Nature vs. Nurture: Dog breeds, temperament and training

By Jeff Stallings, CPDT-KA

Recently, an exasperated dog owner contacted me about her out-of-control, “aggressive” Labrador retriever. She was trying to understand why her 2-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.)

On the contrary, it is impossible to generalize about canine temperament based on breed alone. Researchers Kenth Svartberg (Stockholm University) and Björn Forkman (University of Denmark) analyzed a huge dataset that included over 15,000 dogs from 164 breeds in an attempt to better understand dog personality. Using a series of behavior tests, the researchers categorized each individual dog in regards to:

  • Playfulness
  • Curiosity/fearlessness
  • Chase proneness
  • Shyness/boldness
  • Sociability (Does the dog get along with other dogs?)
  • Calmness (Is the dog coolheaded under stressful situations?)
  • Trainability (Does the dog learn quickly?)
  • Aggressiveness

The researchers demonstrated conclusively that there is a very high degree of behavior variation within each dog breed. There are many facets in addition to genes that go into constructing the temperament of any given dog, including maternal nutrition during gestation, the birth process, interaction with siblings (or a lack of siblings), and events early in life. The problem with my caller’s assertion about the ever-gentle Lab is that not all Labs are the same any more than all people are the same.

This is not to say that behavior 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. But, as researchers John Paul Scott and John Fuller—who in the 1940s performed a smaller-scale study similar to the one mentioned above—noted, “After emphasizing the differences between the breeds, we wish to caution the reader against accepting the idea of a breed stereotype.

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.

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 him 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 regards to (1) normal canine communication and (2) the effects of on-going training and management. To elaborate:

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. 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.

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, there are steps that can be taken to mitigate this 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 fearful 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 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 this man-made world we share.

4 Responses

  1. Excellent article. I find your blogs to be most informative. Wish I had been able to have this info when my dog was a puppy. He is a good loving dog, but he could have been better socialized. Keep up the good work. Peggy

  2. Great article Jeff. Do you think you could help me with some pointers on “You got your puppy! Now what?” tips focused on socialization? My parents are about to get a new puppy and I’d love to share your socialization advice with them. Thanks!!!!

  3. Great article – very well written and you point out so many important parts that everyone needs to read. I recently received a comment about one of our dogs from a man that said, “Is he a pit bull? Wow…he’s so nice and loves playing w/ our dog…” – while this was no surprise to me I had to mention some of the points that were shared in this article with him.
    Sharing 🙂

  4. Wonderful, balanced article, Dog Breeding in the Digital Age: The Results Are In! Now What? I wish more breeders and puppy buyers would read it, especially those who are beginners in breeding dogs.

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Jeff Stallings, CPDT-KA

My Blog/Articles page includes other posts I have written in the past decade or so. These posts highlight my philosophy, beliefs and methodology regarding dog behavior and training.  Thanks for reading!

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