Features September 2016 Issue

Is Our Dogs' Behavior Genetic?

Or is it “all in how you raise them”? Nature vs. nurture and raising a well-adjusted dog.

Dr. Ilana Reisner wanted her new Australian Shepherd puppy, Asher, to have a rock-solid temperament. She knew how tough it is to live with a fearful or aggressive dog because, as a veterinary behaviorist, she works with reactive dogs and their owners for a living. So she did everything that she advises her clients to do: she found a puppy whose parents had lovely personalities and whose breeder provided excellent socialization experiences; she brought the puppy home between eight and ten weeks of age; she continued his socialization herself; and she enrolled him in a well-managed puppy class so that he would have a chance to learn good social skills with puppies his own age.

great dane puppies

Given that Dr. Reisner did everything that behavior experts recommend to create a confident, well-socialized puppy, she was surprised when Asher showed anxiety around other dogs in his puppy class – nervousness that only increased as he matured. Then she had some bad luck when, at age four months, Asher was jumped by an out-of-control dog, and it was a really scary experience for him. By the age of eight months, Asher was showing clear signs of fear of other dogs.

Dr. Reisner has continued to work with him over the ensuing years, but he hasn’t improved; she describes him as a whirling dervish when he sees unfamiliar dogs. And yet she did everything she could to avoid this issue. Is it possible that, due to genetics, Asher’s behavior problem was inevitable? How much influence did Asher’s environment have in the development of his temperament?

Our Dogs' Genetics VS. Their Environments

In the complex interplay between genetics and environment, sometimes genetics takes the upper hand. Researchers have tested just how far genetic influences on personality can go by breeding animals for particular temperaments and absolutely nothing else.

This sort of study is, by necessity, very long term and therefore fairly rare, but there are two well-known examples in canids. A group in Russia has bred two lines of foxes over three to four decades, selecting one line for fearfulness of and aggression to humans, and the other line for friendliness to humans.

A similar long-term project in the U.S. has resulted in a line of pathologically fearful pointer dogs. In both these cases, the lines of animals breed true, meaning that if a fearful animal is bred to a fearful animal, all of the offspring are fearful without exception, even when raised by a non-fearful non-biological mother.

How relevant are these findings to pet or working dogs? It turns out that personality is influenced by many, many genes, and if you breed for any other traits in addition to temperament, like looks or performance, then your ability to guarantee particular results in the puppy goes out the window.

great dane mix puppy

In the real world outside the laboratory, genetics rarely confers absolutes; instead, it confers risks. Outside the lab, behavior problems are almost never truly inevitable. They may, however, be extremely high risk.

Which leaves us with what we have: dogs who are bred for many different traits, and as a result produce puppies with personalities mostly similar to their parents’, but sometimes quite different. Sometimes the results are wonderful, and sometimes not so much. We can decrease the risk of unwanted traits like fearfulness through careful breeding, but we can never completely weed those traits out.

Our Dogs' Experiences

Just as we don’t have complete control over the genetic contributions to a dog’s personality, we lack complete control over the puppy’s environment. By the time the breeder and then the owner are formally socializing a puppy, the little canine brain has already gone through massive amounts of development, and as a result has gone down some roads and abandoned others. The uterus is a rich source of experience for the fetal brain, which is profoundy affected by both reproductive and stress hormones. Early life in the nest with mom and siblings is also chock full of experiences that mold a young mind. The puppy is learning his place in the world and how to interact with other dogs from very early on.

All we can do, then, is our best. We can provide innumerable positive and varied experiences for puppies to teach them that the world, in all its sometimes unexpected variety, is safe for them.

Just as importantly, we can prioritize giving dogs as solid a genetic background as possible. Temperament should be the highest priority in breeding, closely followed by physical health. Animals with questionable temperaments should not be allowed to pass on behavioral problems, either through their genes, through stress hormones in the uterus, or through modeling fearful behavior to their puppies in early life. Temperament is more important than preserving stellar conformation or spectacular performance; in fact, in breeds with small gene pools, bringing in genetic diversity from outside the breed is preferable to breeding dogs with questionable temperaments.

So the question “Is this dog’s problem genetic?” may not be meaningful, because all behavior problems are caused by genetic risk plus life experiences. However, the question “Can this dog be helped?” absolutely is.

We have powerful tools at our disposal to help dogs live in this complex human world: thoughtful breeding practices, positive socialization experiences, and loving training and management. These are the tools Dr. Reisner uses with Asher to help him live a comfortable, happy life despite his fears. There’s a lot we can do to make good dogs from the raw materials we’re given.

Jessica Hekman, DVM, MS, completed her internship in shelter medicine at the University of Florida’s Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program in 2013. She now studies the genetics of dog behavior in Illinois, where she lives with her husband and two dogs. Check out Dr. Hekman's Facebook page, where posts about dog brains and behavior (and sometimes shelter medicine).

Starting on September 12, Dr. Hekman is teaching an online course, “From Domestication to Inbreeding: Population Genetics and Companion Animals,” for the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants

Comments (18)

Excellent job of covering a very complex subject.

Steve Robinson

Posted by: Steve R | February 17, 2019 8:17 PM    Report this comment

We have an English Lab mix who we adopted when he was nine. From the first, I noticed that although he loves everyone and everything, he has some very unLab personality traits. He's very calm (he's by far the calmest dog I've ever had), and he doesn't show the exuberance of a Lab --even an old one (he'll be 12 next Sunday). The best I can guess is that he's mixed with Mastiff and possibly pit bull. The shelter had no idea how he was raised in his previous home. I've been able to figure it out, simply by observing him.

Our previous dog was a Border Collie/English Springer Spaniel/Shetland Sheepdog mix, and she belied her breeds in that she was very calm. She would herd anything (including her feline sister), and she did try to flush birds out of bushes -- at least until she figured out that there weren't any.

Posted by: DreamWeaver | February 17, 2019 2:22 PM    Report this comment

The Nature vs. Nurture article was interesting but I felt that the experiment which bred a line of fearful dogs (foxes?) sounded cruel. What happened to those animals at the end of the experiment?

Posted by: Joey's mom | February 17, 2019 11:36 AM    Report this comment

Excellent article
Here is the problem (one of many): IF you have a good breeder, who will socialize, and do all the things mentioned in the article, then 12 weeks is a great age to adopt a pup. Unfortunately, most "breeders" don't/won't. Thus the socialization period that (mostly) ends at around 12 -14 weeks is over by the time you adopt the pup and you will have a much harder time socializing him/her. Also, as mentioned, most "breeders" don't breed for temperment.
(By "breeders" I include puppy mills, but also well meaning but not well educated in dog behavior individuals.)

Posted by: Kitti | February 17, 2019 10:20 AM    Report this comment

If you haven't done an article on the non-profit Institute of Canine Biology, I think you should. Their on-line classes have been a valuable source of information for me on canine genetics, behavior and health and the organization keeps adding more interesting classes all the time. I'm not a breeder and typically adopt adult or nearly-adult dogs but still learn much that helps me understand dogs better and care for them to preserve a long, healthy life as best I can. (The course on hip and elbow dysplasia was my most recent class.)

Posted by: Mister Sunny's Person | February 17, 2019 10:09 AM    Report this comment

I have been immersed in the sport of purebred dogs for 35 years, and believe, unequivocally, that 8 to 10 weeks is far too soon for a puppy to leave it’s home, it’s siblings and it’s dam. I have written on this very topic several times and actually it is a central message on my website, ballyharairishwolfhounds.com. Puppies require the constant interaction, socialization, stability and reprimand that littermates and their Dam provide. Lacking this litter socialization can permanently affect a dog’s behavior. An 8-week old pup has NOT yet received all the benefits of these now lost precious influences and processes of learning. Moreover, it can also suffer the consequences of early disconnection, detachment and be prone to separation anxiety and many other serious, behavioral issues.

Posted by: Ldfiws | February 11, 2019 8:32 AM    Report this comment

I had a rescue dog that was pregnant when i picked her up. A smooth coat collie. Of course her temperament was not the best bc she was in mother mode and she caused quite a bit of disruption. But she had 6 living pups and they stayed with mom for at least 20 weeks bc i naturally innoculated them for parvo and distemper. They were raw fed since weaning from mom with no parasiticides or vaccs. So they were just incredibly healthy and happy pups. But the interesting thing is they all had different personalities in spite of staying with mom and siblings for so long. AND they all inherited a touch of dog fear aggression in spite of being raised in a rescue dog home environment, just like their mom! So i definitely think its like people a little genetic and a little environment.

Posted by: KJHall | February 10, 2019 10:00 AM    Report this comment

Through 40 years of having dogs I personally believe for me that it is best to adopt an adult dog so that the personality is already developed and you generally know what triggers the dog has. Also, the best scenario is if the dog has been in foster care or a rehome so that the foster or prior home can tell you what the dog is like and what to look out for.

Posted by: kimfatty | February 10, 2019 12:26 AM    Report this comment

Thank you for posting this article as I found this very interesting.
I am looking for our next puppy and will do some more homework before making some decisions. I need to educate myself as a responsible pet owner.

Posted by: nancy.wisnieski.nm@gmail.com | February 9, 2019 11:18 PM    Report this comment

Every thing you say is true, plus some environmental factors. I adopted one very fearful dog and it took me two weeks for her to let me touch her. I learned she had been a puppy mill brood bitch and had not been out of her crate for 8 years except to be bred. She was rescued when the breeder was going to put her down because she became sick. Very slowly I tossed treats to her - she didn't even know what they were but she learned. I went closer and closer to her until she stood and shivered while I touched her. Slowly she became a happy, loving dog who loved to be with humans and I could take her anywhere with me.
Another reason puppies are fearful is really bad breeding practices from far too many breeders who just want to sell puppies. I've heard of one breeder who takes away the puppies at just a couple of days because the bitch will kill them. The dogs are fed on pablum, does not socialize them and they are sold at as young as 4 weeks. Several people who did buy dogs from this breeder send them back because they were so aggressive. I'm sure this is not an isolated incident because I know of too many breeders inbreed (line breed) and don't seem to care about the puppies. It makes my blood boil

Posted by: Holly 1 | February 9, 2019 4:02 PM    Report this comment

I too wonder about the length of time puppies stay with the mother and litter mates. I have had 6 companion Irish Wolfhounds and breeders do not recommend taking them from the litter and mother until 12 weeks/4 months as they learn a lot in that time. Though we also got a our first smaller dog - an airedale terrier pupply at 10 weeks and she is doing fine now at 10 months.

Posted by: J-IW | February 9, 2019 2:24 PM    Report this comment

In a nutshell -- YES ... it is both. You are not going to take a herding dog and turn it into a dog bred to go to ground for small game ( a 'Terrier' ); nor are you going to take a Daschund and turn it into a quail flushing dog ... no matter the training, there will be 'gaps' in the behavior that preclude the dog being either a successful ratter or bird dog ... it take knowing what the dog IS to bring out the best in that dog ... and as far as 'mixes' go ... work with what you have ... or you will end up with a sow's ear instead of a silk purse ...

Posted by: KatzDawgs | February 9, 2019 2:23 PM    Report this comment

Cool science. I wonder how many options there are (or will be) to take advantage of the information in this study published Jan 17, 2019.

"Two novel genomic regions associated with fearfulness in dogs overlap human neuropsychiatric loci"

Results are:
Fear towards strangers and new situations maps to chromosome 7.
Noise Sensitivity maps to chromosome 20.

Sarviaho et al. Translational Psychiatry ( 2019) 9:18

Posted by: BrainyDogBehavior | February 9, 2019 1:59 PM    Report this comment

I received a 4 year old cairn terrier about 3 years ago. I was his 4th human companion because they said he had separation anxiety. But there was something in his eyes that told me “not so fast”. I took him to a vet in Connecticut and he diagnosed IBS. We put him on herbs and transitioned his food to a raw grain free diet.

In the meantime, I took him to work and gave him a job to greet clients, show them into the massage room, and tell me when the hour was done. He loves having a job, scheduled walks, a vet who does acupuncture, good food and an in-house daycare once a week. The vet stopped all vaccines and we use titers now and Chinese herbs.

I learned that the last family who he’d been with was a hoarder, his sister was always with him for his first 3 years and bullied him constantly, and he’d been locked up and ignored. In 3 years he’s so much calmer, wags his tail all the time and now can be left to roam the house if I have to be away for a short time.

I took a chance and it paid off in spades! Hey, ya never know!

Posted by: Nina Hanson | February 9, 2019 12:35 PM    Report this comment

Puppy Aptitude tests play a big part in puppy selection too. There can be a wide variance within each litter. With all that we do correctly including a totally raw diet, it never ceases to amaze me the temperamental differences within a litter. I have taken clients on their search for the best puppy, and seen whole litters with horrible genetics temperaments, and others good storng genetics. testing can save so much heartache, as well as not removing a puppy during their first 'fear period' of 8-10 weeks. 49th day is the key!

Posted by: dewisant | February 9, 2019 11:14 AM    Report this comment

Eight to ten weeks? Why so soon? Aren’t there experience windows between 9 and 12 weeks that can determine confidence or fear?

Posted by: Sorby17 | February 9, 2019 10:45 AM    Report this comment

I know some people don't want to hear it but shots play a part in it too especially the rabies vaccine. It has transformed normal dogs into dogs that are fearful and have other issues. So you have to mention all the factors that might play into a dog not turning out the way you want them too. Also food can play a factor. If a dog is not getting the nutrients it needs to develop correctly, that will play into behavior and development just like with a person.

Posted by: kruzingwithk9s | February 9, 2019 9:52 AM    Report this comment

Thank you so much for this article. I have one of those "fear based" dogs and felt as if I had done something wrong with his socialization as a puppy. I had to really analyze what I had done differently than I had with my other dogs and the answer was nothing. He is who he is and I can do the best that I can for him to make him happy.

Posted by: lester34 | August 25, 2016 3:45 PM    Report this comment

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