt that reads,”Don’t judge my pitbull, and I won’t judge your kids.” πŸ˜‰

  3. Well written article about the effects of genetics and environment on temperament. Those who are concerned about what to call “Miniature Australian Shepherds” (officially recognized as Miniature American Shepherds by AKC) are missing the point.

  4. Very interesting article. I have two pit bulls/Staffordshire terriers. I’ve done enough research to know that they are one and the same. They both have the same parents although they are from different litters and are one year apart in age. Both are very sweet and good dogs, but one of them is rather fearful. We know the people who own the parents of my dogs. The male is not at all fearful and very friendly, while the female is fairly fearful and shy. This explains the difference in temperament in my own dogs.

  5. Sara, I’m the Breeder’s Chairman for the Jack Russell Terrier Club of America. I would like your permission to reprint this article in our next quarterly edition of True Grit, our journal. Thank you.

  6. That’s a stupid remark to make beagles are bred to work & live with other dogs. Pit bulls are terriers, I call all terriers terrorists. Lots of dogs will fight with other dogs.

  7. I have three dogs that are labeled pitbulls. Two of them I adopted from the humane society when they were about 2 1/2 – 3 months old, and one was a foster failed, and I had her since she was about 2 months old. One of the male from the pond is extremely “aggressive” which I now know is what they called fear-aggression. Once he has been introduced properly to a new dog or a new person he will be fine with them for life but any new dog or animal without introduction, he will attack because between fight or flight, his chosen method is fight. We have been to the most wonderful training environment and had the most wonderful trainers where my other two are CGC certified. But one thing I have learned through this entire process is that I have to be a responsible owner first and foremost. My fear based aggressive boy will always on be a leash whenever we are outside of my house, and I am always watchful for what is coming his way, no ifs, ands, or buts.

  8. Here’s a comment and question: I have a full bred female boxer. She is going on 8. We got her when she was 2 months old. When we brought her home we immediately showed her love and affection. We gave her time to adjust to her new surroundings and introduced her to her new home. We prepared her crate where she would spend the majority of her time when not eating, walking, or playing. After the first few nights of crying and yapping she calmed herself down and went to sleep. Once she was able to do her business outside her training began. I brought her every where I went so she would be socialized. She was taught to sit, stay, down, leave, etc., very well. She was taught to walk along side me with the proper commands, never pulling the leash. She is the most obedient loving boxer I have ever met. I have never owned a dog knowing the parents so I had no experience or knowledge of how the parents were. I assumed all dogs could be trained and socialized without any problems.
    After reading your article I am somewhat concerned. I am planning on making a huge purchase of a female cane corso. The breeder has told us they are good dogs with no known aggressive behaviors. I have done quite a bit of research on these dogs and know it will require a great deal of training and socializing which I am prepared for. With that being said and since the breeder lives outside my state of residence and way too far to just go visit, are there any signs or questions I should ask prior to making this purchase? I am now questioning my decision as I am fairly a small woman, my husband works daily, and my eldest son works. I don’t want to be pinned in a room not being allowed to leave my own house.
    Can you make any comments? Thank you. Diana

    • At the very least I would not get a female since your Boxer is a female, that could be a big problem, I bred Boxers for 20 years so I am much more knowledgeable about them than Cane Corso Boxers can be very protective of their environment & your female Boxer may accept a puppy but once it starts to mature the cane Corso will probably challenge your Boxer & that could be disastrous for the older smaller dog.I have known several Cone Corso through my work & they are not bad dogs but I don’t think they are the type of dog that an inexperienced owner should have & frankly I think the breeder should have told you this.At the very least get a male not a female puppy opposite sex gives you better odds of them getting along.

  9. We are raising an incredible yellow lab. She had always had fear issues….car, stairs, etc. As she gets older, her fears seem to be the increasing. Things she used to do without hesitation no longer seem to be within her ability to accomplish….very simple things that other dogs would not hesitate to attempt. I do not know about her parents, but it is very sad to see such a beautiful, amazing animal fearful in such benign situations.

  10. Just got a bouvier pup hoping for a mobility service dog eventually. My daughter has her parents both big bouviers with confident loving personalities. She is very loving with people she knows and there was a big litter so they never noticed if she wasn’t real friendly when people came. She was my grandsons favorite pup so was handled daily. I got her at about 9 weeks delivered by my grandson. Was suprised when she didn’t act friendly. Really suprised when I was holding her and a girl came up to see her and she growled. I’ve been working on socializing her for three weeks now but she still doesn’t trust strangers other than big men like my grandson. A little better but can’t trust her not to snap and growl if someone reaches out to her. Whether I’m holding her or she is loose. Is there any chance we can work through this for her to be a mobility dog or will there always be a risk with her ? She has shown no other fear issues except with people or kids

    • How are you reacting when people come up? Herding dogs are supper sensitive to their owners. Make sure you are super outgoing and confident and the pup will follow suit. Try handing her off to an experienced dog person and see how she reacts when you’re not there. If you aren’t a normally confident person, you may want to opt for a sporting dog as they are less sensitive. I screwed up several of my herding dogs before I realized what I was doing.

  11. Alice Fletcher

    Have you had his eyesight checked & his hearing ?

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