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— May 8, 2012 —

“He’s scared of (insert phobia here). He must have been abused.”
by Daniel McElroy Jr.

Nature v/s Nurture. It’s the eternal debate. Let me settle it once and for all. I am totally convinced that in the debate of nature v/s nurture, nature wins as it relates to the temperament of dogs. I know this is a bold statement, and I totally expect to get tons of comments about it. What I mean is this, how your dog handles things like noise, thunder, strangers and so on is primarily influenced by his genetics. His confidence (or lack of it), attitude, aggression, intelligence, willingness to train, and most other things about his “personality” are related directly to his parents and how they viewed the world. There is an old saying in dog training and it took me a while to really understand it. That saying is this, “You can change a dog’s behavior, but you can’t change its temperament.”

I wrote a few weeks back about selecting a dog to adopt. I mentioned then that if possible, you really should meet the parents if you are looking for a puppy. This is because the parents’ genetics will influence the puppy as he matures. If you adopt a puppy from parents that were friendly the puppy will have a much better chance of having that trait. If the parents are nervous or biters, the puppy may turn out just like them…even with the best care and training. I hear it ALL the time, “He doesn’t like men, a man must have abused him.” Or people say, “She doesn’t like brooms. I think she was beat with one.” While dogs can remember negative experiences with specific people or items, the vast majority of these issues are genetic in nature. Think of it like this. If your dog got scared by a broom, the very fact that it became a phobia in your dog is linked to his genetic makeup.

The whole idea of breeding for desirable behaviors or temperament is nothing new. If you think about it, the very concept of selective breeding started with selection of specific temperaments and behaviors. Herding dogs even today are selected for the desire to work the flock and their ability to follow instructions. This selective breeding is why border collies tend to be more trainable. Hunting dogs are selected for interest in prey animals and their ability to make chase regardless of the conditions or terrain. It makes for a very independant, but sometines less trainable, dog. Things like confidence, fear, aggression and so on are just as linked to the dog’s DNA as the other traits I described.

Lucy, a little brown mix breed female came to us very pregnant. Lucy is quite fearful and cowers to everything and everyone. She is not at all aggressive and would run from a leaf blowing in the wind. She gave birth to 6 male puppies a couple of day after we rescued her. Of the 6 most of them are pretty brave, others have serious confidence issues. The nervous ones are just like their mom. They don’t bite whatever scares them, but would run if they could. Since mom is only half the genetic material, some of them took more after the dad (who is unknown). An interesting factoid is this, of the 6 puppies, the ones who look most like Lucy are the ones who also act most like her.

One of the toughest stories I can remember is a dog owned by a friend. I actually met her because she came to me as a client. She brought her dog Jimmy to me for serious biting. If anyone or anything surprised this dog, he would attack it. If you were standing outside the elevator or around the corner from this dog and he suddenly caught sight of you, you got bit. If the door opened to his house and he wasn’t expecting to see you there, you got bit. If a kid ran by, totally ignoring this dog, the kid got bit. Biting was his immediate response to everything. There was another issue that was relevant. When the owner would leave home, this dog would climb into the bathtub. He would spend his entire day in that tub because there were no sights and few sounds. He could not handle thunder, fireworks or anything else out of the ordinary. Even with my and his owner’s best efforts, this poor guy was eventually euthanized. He was 5 or 6 years old and otherwise healthy. However in this case, I believe it was a kindness to the dog. He was totally unable to cope with the world. I believe he was truly mentally ill. Here is the point to that whole sad story. This dog’s mom was also euthanized for biting people without reason or warning—the same genetic defect. I firmly believe that the genes passed on to him from his mother caused his aggressive behavior.

I have another story to demonstrate the point. Olivia was adopted out through our rescue, K9 4 KEEPS. She is a cool dog. I mean the kind of cool that makes you want to give her a big hug and take her home. If you met her, you’d think she was a pampered pooch, living in the lap of luxury all her life and never knowing bad treatment, neglect or abuse. Nothing could be further from the truth. Olivia has scars from bullet wounds, was malnourished and had to live for an unknown period of time with a torn CCL (canine cruciate ligament). This is a painful condition and she has the joint degeneration to prove it. Olivia is the most people-friendly affectionate, outgoing dog you could ever meet. Despite her history of abuse, she holds no grudges, and is not fearful of people at all. This is a dog that has recovered from some very traumatic experiences. It’s a testament to her genetic stability.

There is a range of severity as it refers to instability. With a very severely unstable dog, like Jimmy above, there is really no “cure.” With most dogs however, training can help to improve the dog’s quality of life. Obviously, the earlier training happens, the better. One of the benefits of training is that it gets the dog out of the house and exposes them to the world. This is important because even with a fearful dog, socialization can help. There is a finite period of time from birth to about 20 weeks where puppies are learning about the world. This “imprint stage” is where puppies are at their most trainable. Even if you get the dog later in life, I recommend training as soon as possible. This way, you can show the dog that it will be safe and cared for. The longer the dog can rehearse its insecurities, the more deeply ingrained they will become.

Another benefit is that many times, a good trainer will recognize issues and assist you in minimizing them before they get out of hand. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen a young dog with a behavioral issue and owners who didn’t recognize it. One of the most recent, Sasha—a blue female pit bull puppy, came to me with serious fear issues. Her dad was an previous client, but her mom had never had a dog before. Mom’s instinct was to hug and coddle Sasha whenever she was scared of something. Fortunately, through training, she has learned how to help her dog accept new situations. Today, Sasha still has a couple of things that set her off, but she has come a very long way from the cowering puppy I met five months ago.

The bottom line here is this. We cannot make a dog something he isn’t. If he is nervous, training and management can help (whereas coddling and feeling sorry for him will certainly make it worse); but the underlying issue will always be there. If a dog is strong and stable, any abuse history will likely be forgotten. When someone comes to me and says their dog is nervous and must have been abused, I try to educate them on the things I’ve discussed here. Your dog is generally not thinking about the past or whether he was abused or not. What he is doing is observing the world in the moment and reacting however his DNA tells him to.