The “nature versus nurture” debate is one that is very well established when it comes to determining the motivations of both dogs and people, although there is no universal consensus when it comes to establishing which force is the more dominant. For instance, when it comes to people, the debate rages on about whether violent films and video games contribute to violent behaviour in individuals, or whether said individuals were naturally prone to behaving in such a way, a debate that is reignited every time a high-profile criminal case makes the news.
When it comes to dogs, aggression is a common bone of contention between the two camps, with the Dangerous Dogs Act legislation being the main hot potato in the canine community-are some breeds of dogs naturally more prone to aggression, or is aggression triggered by the dog’s treatment, training and other people’s responses? Most people who know and love dogs lean towards the latter explanation, and for good reason-although getting a firm consensus on the issue is something that is likely to be a long time coming.
That said, when it comes to our own pet dogs, there are a range of common canine traits and behaviours that can very clearly be divided into learned traits and inherited traits respectively, and some that fall firmly in the middle. As an example, puppies are not born knowing how to play catch or how to follow commands, but certain traits of both specific breeds and dogs as a species make training said dogs and encouraging them to work with you much easier!
Learned traits in the dog are those that the dog picks up over time, either through observation, repetition or training, whilst inherited or hereditary traits are part of the package that your dog possesses from birth, and that will determine certain elements of their personalities.
This does not necessarily mean that inherited traits cannot be curbed, directed or changed, simply that this will be harder than working with a blank slate, just as it does not mean that training a dog to do a certain thing will always be effective, or have the desired result!
Learning the difference between what makes a learned trait versus an inherited trait, and those that fall somewhere in between or have elements of both can help you to gain a better insight into your dog’s personality and how best to manage them-and this is what we will look at in this article.
Read on to learn more about the traits that your dog learns, versus those that they inherit.
Whilst dogs as a species have a lot in common, differences between individual breeds can be very acute. For instance, some of the common uniting factors across all breeds include the fact that dogs are social, pack animals, that dogs respond better to positive reinforcement than negative, and that dogs are opportunistic scavengers.
In terms of breed specific traits that can vary wildly depending on the breed, factors like how strong the dog’s prey drive is, whether they will make a good watchdog and if they will be very energetic and lively are all good examples of some significant differences between different types of dogs.
For instance, sighthound breeds like the whippet have a very high prey drive, herding-guarding breeds like the German shepherd make for good watchdogs, and gun dog breeds like the Springer spaniel love to retrieve-and anomalies or deviations from these norms within their individual breeds are very unusual unless the dog in question has been trained and conditioned to counteract them.
Exactly how your dog will manifest their breed-specific traits can of course be very variable, with some being more obvious than others, but understanding the core traits of the breed of dog that you own can help to explain a lot of their behaviours and actions, allowing you to predict them and work to enhance them or reduce them as necessary.
Learned traits are more generalised, because all breeds of dog have the capacity to learn! You can teach your dog all manner of things that they do not know from birth, such as to sit, fetch, play ball, and surrender a toy.
However, the intelligence and vitally, willingness to learn of any given dog is something else that varies greatly from breed to breed and between individual dogs, and these things are often breed-specific, making the process easier and more achievable for some breeds than others.
Dogs also learn a lot from observation and their own explorations, like the fact that if you get your coat and shoes, this may mean a walk, and if you wander too close to the treats jar, they may be given something tasty!
Dogs that traditionally held working roles will learn and be willing to perform tasks to a much greater extent than many others, demonstrating that the breed-specific traits and those of dogs as a whole have a large part to play. However, the fact that dogs who have no working history can still learn to follow commands and moderate certain behaviours also demonstrates that simply because a dog has a breed-specific propensity towards something, it does not mean that this trait cannot be managed or controlled.
Sighthounds like the whippet mentioned above do indeed have a very strong prey drive and left unchecked, will chase, catch and kill wildlife like rabbits-but many dogs of such breeds can be trained and conditioned to live with smaller domestic pets successfully nonetheless.
Hereditary traits are not necessarily set in stone, just as teaching certain learned traits are not necessarily achievable for all dogs!