Some dogs have to deal with a “ruff” reputation based entirely on what breed they are – or just look like. Dobermans, Beagles, Siberian Husky, and German Shepherds are a few that get wild and can get called out as aggressive, dangerous or problematic based entirely on their looks, before they ever show signs of a snarl.
This has a huge negative impact for these dogs and makes me feel very compassionate every time I see one. This can lead to them not being adopted as quickly, banned from living in certain places (apartments I’m looking at you!), or surrendered more often. This is unfair treatment, generalized around a breed, often without taking into account the individual. It’s stereotyping.
As a professional pet photographer who works with dogs day-in, day-out, I can tell you there are both myths and truths floating around about dog behavior, and that both genetic and non-genetic factors influence a dog’s temperament and appearance. Let’s look at what animal aspects are more likely to be due to genetics and what’s due to learned factors.
The Doggy Debate – DNA or upbringing?
A dog’s behavior or temperament isn’t completely fixed at birth – but some doggy aspects are strongly influenced by genetics.
For example, hip dysplasia is understood to be hereditary, but one study noted that Labrador puppies who were 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. 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 their dog parent 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.
As an example, border collies make fantastic herding dogs and will usually nip at the ankles of the animals and people around them. Likewise, the characteristic howl of a beagle is from their days being bred as hunting dogs. 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. Some are born underweight, nervous, skittish while others are more or less vocal – although this could be due to genetics or one pup not getting enough dinner. Remember each being is unique and comes with their own quirks and wonders.
For example, Freedom, one of the pups from my first dog Paprika’s first liter, was regularly an escape artistic and while the rest of the pups were well contained within their box home the first few months of their life, Freedom was regularly found outside of the box, exploring the world around her. This complimented her life when she got older, as my grandpa took her and they lived in the mountains together. Here, she would regularly get to explore and chase squirrels and chipmunks. In fact, she was just displaying a lot of the same personality traits she had from when she was a puppy.
Misconception: You can know some dogs will be problematic 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 themselves unless you give them something to occupy them. However, too many dogs have been maligned and passed over in shelters because of negative stereotypes created by the media that have no basis in fact. This is a great opportunity to look at 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.
As an example, our dog Baron was a cocker spaniel who, although being bred to hunt birds, was very docile and liked to lay around or just curl up next to someone all day. He didn’t play fetch much or like to chase things – instead he was just very mellow and calm.
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 behavioral tendencies 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 Border Collie or 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 up healthy and happy through 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 understanding what your dog is trying to tell you? I highly recommend reaching out to a local dog trainer or behaviorist to help you better understand your dog’s behavior and to provide you some training on how to best work with your dog.
And, even if your dog is still a bit rowdy, you can always get amazing dog portraits taken with Pawfect Photo Moments! I have worked with all sorts of breeds and temperaments – everything from very high energy dogs to very mellow and calm dogs. So don’t let their wild behavior turn you away from getting amazing portraits that will bring you joy for a lifetime!
Pawfect Photo Moments LLC, Owner and Photographer