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Dog Behavior: Nature Vs. Nurture

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Drayton Michaels, CTC is the owner of Urban Dawgs Dog Training in Red Banks, NJ. He also holds a Certification in Dog Training and Behavior Counseling from the San Francisco SPCA Academy for Dog Trainers (known as “the Harvard for dog trainers”). 

What plays a bigger role in dog behavior: nature or nurture?

I interviewed Dr. Karen Overall who is head of behavior at the University of Pennsylvania for many years, she said, 90% of dogs that are bred for a purpose, failed to do that job. Whether its detect bombs at the airport or guide the blind or whatever it is.

And the reason why they fail is that partly of genetics, genetics are, you know, they’re a crapshoot. Okay?

And it’s partly because humans are the variable, and environmental conditions have a lot of variability. So a lot of people get hung up on you know my breeder says or I read this and really what they need to know about is how the environment affects the dog and how their behavior affects the dog mainly, those are two things and that’s what we are messing up.

We are not paying attention to what humans are doing. We just expect the dog to know it all and that’s never a good idea.

Is behavior genetic or environmental?

Study mentioned in the video: Genetics of Mouse Behavior: Interactions with Laboratory Environment

  • Strains of mice were tested for their genetic predisposition to behaviors in three laboratories (to show different environments).
  • They were all tested for six behaviors to see if there were differences between the mice and one “mutant” strand of mice.
  • Ultimately, they wanted to see how similar would the rats be if they were raised the same way.
  • The important finding was that, even though they found a large correlation between genetics and behavior, all of the mice showed behavioral differences.
  • This is (according to the paper) due to environmental differences in their upbringing.

Carol Beuchat, PhD (Scientific Director, Institute of Canine Biology) wrote that:

“The heritability for most behavioral traits is rather low. This doesn’t mean that genetics isn’t important for behavior, but that our ability to infer the genetics of an animal from observations of behavior is limited because environmental factors produce so much variability that the fraction of total variation that can be attributed to genes is small.”

Low heritability means that it is hard for a breeder to know how this dog will behave. They claim that they are able to tell what kind of “temperament” the dog will have but there are over 50 years of research that shows that these are only guesses and nothing more.

She also writes:

“This is well known among organizations that breed dogs for specific purposes, such as the military and guide dog organizations. Just as important is the selection of animals to be bred, in which case you are hoping to choose the animals that are best suited genetically and therefore likely to pass their genetic value on to their offspring.”

So, yes, genetics plays a role in a dog’s behavior but an environment shapes how that dog will express that behavior. If your dog has a “genetic” predisposition to be antisocial breed, you can make sure to do a rigorous socialization with him to help him deal with the world he will be living in.

On top of that, most dog’s behavior is not because of their genetics, but simply a reaction to the environment and they are pulling from their skills to see if they know how to deal with this situation.