This blog post is about accepting your dog for who he or she is, or put in more dog-fancy terms, working within the confines of your dog’s genetically-influenced temperament.
You may hear that, when it comes to dog behavior, “It’s all about how you raise them.” While that is a lovely idea, it isn’t entirely true. Yes, upbringing, socialization and training all have a significant affect on a dog’s behavior, but there’s more to the story. In fact, most of a dog’s behavior is determined by genetics, which is why canines as a species engage in many common behaviors (such as play bows, barking, and rolling in icky stuff on the ground).
But beyond basic dog behavior, an individual dog’s personality will be heavily influenced by genetics, and it’s important for the average pet dog owner to realize this. Competition obedience or sporting dog people already know this, which is why serious competition people start with a dog that has the right temperament for the specific sport of interest. Also, keep in mind that the different breeds were developed to emphasize different behaviors (i.e., herding breeds tend to herd and retrievers tend to, well, retrieve). Of course, there are always many exceptions. Not all Border Collies herd and not all Labs retrieve, but breed is often a factor in a dog’s behavior.
Unfortunately, a dog’s innate personality doesn’t always quite mesh with his or her owner’s. Sometimes, we start out wanting one kind of dog and end up with a different dog. The temptation many experience is to try to force the dog you have into being the dog you want.
Believe me, I know what it means to have a dog that is not quite the dog you thought you were getting when you brought her home. Well over a decade ago, I was looking for a medium energy, middle-of-the-road dog to make a versatile therapy / show dog. I thought that was the puppy I took home. After I got her home, I realized she was actually the offspring of Mighty Mouse and the Tasmanian Devil…on speed. Oh, and she wouldn’t tolerate any attitude from other dogs, either.
I wanted to show her. I wanted to do therapy work with her. I spent many, many hours every week training her. We did okay, but it took a lot of work for both of us, and she just wasn’t very happy in the show ring.
Then, finally, I realized we’d both have more fun if I just pounded my head into the wall every day for an hour instead of carting her around to shows and asking her to act like a calm, refined, little girl. It wasn’t fair to her, and the whole idea of participating in activities with her was so that both of us could have fun!
So, I gave up on those ideas. I spayed her and started training her in flyball and agility, initially only to get her out and expend her energy. We moved on to Schutzhund, and she even tried her paws at Dock Diving. I wasn’t interested in winning ribbons. I was just interested in doing things that we could both enjoy and that, most importantly, would be a good outlet for her almost inexhaustible energy.
We did start to win ribbons, and I began to have more fun. I also learned a lot more about dogs, dog training, and what having a healthy relationship with your dog actually means.
You and your dog will be happiest if you realize who your dog is, at a very fundamental, genetic level. Do you have a high energy dog that loves to play ball, catch frisbees, and play tug of war? Don’t try to turn that dog into a couch potato. Trying do so is unfair to your dog (and she’ll never be a couch potato, anyway).
On the other hand, if you have a mellow, somewhat shy, low energy dog that easily gets overwhelmed in crowds, even though you’ve tried to gently acclimate your dog to public chaos, don’t insist on forcing your dog to be that super-duper competition flyball or dock diving dog or go with you to the fireworks display. You’re just going to end up tormenting your dog on a regular basis.
This advice seems common sense enough, but I’m constantly surprised by how many pet dog owners actually do insist on making the dog they have into the dog they want, even when the two things are very far apart.
For example, many people have to deal with dog aggressive dogs. Sometimes, dogs just don’t like other dogs, and that temperament quality may be a result of genetics rather than having gone through a bad experience. Dogs that are genetically predisposed to being dog aggressive will always be predisposed to being dog aggressive until scientists figure out a way to isolate and change all the genes involved in influencing that behavior.
That’s not going to happen anytime soon, I promise you.
Dog owners dealing with dog aggression should definitely train their dogs and work to manage that behavior. Absolutely. It is completely possible to train a dog to behave around other dogs. What is not okay, as a dog owner, is to insist that your dog aggressive dog be a social butterfly with other dogs. It is not okay to force your dog into having encounters with unfamiliar dogs at dog parks, or when out and about at walks. It is not okay to put a shock collar on your dog so that you can force your dog to interact with other dogs without reacting.
It is also not okay to take your genetically-prone-to-anxiety dog and force him or her to attend the band parade with you so you can hear the drummers and trumpeters and watch the horse-drawn carriages roll by.
Dogs, like children, can blossom in the right environment, and like children, they all grow up a little differently, even when raised in similar environments. Appreciate your dog for who he is, and use training and gentle socialization to help your dog reach his or her fullest potential. You will both be a lot happier in the long run.