Lets take a moment to discuss genetics and the role they play when it comes to our dogs.
In order to best do this lets briefly discuss how dog breeds came to be, as this is the foundation of all the breeds we know and love today. Please keep in mind the below description of domestication is extremely brief and summarized and put into words that will best be understood by the vast majority of those reading.
The first known domesticated dog remains were found to be nearly 14,000 years old. For about 14,000 years humans have selectively bred from tamed wild dogs (variants of wolves) to get specific traits. Many of these traits originally were bred for temperament, and to preform a job. In the beginning, dogs that were unbiddable or aggressive were discarded and only friendly, biddable dogs were raised and bred. Through this process of domestication different looks, sizes, colors and traits began to evolve naturally.
Over time, humans began to selectively breed for sizes and coats that met their needs for specific jobs. Dogs that were able to do these jobs were bred, while ones that weren’t were often discarded. This led to different dog types, different drives, temperament and size long; before specific breed-types there were dogs that could do the job and dogs that couldn’t do the job.
Over the next several thousand years hundreds of dog breeds have been defined, still breeding for specific temperament traits, drives, size, etc that began to become consistent.
Now, if you look at the a 6 week old litter of puppies from properly bred dogs you will see some things: Border Collies trying to herd, or stalk, like their adult counter parts, same with Pointers who will point naturally like their parents in the field, Bloodhounds with their nose down and following a scent for as long as their little legs will go, Malinios biting and holding onto things without any regard for what else is going on, Labradors retrieving. These are not trained to puppies so young, but from hundreds to thousands of years of careful selective breeding these puppies naturally show these traits.
This is genetics.
Some dog breeds or pre-disposed to pointing, herding, running, having high prey drive, having a natural protectiveness, and so forth. These are all genetic pre-dispositions and while they can be harnessed and used for specific jobs, they also cannot be completely trained out. This means that a Border Collie with a strong drive to herd, will always have that drive. You can train this Border Collie to have great impulse control and to be able to not herd but that drive will always be there.
It is also important to note that this does not mean that EVERY dog of their specific breed will have strong drives. The topic of responsible breeders/breeding to standard is a topic for another day.
As we have begun to breed more for companionship rather than working there are many dogs within their breeds that have less drive, or a somewhat different temperament than their original counterpart. Even in the beginning there were some that wouldn’t make the cut and these dogs were disposed of in one way or another. Yes, it is important to note that there are dogs that are not within the breed standard when it comes to size, drive, temperament etc. There are some Border Collies that have no interest in herding, or are lower energy, etc but these are not the norm and shouldn’t be used to judge the breed as a whole.
How Genetics Effect Our Pets
Being aware of genetics is an important when it comes to not only selecting our four-legged companions but also in how we address training, and how we address certain behavioral issues that may arise in our dogs.
When someone comes to training with a Chow who is aloof with strangers it will need to be handled differently than an overly friendly Golden Retriever. Chow Chows are naturally more aloof with strangers, and most will never be super friendly with strangers but may do amazing on leash (prior to seeing a trainer) because of it while a Golden Retriever is likely to love everyone it meets and may struggle to walk well on leash (prior to seeing a trainer) because he wants to say “Hi” to everyone.
A dog breed that has natural pre-dispositions to certain traits, behaviors, temperaments don’t all do well in every home. Some do better with single people, some with families, some with quieter homes, some with more active home, some are best with a job to do and some are content relaxing at home on the couch. All of these types of traits need to be taken into consideration when working with individual dogs and families.
These genetic pre-dispositions are not written in stone, obviously, but definitely stack of the odds. A puppy who has confident friendly parents is more likely to be confident and friendly than a dog who has parents who are anxious, and cautious of people are more likely to be anxious and cautious of people. Unfortunately, just like genetic drives like herding temperament can be genetic as well and the only thing that can be done in those situations is management. Genetics can, and often do, trump training when it comes to things like temperament and aggression which makes it very hard for those who truly believe that “its all in how you raise them” and sets some families up for failure even when they do “everything right”.
The Problem Child
I had the unfortunate situation where my ex’s dog had gotten pregnant due to a silent heat. I knew both the Dam (mother) and Sire (father) of the litter, extensively. I knew the Dam’s line and had helped trained several of her siblings as well as a nephew or two of hers. I also met her parents. Her mother was a sketchy German Shepherd mix, very wary of strangers, anxious, and overall an unstable dog. The dad was wary of strangers but overall a friendly dog.
The Sire I knew nothing about lineage, but he is a stable and confident dog, who was also a Service Dog and excelled at his job.
The Dam had a litter of 7 puppies. I helped monitor the Dam and helped bring all the puppies into the world. I carefully helped raise the litter. Every single puppy was carefully monitored, raised with Puppy Culture methods, socialized heavily to grooming, stimuli, sounds, other animals, objects and so forth. Each puppy also got Early Neurological Stimulation and were kept on high quality food once weaned. I carefully placed 6 of the 7 puppies, and at the time of this entry have been in regular contact with all the puppies of this litter for 2.5 years.
Then there is Loki. Loki is the first born of the litter, and the puppy that ended up staying in my care. He was raised in the same manner as my Service Dogs, socialized properly, groomed and managed appropriately to keep him confident and happy with being handled. He attended doggie daycare under my supervision and rarely had a negative experience in life, and definitely had no real negative experience with people. By the time he was 6 months old he had amazing obedience training, two of his siblings joined an obedience class with us for 2 months (I hosted and taught the lessons), a couple others only did training in their home with the family and another got professional training elsewhere.
Loki, despite doing “everything right” and being raised in a home with one (and at 1.5 years old, two) dog trainers he still became extremely “Stranger Wary”. He would shy away from strangers and new people, he would grumble and at one point had begun barking and false charging at people passing his yard. His behaviors were worse than his siblings, but all of his siblings were very wary and untrusting of people outside of their immediate family. They would bark and/or shy away, slink away, and take a long time to warm up to new people.
Loki was, fortunately, the worst of the litter and in a less experienced home could have easily become a bite risk. With training over the next year, a very specific and consistent program put in place, he now is much more comfortable and confident around strangers however is still very untrusting and wary of them. This temperament trait is genetic, it will never go away completely but can be managed.
If you are interested in how we took Loki from an anxious, barking and lunging potential bite risk to being safe in public while being relaxed and comfortable during the majority of most outings I will post another entry on this; however the biggest thing to note here is that genetics play a huge role in our dogs lives and in how they will mature when it comes to temperament, drives, as well as other traits. Even if you do “every thing right” when you are raising and training your puppy/dog sometimes the only thing we can do is work with the dog in front of us and manage the undesirable behavioral traits.
Genetics can make all the difference in the world.