"Nature or nurture: What makes a dog?

"Nature or nurture: What makes a dog?

Life As A Pet Parent

People buying or adopting a new dog should spend a lot of time researching the traits and personality of the dog in question, and this comes down to a combination of both the core traits of the breed or type of dog on a wider scale, and those of the individual dog in question itself.

The “nature or nurture” debate is one that comes up regularly when discussing both people and animals, and is very relevant to dogs. Put simply, the debate itself comes down to whether or not the personality and core traits of any given dog can be attributed to their “nature”-inherent traits that occur regardless of care and handling-or “nurture,” or how they have been handled and treated, and what they have experienced and learned.

Ultimately, what makes any given dog who they are and how they are in terms of what they like and dislike, how they react in certain situations and their personality and responses to things come down to a combination of the two, and no dog is solely a product of their heredity nor of their experiences.

However, developing a basic understanding of the dog’s traits that can be classed as “nature” and those that fall under the heading of “nurture” can be hugely useful to dog owners. This is true both when trying to make a decision about the right dog to buy or adopt, and and in terms of knowing what elements of the dog’s personality and behaviour can be changed over time.

In this article, we will look at the nature and nurture of the dog personality and core traits in more detail, and explain a little bit about how to determine which traits fall into which heading. Read on to learn more.

Why is understanding nature and nurture in dogs important?

The core tenets of nature and nurture are based on understanding what traits of the dog are inherent and largely fixed, and those that can be introduced or muted depending on how the dog is treated, trained and managed.

Many of the nature traits of dogs are universal to most dogs-for instance, dogs tend to be opportunistic about eating more or less anything they find whether they are supposed to or not, and also tend to be naturally social with other dogs, actively seeking out company rather than living alone.

At the next level down, individual breeds and types of dogs each have a more narrow set of nature traits that are virtually universal to all dogs of the breed. For instance, sighthounds like the greyhound tend to have a high prey drive and a tendency to chase smaller animals when off the lead, which can be challenging and in some cases impossible to curb. Every single breed of dog’s breed standard will list the common personality traits of the breed too, and this is the nature element in play-as with the greyhound example.

Regardless of the breed or type of dog you own, if you look up the breed standard and their core traits, you will likely find yourself nodding along in understanding at the factors that are listed-although there are of course a few exceptions! You can use our useful dog breeds page/tool to find your dog breed and traits.

Essentially, knowing which factors of the personality of your dog come down to nature-and so, are fixed or very hard to change-and those that come down to nurture, provides an insight into the limitations and potential of your dog, depending on how you handle them.

Nature traits

First of all, it is important to understand that all dogs, including those from within the same breed and even same litter are individuals, and no two dogs will behave in the same way in the same situation. Additionally, while the nature traits of a dog’s personality can be challenging and in some cases, impossible to change, some dogs and some owners still manage this successfully-to the point that some sighthounds can and do live happily and safely with cats!

However, if the nature traits of a dog’s personality are things that you would find hard to cope with or seek to change, you may wish to consider another breed or type of dog.

Some of the main nature traits that dogs may display or lack include:

  • Energy levels.
  • Prey drive and hunting instinct.
  • Intelligence.
  • Guarding or protective instincts.
  • Interest in playing and canine sport.
  • A like or dislike of water and swimming.
  • Curiosity and interest in things around them.
  • Desire to meet and get on with new people and dogs.
  • Territorial drive.
  • Propensity to bark and be noisy.
  • Affection and enjoyment of human contact.
  • Dominance or position in pack structures.

This list is by no means exhaustive, and does of course vary considerably from breed to breed!

Nurture traits

Nurture traits, on the other hand, are those that have either become a part of the dog’s personality as a result of their treatment and experiences, or those that can potentially be introduced or reduced by training and management.

Some nurture traits include:

  • A propensity to show aggression or remain calm under duress.
  • Appropriate behaviour and social skills with other dogs.
  • Reactions to people, positive or negative.
  • Confidence or fear in new situations or faced with change.
  • Reactiveness to challenges or stimulus.
  • Willingness to look to the handler for direction and guidance.

…Among many others!

Determining your dog’s personality

If you are working with a puppy or a young dog that you are considering buying, the best approach is to look to the nature side of the breed and the personality shown by the pup in combination. You will then be able to ascertain their fairly fixed traits, and their potential in terms of how you can shape and raise them.

With adult dogs too, being able to determine the traits that you will not be able to change, or only change to some degree and things that can be worked on, is important in terms of being able to manage, train and handle your dog to the best of your ability.

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