“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.

naturevsnurture

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.

naturevsnurture_bold

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.

naturevsnurture_fearful

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!

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

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  3. I had a fearful, agressive Belgian Sheepdog that I worked and worked on. He eventually came out of it and turned into a good dog. Father’s line was stable but I didn’t realize until I was talking to a breeder many years later that his mother’s sire mirrored my dog’s behavior. I always make sure I talk to long-term breeders and try to find out about dogs at least a couple of generations back.

    I have worked with extremely abused dogs and have seen dogs come out of that situation with joy and incredibly stable temperaments once they trusted their owners. I have also seen dogs who went to the best homes but were a headache for the owner as they had so many insecurities. I used to think it was mostly a matter of upbringing, but now think genetics plays a larger part.

  4. I rescued a Border Collie who was so abused and fearful, he would fall on the ground and PEE himself. After years of work, he became the BEST family dog, but he still had a funny habit of OCD as a remnant of his recovery. He would give you his paw, and then the strain would begin, if you placed a hand OVER his paw! When he could resist no longer, he pulled out his paw and put it back on your hand! LOL ! He could do that for hours!

  5. My border collie abruptly developed a fear of unfamiliar flooring (especially if it was smooth, although it could be the exact flooring that I have in my house, just in a different building) when she was maybe 3 or 4. She’d always been concerned about changes to her environment, but this stunned me, because it also included floors in houses in which we had previously spent many days during her life or even weekends visiting. This manifested with the toes splayed out, the legs splayed out, hunkering down for a low center of gravity, and preferably hugging the walls and furniture as if somehow that made the floors safer. Fast forward to when she’s 8 years old–still does it, although not quite as much and she can get used to the floors given time and patience. Talking to her breeder one day about border collies in general and reactivity, and I mentioned the floors thing. He said, oh, yes, her father did that his whole life, on *all* smooth floors, even in his own house–hugging the walls, toes spread out. Funny thing is that in looks and attitude, she’s so much like her mother (whom floors never bothered).

    Thanks for this article; just read in in the USDAA news. I particularly liked it because it followed a discussion with a friend about human children. I commented that she’d done a great job raising her kids, and she said that, no, she was just lucky. I said that I believed it’s a combination of nature and nurture, and she said it’s almost all nature, because she’s seen good kids in bad situations and vice versa. Your article captures the answer to our discussion quite nicely. Thanks.

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  7. I have a 2-year-old Rottweiler from an excellent breeder. I met both his sire and dam. Both parents were friendly and outgoing and the dam was a good mother. My boy stayed with his mom and littermates until he was 9 weeks old. He had a wonderful start to life. Only weeks after getting him I took him for his first vet visit. Unfortunately, I did not even consider that they might do something to frighten him. After all, I had already spent much time and energy socializing him and getting him used to all types of handling. I had never had a dog with handling issues before. When they took him in the back, they gave him a fecal exam and he freaked out. Ever since then it has been a struggle to undo the damage those vet techs did. (Needless to say, we go to a different vet now.) My outgoing, social boy is now fearful of being restrained. He will stiffen his body and growl if held for too long. God forbid anyone try to take his temp anally. Thankfully, due to patient counterconditioning and desensitization (and some wonderful genetics) he has improved greatly. I am lucky that I got my dog from a responsible, ethical breeder who looks closely not only at conformation but also temperament. It could have been so much worse for my boy if I hadn’t.

  8. Reblogged this on Barking Up the Right Tree and commented:
    as recently stated at the SPARCS 2014 conference, behavior is 100% genetics and 100% environment – you cannot unpick the two

  9. Pingback: Is Dog Behavior Nature, Nuture, or Just Bad Pet Parenting? | Keep the Tail Wagging | Raising Dogs Naturally

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  13. Not sure WHY vets and some behaviourists — and the writer of this article in particular — have a problem with the oft-quoted/said line, “it’s all in how they’re raised” yet still be able to find truth in the nuture aspect of parenting (let’s face it: when you adopt a puppy, you _are_, in many ways, taking the place of the puppies parent, mom or dad — both, perhaps). As someone who not only SAYS that “dogs aren’t born bad”, or “the breed doesn’t determine absolute behavior”, or “it’s all in how they are raised”, I fully believe in the power of nuture OVER nature. ESPECIALLY if you have the chance to live/work/be with the puppy from an early age (at least 4-to 6 months) and on. I’ve experience it myself, without professional training. I was a so-so dog owner with my last two — mixed labrador (foundling at 3 years) and a doberman mix (adopted from the pound at about one to two months). I did about half of the things right when caring for those two dogs — I wish I had done better, but like most people, I was focused on my child, and the dogs were, well, just dogs. When our latest family pet — a staff-boxer mix — found us, I still wasn’t the greatest pet owner. But I spent more time with him (walking, walking, walking) and played with him like a mom dog with it’s pup (taught him to play gently — so, now when he plays, he doesn’t ever bite. Ever. He pinches other dogs, at most. That has resulted in a dog that WON’T engage when other dogs get aggressive. Plus, he is by and large the HAPPIEST dog — even at nine, he doesn’t get grumpy and snappish when tired or annoyed by younger dogs, as, understandably, do a LOT of dogs, even though he has a touch of arthritis. I’m NOT saying my way of raising dogs — teaching them to be nice, careful, not dominate; plus, spoiling them, and letting them live INDOORS (so as not to feel ostracised from “the pack”) — is the end all and be all, but it certainly has resulted in happier, friendlier dogs the last few times around.

    And it came about because NURTURE — if done right — will always trumph over nature. And, as rescue dogs have proven, nurture can even overcome bad past experiences (to one degree or another).

    Which proves, in my estimation, that it IS all in “how they are raised” — or, more simply, how they are treated.

    Treat a dog with love and understanding (of their nature) and not as a machine or a tool (to be used solely for work), and you’ll have a dog that more often than not, WON’T have “issues”.

    But if beat a dog, are always aggressive or angry toward it — or even if you treat a dog like a tool, or trained chimp that must jump through hoops (or never move, always heel, always sit and roll over) to please you or to meet a standard of behavior that _humans_ deem to be the only correct way to behave, and…you’ll have a dog with “issues” — one sort or another.

    • Dorman, you most likely found a dog that was stable genetically to begin with or are you saying that you had information that his sire, dam and ancestors had unstable elements that you were able to overcome? However, I don’t think you get the gist of the article.

    • In Memory of Bruno

      Did you not read the article? I think the issue with the statement “it’s all in how they’re raised” is the word “all”. You even flip flop in your comment moving from “NURTURE – if done right – will always triumph over nature” to “Treat a dog with love and understanding (of their nature) and not as a machine or a tool (to be used solely for work), and you’ll have a dog that more often than not, WON’T have “issues”.” My understanding of the English language is that “more often than not” doesn’t mean the same thing as “always”. People who give loving homes to dogs with genetic predispositions to behaviour problems such as anxiety or aggression are not always able to overcome nature with nurture, even with the help of a good behaviourst, and would be the “not” case in your “more often that not” statement. Those people find the “all” in “it’s all in how they’re raised” to be particularly hurtful, and I think the point of this article is to attempt to educate people like yourself who have been fortunate enough to have had no first hand experience with an aggressive/anxious dog who, even with the most loving owner, could not overcome their genetics. I would urge you to open your mind to the possibility that you have been quite fortunate to have met the dogs you have met and give the article a second read while considering that not everybody has been as lucky as you have.

  14. I have a year old APBT. She is my 4th. We got her at 4 mos. know nothing of her background prior to that. Within the first week, we realized she had pretty severe dog reactivity (at the time we believed it was aggression). We have worked with two different behavior rehab trainers and I have done 2-3 classes per week with her since we got her. She has come a long, long way. She can still have s bit of reactivity, but she is doing awesome. We are currently taking our second of 6 classes tonight for Her CGC and is already signed up to start Her CGCA (community) next month. It is very true nature and nurture play a part but, so does how you manage your dog. People think I’m crazy to be doing so many classes, but she NEEDS the constant exposure to Bew and different situations. This dog has made me become a much better dog handler.
    She is impulsive, has a huge prey drive. Is silly, wonderful, goofy and loveable. She likes nothing better than to snuggle and be hugged and loved.
    She loves every person, especially children. She comes to work with me daily. I’m a hairdresser and everybody loves to say hi to her. It’s a lot of work but well worth it.
    Believe me, I’ve been on the embarrassed end of the leash when my dog used to sound like Cujo when she’s see another dog. These days, she play bows at them all.
    Thank goodness for the Internet and the ability to use it to find trainers that can help

  15. I totally agree, as I am one of those dog owners that has worked hard raising my female pitbull who has fear & aggression issues. She is just a year old and I have had her in obedience & behavior modification classes and training since she was 3 mo old. It breaks my heart to see her lash out at another person or dog. I’m not sure we will ever get her past these behaviors, but I’m willing to continue working with her to the best of my abilities. Now I know all too well that it is not “how the dogs are raised” as to there behaviors and there unpredictabilities!

    • I have an 8 month old female pitbull. I know her mother is fearful of loud noises, storms etc. I have begun light pet therapy training with my girl from 16 weeks (I visit a local nursing home for 1 1/2 hrs once a month). My other American male staffy is a certified pet therapy dog. My girl Peace has a very timid, easily startled side. When she first encountered the elevators she freaked – but I’ve noticed that as her trust in me has grown, so has her confidence with the different situations she encounters. I’ve noticed her look at me for my reaction/support. Sometimes all I need to do is give her a touch on the cheek etc and she calms. I’ve also proudly noticed when I go to walk around an object ie a post, she waits to see which side of the object I go to and adjusts her track to follow thereby not tangling the lead. I must say that now getting in and out of elevators is a fun game so while it is obvious she has that nervous highly strung genetic side, she is very influenced by nurture and I see a great future for my beautiful girl 💚

  16. Hi, I bred, trained German Shepherds for a few decades in the past. 5 years ago I purchased a GSD from a reputable breeder at 8 weeks young. This boy is very loving but he gets so excited when we take him anywhere – he howls like a Banshee and wines to drive the most sane person up the wall. I have taken him to behaviour classes, obedience, play school. Once he is there he is okay but getting there is crazy. I know he can’t help himself as he always comes to me to be held to calm him. The vet suggested a calming collar. The first one helped a bit (they only last 4 weeks) – but habit is still not overcome. The next one I put on him made him even crazier. When a dog walks by he jumps out of his skin almost. Our next door neighbour has a small dog and plays with her just fine. No barking or howling.
    I am on the end of my rope with this boy. I can teach him anything he soaks it up like a sponge. We have fun training session almost every day. BUT I can’t teach him to be calm. His howling is so embarrassing- people think I hit him or stepped on his toes or something. Any idea?? I know how to handle and train dogs of this breed. Can’t do anything for him. Love him a lot but he is not stable.

    • Trudy E, have you read Leslie McDevitt’s “Control Unleashed” ? A lot of what she writes about deals with teaching dogs to be calm by reinforcing calm behaviors. For instance she might teach them to go to a mat, then start teaching them to be calm on the mat, then move the mat around. If you haven’t read her book it might be worth a try. I once had a Springer who barked continuously when driving anywhere, so I have an idea of what you’re going through! Unfortunately she hadn’t written the book when I had him, or I might be able to tell you how well it works!

      • Hi Pat S. Thanks for your suggestion I will surely try and see if I can get this book. At this point I’ll try anything. He is great in the house. Also in the yard UNLESS a dog walks by. Then he goes bonkers!!
        I will get the book and hope for the best. Thanks again.

      • Hello again.
        OMG I think I’m on to something. Yesterday one of my boys nemeses, German Shepherd walked by and he had his usual fit and threw himself at the backyard gate and it popped open and he was out and across the street. The two dogs, both male postured with a lot of snarling and yapping. No bites where exchanged. We got my boy under control. No human lost control. All handled as a matter of fact.

        This morning the same dog and handler team walked by with my boy in the house. As quick as I could I put my boy into his harness and we sat on the front steps to wait for the dog’s return.

        With shackles raised Marlowe noticed the dog approaching. I immediately whispered to him calming words and as soon as the hair went down I fed him his most fav treats. Followed by a body massage. The other handler noticing what I was doing slowed down to give me plenty of time for my calming treatment. So far so good.

        Later in the day another dog walked by and he started to run to the fence when I called him back for a treat and a massage. It worked! Yahoo!!

        All during the rest of the day, armed with a lot of treats we had no outbursts. Later on in the evening my boy would start running to the fence and stopped to look at me wondering what he should do. Treats and massage won EVERY TIME. I sure hope this is the road to a calm relationship between my boy and us.
        Thanks for listening to me.

  17. Reblogged this on DogSentials and commented:
    Excellent!

  18. I have a breed of dog called azawakh. They are a primitive sighthound breed known for their avoidance behavior. They can range from the extreme, down right aggressive and won’t allow anyone to touch or approach them, to being somewhat friendly and open. Mine are somewhere in the middle. No amount of socialization is going to change the breeds disposition to be like a golden retriever. They were, and still are used in the country of origin (Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger) as village guardians, and live around people but are not treated as pets, more like tools. Genetics plays a huge role in behavior.

  19. The bottom line is, whether nature or nurture, people are to blame at both ends of it. Dogs are inbred by who? People. Never blame the dogs.

    • Jude Wayne Phillips

      Absolutely Sue , fabulously thought of and right on the dotted line which most people can’t seem to comprehend ” Why is my pet behaving the way it does” Thank you 😊 and lets hope more people get a bit educated or rather open to your logical reasoning.. Take care

  20. Thank you so much for this article. I have owned and fostered many dogs, many of them German Shepherds. I fostered two dogs from the same litter from the time they were 7 weeks old. They were born in rescue. Their mom was purebred GSD. Their father was unknown. Upon intake to a shelter the mom was given all of her shots, very early in pregnancy. They did not realize she was pregnant. She had 9 puppies, all of which appeared healthy at first. The morning after I took the puppies home, Ramer (female) had a Grand Mal seizure (which I recognized since I am an RN and have a daughter who had seizures). She also walked very wobbly and sometimes fell over. Choco (male) did not exhibit any of these neurological symptoms. Choco was adopted at 4 months. Five out of nine puppies from this litter had similar symptoms. One puppy died at about 12 weeks. We fell in love with Ramer and formally adopted her at 6 months. Her symptoms seemed to disappear except for a severe reaction to Trifexis. We did all the “right” things. Took her to several levels of obedience classes, socialized the heck out of her, loved her, got her used to food being taken from her, etc. At approximately one year of age, she started having severe aggression issues with people and dogs who she wasn’t very familiar with that entered our home. With us and people she knows well, she is an absolute love bug, one of the most affectionate dogs we have ever had. I can still pick up her food in mid meal and she just looks at me like “Mom?” She is 4 years old now. In our home, she is possessive or protective of the house, yard, her crate, Nylabones, food, etc. with unknown people or dogs. But I can take her to the Vet, doggie play day, pet store, etc. and she loves everyone. She has to be put in her crate behind a locked door when most people come over. I am convinced that those vaccinations given very early in her mother’s pregnancy affected her brain. Another rescue friend fostered and kept Ramer’s sibling and has the same issues. Do you know of anything I can do to help her get over this?

  21. I have an 8 month old female pitbull. I know her mother is fearful of loud noises, storms etc. I have begun light pet therapy training with my girl from 16 weeks (I visit a local nursing home for 1 1/2 hrs once a month). My other American male staffy is a certified pet therapy dog. My girl Peace has a very timid, easily startled side. When she first encountered the elevators she freaked – but I’ve noticed that as her trust in me has grown, so has her confidence with the different situations she encounters. I’ve noticed her look at me for my reaction/support. Sometimes all I need to do is give her a touch on the cheek etc and she calms. I’ve also proudly noticed when I go to walk around an object ie a post, she waits to see which side of the object I go to and adjusts her track to follow thereby not tangling the lead. I must say that now getting in and out of elevators is a fun game so while it is obvious she has that nervous highly strung genetic side, she is very influenced by nurture and I see a great future for my beautiful girl 💚

  22. I’ve dealt with both ends of the spectrum. Sometimes due to breed inherent traits in the beginning it’s hard to deduce exactly what you’re dealing with and you can end up with tough management cases where the dog won’t progress any further even with expert handling. Luckily I’m now living with a very balanced Sheltie! He’s so level it’s almost like he’s not a Sheltie. LOL But I can assure you if I were to get another it would be from the same lines because he is low fear and quite confident yet non problematic. He has turned out to be a fabulous Service Dog and goes to the cinema, malls, schools, meditation class, hospitals, a funeral and even a carnival with his favourite child zipping in and out of a bouncy castle.

  23. I have a dog named Harvey I got from the pound. He had been very abused. I thought it was all from the abuse, but he is a very scared dog and when I first got him, could barely touch him without him hunkering down like he was about to get beat. I’ve had him for 6 years now and have tried everything I could think of to help him gain confidence.Having fostered abused dogs before, I had quite a few ideas on how it worked. But while I have made minor success with him, he is still afraid of a lot of things. I know nothing of his breeding other than he may have some terrier in him and he loves to run in open spaces. Perhaps his parents were also fearful. Thank you for this article. While he may never be brave, he has still stolen my heart.

  24. Thank you for writing about this…finally, this is the first article that is based on fact and common sense! I’m so relieved to see this. I can’t read peoples replies & posts anymore…it frightens me to know that people like that own and or breed dogs. Thank you a million times over!! Fellow trainer.

  25. I have a Doberman, my 4th but my first from working dog lines, which I have discovered was a big mistake. He is super mouthy, overly reactive, and any movement faster than a walk by my other dogs he starts grabbing at them. There is absolutely a huge difference because the “bite” of working dogs is sought after and bred for. I thought that if I didn’t train for Schutzhund or IPO work, he would be just like my previous dogs. Very wrong. His bite, or grip, is his first reaction to almost anything, no matter that I continue to discourage it.

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