Temperament and Genetics

One persistent myth about dog behaviour and temperament that bothers me is the incorrect notion that all dogs are born as blank slates, ready to be molded. We’ve all heard such a story: My dog bites kids because she’s a rescue, she was traumatized by a rough child. My dog is afraid of everything, because his breeder didn’t socialize him before I brought him home, and so on. Most of the time, it’s misguided thinking, although occasionally it’s also a symptom of competitive victimhood.

First of all, there are certain traits which are genetic: suspicion, boldness, and sound sensitivity are some of them, among many others. If your dog has extreme fear and reactivity deeply-coded into its DNA, there is not much you are going to be able to do about that. You will never remove this dog’s natural instincts to treat everything (and everyone) with caution. Likewise, if your dog is an aggressive resource guarder, you are never going to be able to train it to willingly share its toys or food. Behavioural modification such as desensitization to certain triggers is possible, yes, but this does not change the genetic makeup of the dog. If you breed this dog to another one just like it, guess what? Its offspring are going to exhibit the exact same characteristics – and it’s not by chance.

Does that mean socialization and training are useless endeavours? No, of course not. Ethical breeders want to give the best start to their puppies before they go to their new homes, and it’s important that the new owners continue this, within the critical 4-month socialization period and beyond in order to best prepare their dog for everyday life in the human world. When it comes to rescue dogs, they might not have been socialized at all within the critical period, which makes things more difficult. They might have learned unwanted behaviours, or might not have a great recovery rate, or have issues with bonding at first. But again, an unsocialized or poorly socialized dog does not equal a child biter or basket case, if that is not already written in their genetic code.

Who cares if people believe these myths, you might be wondering? Well, it’s bothersome for a few reasons:

Dog owners blame themselves for failing to turn their fear-biter into a model canine citizen, fitting for the purpose of service dog or able to participate in another activity they intended. The best case scenario would be that they rehome their dog, but often they keep it while harbouring resentment: not a good outcome for either the human or dog.

Training is directed at covering up the symptoms, without concern for the cause. This, at best, negatively impacts the dog’s quality of life, if it must be continuously exposed to triggers yet gets punished for reacting the only way it knows how. At worst, this can be dangerous, such as training the dog to stop barking at people who approach its food bowl (a warning signal, which usually comes before a bite).

As a result of chronic misunderstanding and misdirected training, problematic dogs become an epidemic. This leads to more restrictive legislation for specific breeds, which will eventually translate into more restrictions on dog ownership in general, as the trend is towards having mixed breeds over purebreds.

I fear that soon, having a pet dog will be encumbered with licensing and fees. And then there will be less dog ownership overall – you can forget about things like dog sports and other activities.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *