Myth Busting - "It's all in how they're raised."
I am sure you have heard this being said about dogs before but as always in the world of behavior, it's not that simple.
With things like dog training and breeding being unregulated fields, it's easy for myths to circulate despite scientific evidence. When it comes to behavior, there are a lot of myths, a big one being that how we raise a dog determines who they will become. I think this is one of the myths that grinds my gears the most.
I think it bothers me so much because I have spent so many years of my life seeing kind, great dog owners break down in tears during a behavior consultation because they are adamant that they are the cause of their dog's fear, anxiety or aggressive behaviors. They've had them since they were a puppy so it must be the owners at fault because "it's all how they're raised". Don't get me wrong, there are cases where the humans involved are a huge factor in their dog's behaviors but the majority of the time, pet parents are just people who love their dog and did a lot of things right.
The other side of the coin are the mismatched breed pairings that as professionals we inevitably see. The very busy family with several young kids who want a dog that can attend soccer games and the kids can climb on with a Cane Corso. The elderly person with the working line, high drive German Shepherd puppy. The young couple with children under three with a jack russell spooked of children. If it's all how we raise them, we can get any dog and they're automatically a good fit because it's how they're raised.
At the end of the day, it's just not true. What both sides of the coin have in common is that we think we have more control than we do. Behavior is complicated, there are so many factors that determine a living thing's behavior. How we raise them may be a contributing factor, it is one of many factors. Dogs may be more malleable in certain developmental periods but they are not formless beforehand. With all the kindness and empathy I have, it's just not true.
Socialization and early learning can be very powerful tools that can be utilized to help give our dogs the best chance for success that we can but they're not guarantees. It's complicated. Behavior is complicated. Unfortunately, when it comes to behavior there are no guarantees. It would be unethical to tell someone otherwise.
There are a lot of ways we can set our dogs up for success, that's the nurture side of nature and nurture. We can seek guidance from an educated professional (remember, unregulated industry) that utilizes evidence-based, positive based training techniques to act as your GPS through the process of puppy rearing. We can look for behavioral red flags - remember most of the time behaviors start to pop up in small ways before they become large problems. Being preventative and preventing the rehearsal of undesirable behaviors can be a big help!
Now the harder bit of behavior - nature. We know nature impacts behavior, that's why we've spent thousands of years utilizing artificial selection to breed specific dogs with specific characteristics. There are research studies that show things like fear aggression, impulsivity, suckling problem solving, anxiety, drive, and lack of satiation can be carried on dogs' DNA.
Now you may be thinking, if these things can be in their genetics, what hope is there? Well, even with genetic factors, behavior is still moddable to a point. We can modify and influence the dog in front of us but we can't create a new dog. We can't give them a new personality.
That's where it's important that we are looking for a dog that is a good fit, realistically, for our lives. Even then, training is a lot of work!
What can we do?
First, make sure that you are really getting a feel for the dog's personality as a whole and make sure that it is something that is compatible with your life. Not every dog is going to be a good fit for every person. That's OKAY! Some dogs may thrive in a downtown environment with all the enrichment where other dogs struggle because there are too many noises and people. If you are going to a breeder, really make sure that you're looking into them as well. Genetics and nature play a HUGE role into behavior, with breeding being unregulated places like puppy mills or backyards breeders could be problematic. I am a huge fan of breeders who utilize puppy culture. You can also ask to see the parents and get a feel for their temperaments. If you can't meet the parents that would be a red flag for me.
If you're looking at breeding your dog, make sure that you seriously take their behavior into consideration. If they are fearful, anxious or aggressive then they may not be a good candidate to breed. Not all dogs are going to be good dogs to breed.
If you are getting a dog or have gotten a dog from an unknown origin, meet the dog where they're at and be realistic with your expectations. If they're not a good fit, it's okay to rehome. Make sure to respect the dog in front of you, if they're scared or anxious, support them. You can't reinforce fear. Help them feel safe. Deescalate things. Don't push your dog into a situation they're not ready for, that can cause sensitization which means the dog is exposed to something in a way that increases their sensitivity.
In general, if you find yourself with a dog struggling with behavioral issues; make sure that you're being kind to yourself, it's really overwhelming and no one normally anticipates a dog with behavioral challenges, let alone have the tools in hand. It's a lot. It's okay that it's a lot. If you find yourself in this place, forgive yourself and be honest with yourself. Is it something that you can support? If you can't, IT'S OKAY. If you can, awesome. There are a lot of tools to help you and your dog develop coping strategies. Good management is absolutely critical. The more we can eliminate the rehearsal of the undesirable behaviors or emotional responses the less sensation that occurs and the easier it is to apply behavior modification techniques like counter conditioning, desensitization or differential reinforcement.
Make sure you have a solid team to support you. We all need a village in one way or another. Our pets do too. Here are some resources that can be a big help:
- A good veterinarian can make a big difference. I recommend finding one who is a fear free certified veterinarian
- Exploring behavior medication - the veterinary behaviorists at UC Davis are amazing. They even offer free consulting for veterinarians.
- Partnering with a canine behavior consultant or a trainer with experience with your needs. Make sure they utilize positive, evidence based training methods. How to find a trainer?
- Rehoming is always an option; Sacramento SPCA is amazing.
- Some cases may be candidates for behavioral euthanasia. I know it's a heavy topic but we need to break the stigma behind behavioral euthanasia. If this is a route you go or are thinking about; Losing Lulu is a great resource. Trish McMillan, an amazing professional animal trainer along with several of my friends/ colleagues, have picked the route. Trish has a LOT of wonderful content out there are well. There's no way I could link all her resources but if you google her, you will find a lot!
Dog Boarding options: https://www.