By Jeff Stallings, CPDT-KA
It is not possible to generalize about dog breed behavior and temperament based on breed alone. Researchers Kenth Svartberg (Stockholm University) and Björn Forkman (University of Denmark) evaluated over 15,000 dogs from 164 breeds in an attempt to better understand dog personality. The researchers demonstrated conclusively that there is a very high degree of behavior variation within each dog breed.
I often hear from owners who presume behavior problems are related to their dog’s breed. Recently, an exasperated dog owner contacted me about her out-of-control, “aggressive” Labrador retriever. She was trying to understand why her two-year-old dog actively challenges other dogs, men and children with growls, snaps and threatening postures.
During our phone conversation she reminded me several times that “everyone knows” Labs are sweet and gentle creatures that love all people and all dogs—just like her last one did. But like all dog breeds, pure-bred Labs a have as much behavior variation as exists across all breeds combined. In the study of those 15,000 dogs, researchers used a series of behavior tests to evaluate each participant for these characteristics:
- Chase proneness
- Sociability (Does the dog get along with other dogs?)
- Calmness (Is the dog coolheaded under stressful situations?)
- Trainability (Does the dog learn quickly?)
The researchers found that these traits were highly variable within each breed and that other factors affected behavior more than DNA/breed. Many factors affect the temperament of any given dog, including maternal nutrition during gestation, the birth process, interaction with siblings (or a lack of siblings), and early socialization to people, dogs and varied environments. The problem with the Lab owner’s assertion that “all Labs are sweet and gentle” is that they are not all the same, just like not all people are the same.
Behavior traits are affected by genetics
This is not to say that behavior traits cannot be inherited. On the contrary, certain characteristics of the dog’s wolf ancestors have been intentionally amplified in certain working breeds, such as circling prey (herding) in Border Collies and endlessly chasing vermin (ratting) in Yorkshire terriers.
In the 1940’s, researchers John Paul Scott and John Fuller performed a smaller-scale study similar to the one mentioned above and concluded, “After emphasizing the differences between the breeds, we wish to caution the reader against accepting the idea of a breed stereotype in regard to behavior.”
Early intentional breeding by humans focused on function—hunting or ratting, for example—rather than the visible ascetics that are the focus of today’s breed standards (often to deleterious effect.) Dogs are not machines but rather animals with all the variability and chance inherent in, well, heredity. But while DNA influences behavior, it is nowhere close to the only factor.
Forget nature, focus on nurture
So while we can’t backpedal the “nature” aspect of any given puppy, we can have a profound impact on future behavior by making sure we get the “nurture” part right. Anyone who has kept up with my blog posts in recent years knows that I am a huge advocate of comprehensive socialization during puppyhood, commencing immediately upon administering the first set of shots and intensively continuing through six months of age.
This includes meeting 100 people before 12 weeks; numerous puppy socials between 10 and 20 weeks; and safely exposing them to as many types of animals, people, machines, buses, etc. as possible (without causing over-stimulation manifested as excessive fear, withdrawal or avoidance behavior.)
Is a dog that is well-socialized and trained never going to perform actions that to us look aggressive? Unfortunately, no. Even having been as diligent as possible in socializing your puppy—and irrespective of breed—your dog may still have temperament issues that result in less-than-desirable behavior, including fearfulness and reactivity.
But even these issues must be considered in regard to (1) normal canine communication and (2) the effects of on-going training and management.
Normal dog communication sometimes appears to be aggressive
Normal canine communication often appears to humans to be “aggressive” when in fact the apparent ferocity may simply be a dog clearly making her point, like a human couple having a heated argument. (An article by dog trainer Nicole Wilde that I have shared with my clients for years explains why growling is good.)
My mutt Otis, for instance, is by no means naturally aggressive. In fact, as a young puppy she was quite timid and submissive. But if we’re playing on the beach and another dog tries to take her ball, she will growl and bark and chase them away. Someone who does not understand dog language might say that Otis is being “aggressive”. I would counter that she is clearly telling the other dog to leave her resource (the ball) alone.
If the dog has been well-socialized, he will understand her point, leave the ball and mind his business; if not, he might misunderstand her communication, persist in his rudeness and escalate the encounter. These sorts of misunderstandings are the type that can usually (but not always!) be avoided by early socialization to other puppies, when the nuances of dog “language” are practiced and mastered.
Affecting what you can
As for effects of on-going training and management, many behavior issues can be improved with training that is consistent and fair. If your dog is leash-reactive towards other dogs, certain measures, via training and management, might mitigate the issue. The same goes for separation distress, leash pulling and the like. But if, for instance, your dog never met a child until he was a year old and shows fear-based aggression toward the first one he meets, you will probably never be able fully relax around small children.
So, a pit bull can be the goofiest, sweetest dog you’ve ever met, and a Golden Retriever might be the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing. My job as a trainer is to guide people through behavior modification programs when they have a good chance of success. But I also look to provide context and tools for management when training alone cannot ensure the safety of all affiliated people and dogs.
Regardless, whether through responsible breeding, socialization, training or management, the goal is a happy, healthy dog who understands how to best get along with humans and other beasts in the situation in which they find themselves.