We have a new puppy in our home. Little Rizzo has officially joined us here on the hill. While we are having a marvelous time discovering all the quirks of his delightful personality, what we are finding in our Rizzo is not entirely unexpected. And that personality is also ours to shape to a degree. The “nature vs. nurture” debate has raged for decades but science is shedding some interesting new light on the subject, at least in dogs.
Every new puppy is an adventure. As we discovered with our dog Tiramisu six years ago, you can teach a puppy a great deal even at the age of eight or nine weeks. And with each puppy the debate surfaces again — how much is nature and how much is nurture? How much of what our puppy will grow up to be is determined by his genetics and breeding and how much will depend on the training and experience he gets both with the breeder when he is very young and with us as he grows to maturity?
For a long time, the dog community has relied on the “temperament testing” of puppies to determine the general personality of a dog. Is he “aggressive” or “shy” or “outgoing”?
Temperament testing purports to make these assessments of pups at six to eight weeks so that they can be placed in homes best suited to raising them. But I have questions about that. Are genetics considered? Is the testing environment suitable? Should pronouncements made at seven or eight weeks of age dictate how the dog will be characterized for its entire life?
Breeders do their best to match pups to prospective homes but there is only so much that temperament tests and assessments of young pups can do to determine that “best match” of a dog to a home.
Jean Donaldson says in her book Oh Behave! that a dog’s owners are the single greatest influence on their a dog’s personality and temperament. Our dogs spend so much of their time around us and are ever-observant — is it any wonder our personality traits affect them and their character?
In the Genes
Before we get too far down the “nurture” road, let’s give genetics their due. There are now over 400 different recognized breeds of purebred dogs. Each has its own characteristics and was selected for particular reasons — size, color, coat, working function, structure, etc. For example, the Shetland Sheepdog is known for being a “talkative” breed that barks a lot. This because the Shetland Sheepdog was selectively bred to herd sheep with sound; barking to move the sheep.
Size also plays an important role. Larger dogs tend to have shorter life spans and develop differently and at different rates than do smaller breeds. Breeding for particular structure can also affect the character and behaviour of a dog. For example Basset Hounds have much less mobility than Border Collies and so have different needs for exercise and activity.
An Important Discovery in Genetic and Evolutionary Science
The experiments of Dmitri Balyaev on selectively breeding foxes in the 1950s produced an astonishing discovery. Balyaev was selecting for the behavioural aspect of “tameness” in his foxes. His breeding program not only produced tamer foxes — these same foxes were changing physically from the original breeding stock with each generation! Clearly the bio-chemistry that controlled behaviour was linked to the same bio-chemical system that controlled physical traits.
We can extrapolate from Balyaev’s experiments that the reverse is also true: selecting for physical traits must also have an effect on the bio-chemistry of behaviour in different dog breeds. This means that while a Yorkshire Terrier and a German Shepherd are both dogs, the biology that produces different size, coat, color, and structure will likely also produce different behaviour characteristics. A dog is not just a dog!
Breed fanciers have known this for centuries but now science has the ability to back up their experience. For me, there is something about the personality of Belgian Shepherds that I love. While all of the Belgians I’ve met have been unique individuals with their own personalities, they all share the same wonderful sense of mischief and playfulness and a desire to use their brains. It’s what attracted me to the breed in the first place as I’m sure others were attracted to Golden Retrievers or West Highland Terriers for their own reasons.
So how much of your dog came to you “in the box” in their genetic material and how much is a product of the upbringing they received? Estimates vary wildly. Talk to anyone who has adopted a rescue dog and seen the tremendous change that can be happen in a dog’s behaviour and they will tell you that genetics plays a minimal role; that training and environment have a massive impact on a dog.
By contrast, talk to a breeder and they will tell you of the painstaking research done to produce dogs of a particular structure and temperament — that genetics plays a large role in the eventual personality of a dog.
And then there are the experiences that a dog goes through while growing up that are out of the control of owners. Those things that just happen. So it seems that who your dog will become is much like a soup — a little of this and a little of that and you end up with a dog of a certain personality. If we break it down, the genes give us some and the behavioural influence of Classical and Operant Conditioning (Pavlov and Skinner) give us some. But is it just a roll of the dice?
Building a Dog
Our 15-week old puppy Rizzo is our own personal behavioural laboratory. How much do we influence his character? Do we have the power to turn him into an aggressive attack dog or mushy cuddle-pup?
From the day he arrived, Rizzo was different from our Mario who left us last year. Where Mario was stand-offish and would check everything out from a distance before approaching, Rizzo charges at the world full blast — meet first and ask questions later. Both dogs are Belgian Shepherds and yet it seems that even at eight weeks of age there were pronounced differences.
Our experience in raising Mario showed us that we had tremendous influence in taking a reluctant puppy and turning him into a mostly confident and outgoing dog. Those who work with rescue dogs will share similar stories of affecting the personality of even adult dogs.
So what does it all mean? Nature? Nurture? To us, it means that while our Belgian Shepherds will always come with certain behavioural tendencies, we can have a tremendous influence in producing a dog that will fit in perfectly with our lifestyle and our home.
Understanding the breed we selected is the first step, but knowing the breeder and learning what we can about what they are trying to produce genetically takes us further toward understanding what we have.
Once our puppy comes to live with us, our understanding of basic behavioural science comes into play. By creating a positive and rich learning environment we have the ability to shape their intelligence and emotional balance as they grow in our homes. There is a wealth of information available in books and on internet sites to help dog owners get a better sense of how to work with their dogs to give them rich, satisfying, and comfortable lives.
For us, the use of positive reinforcement training and a reliance on behavioural science has taken much of the mystery out of raising our dogs. It’s become an adventure for us instead a string of accidents and achievements. We are now actively shaping our dogs from what we have in their genetic material and making them the best that they can be. It’s not just about the Clicker Training but a whole approach to a lifestyle — we try to understand the dogs for what they are and work with them to encourage the behaviours that can make them successful.
It’s an approach that has served us very well and has allowed us to love our dogs for what they truly are instead of being disappointed and amazed by turns. In the end, it doesn’t take that much work to understand our dogs. A little learning has gone a long way for us. We are both looking forward to seeing what our little Rizzo will become as the weeks go along. And I look forward to sharing that adventure with you.
Puppies, 2006 Paul Moody @Flickr
BigSmall,2006 Jez Arnold @ Flickr
Ready, 2007 Laura ATL @Flickr