Nature vs Nurture – a basic look at temperament

Article originally written for and published in 2003 by Sheltie International, Reporter Publications

Updated and rewritten in 2015.

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There has been much discussion regarding the role of genetics in temperament. One question that is relatively easy to clarify is who influences temperament more: sire or dam?  From a genetic standpoint, sire and dam influence temperament 50% respectively.  To be very basic, when a sex cell is created (sperm or egg), it contains HALF of the genetic material of the donating parent.  Therefore, upon fertilization, the produced embryo has 100% of its genetic material.  If one parent is pure for a dominant trait and the other is recessive for the same trait, then the dominant will be expressed.  Various researchers are trying to track canine genetics in the Dog Genome Project.  Part of the genome project is to learn more about the genetics behind health and behavior.  Let’s look at an example of genetics to get us started.

Sable, Blue Merle and Tri Color Shelties.

Sable, Blue Merle and Tri Color Shelties.

Color genetics are often basically taught A color is dominant to B color.  Therefore a critter that is AA is dominant and carries no recessive.  BB is recessive and you will only get B when you breed B to B.  If you breed AA to BB you will get all A looks but carrying for B or AB.  If you breed AB to AB you will get some AA, some AB and some BB.  But color genetic is often not that simple.  There are many genes that play into what you see in a critter.  There are genes that determine how much white there will be.  Dilution genes.  Genes that manage the length of color bands on a hair shaft.  Genes that keep the hair shaft one color.  There are modifiers to genes that cause a gene to do something different.  There can be many gene pairs responsible for the final color or patter you see.

Now Phenotype vs Genotype.  What you see vs what it is genetically.  For example, I had a red eyed white (albino) English Angora rabbit.  Phenotype she was albino – it was what we saw.  However, through a couple careful test breedings, I was able to determine the albino gene pair masked the fact that she was truly an agouti patterned rabbit carrying for a self gene.  She was pure for black.  She was pure for dilution (black would dilute to blue/gray color).  She did not carry the extension gene that would create the tortoise-shell pattern.  In other words, more than two genes are involved but since she was pure for the albino gene (which is part of the chinchilla genes in rabbits and there are several variations on that gene pair), everything else was hidden.

This is one of my first dogs, Muffin, while camping. Yes, that is a rabbit with her. Fuzzy, an English Angora. Fuzzy was also taught to safely tether. These two loved camping and hiking.

My old Muffin and Fuzzy, my most favorite rabbit ever.

Now that we are warmed up, let’s look at temperament!

There is much research being done as to the genetics behind behavior in dogs. Temperament is thought to be a polygenetic trait. As of now, the genes for temperament have yet to be identified and isolated.  What is known is that there are genetic influences of temperament.  Once the egg and sperm unite, if fertilization is successful, the groundwork for health, color, size, coat and even behavior is started.

Breed traits are basically predispositions that begin on a genetic level: e.g., young puppies exhibiting temperament traits of the breed without any formal training. There may be a strong work drive – Border Collies.  There may be a predisposition to scenting – Bloodhounds.  Other breeds have a strong desire to dig – West Highland White Terrier.  Even in crossbred dogs of a known cross (not a guess made at a rescue based on phenotype – which may be inaccurate), there is a genetic predisposition to temperament.  You may get puppies close to one parent, close to another or all over the place with traits really of neither parent. Some puppies may have a predisposition towards fear or confidence.  Genetics lay the foundation.  Genetics is the Nature part.

Splash at a herding instinct test. She had no prior training and had only seen sheep once as a puppy.

Splash at a herding instinct test. She had no prior training and had only seen sheep once as a puppy.

Here is the video of the above run. 

Environmental factors factors now come into play. This is the Nurture part.  Make the analogy of grooming for the show ring.  How many exhibitors use various grooming aids such as chalk, coat clipping and even hair color to influence the look of the dog?  You can take a good dog and make him look great.  However, there is only so much grooming can do.  I cannot take a dog that has an overshot jaw and hide that.  I cannot take a dog with blue eyes and make them brown if the standard calls for that.  I cannot take an oversized or undersized dog and groom him into size.  Grooming for the show ring makes a good analogy to temperament: take what nature gives you and build upon it.  However, there is only so much building we can do depending on what we are given.

Sarah at age 4 learning to groom. D'Argo was way too big for show and no amount of grooming would bring his size down.

Sarah at age 4 learning to groom. D’Argo was way too big for show and no amount of grooming would bring his size down.

Ideally, to help encourage sound temperaments in offspring, only dogs with sound temperaments should be bred. But are sound parents enough?  When breeding, more than just the parents need to be looked at until the genetics behind temperament are better understood. Dogs from lines with a predominance of consistently sound temperaments should be bred.  This will help increase the chance of passing good temperaments on to the offspring (though not a guarantee).  If a line is producing a lot of questionable dogs as opposed to sound dogs, there may be a genetic predisposition for poor temperaments in that line. (Poor in this context means undesired temperament traits.) Here is where the question of which parent more greatly influences temperament comes into play.

A male can influence a LINE genetically more than a female. Why?  Look at how many times a year a male can be bred as opposed to a female.  Does he have more influence over a single pup than the female?  No.  Remember each parent contributes 50% of his/her genetic material to an offspring.  However, a male who has something bad or good can spread it faster through a line than a female can.  A male can sire more litters in a month than a female could have her entire safe breeding life.  Therefore, a male with poor temperament can affect the line to a greater degree than the female.

The dam is the most influential socially with the pups.  Not only does she contribute half of her genetics, she is the first social interaction a pup will have.  Littermates and the breeder or rescuer are next in line.  A dam who is not good with her puppies or in an environment that is not conducive to good socializing can have a negative impact on puppies.  Maternal stress and diet during pregnancy can affect the puppies’ outcome. So in this respect, the dam has more influence.  If two parents have poor temperaments, the chance of reproducing this trait is greater.  If one parent has a poor temperament, the chance for puppies with a predisposition is greater. Therefore, breeding for good temperament and insisting sire and dam have it is important.  To be safe, go a step further and look to relatives of these dogs.  If they have good temperaments but have produced poor pups or has more poor relatives that you are comfortable with, reconsider the breeding of this dog.

Remember, the actual genetics behind temperament are not fully known at this point and at the point of rewrite.  This means there is no genetic test for temperament genes.  We do not know how many genes play into temperament.  We do not know how they work together.  Therefore all breeders can do in regards to genetics (even those breeding “just for pets” or allowing pets to have “oooops” litters) is breed for the best they can.

So, you have bred the two best dogs in temperament, you have increased the probability of pups with good temperaments (Nature). Now we come into the environmental factors of temperament (Nurture).  What are you doing to help ensure the genetics you tried to reproduce can develop to their fullest?  The term “Kennel Dog” gets tossed around quite a bit.  To some, this means a dog that has lived most of its life in a kennel situation.  The dog is socialized basically to that environment.  The dog may be confident in these situations but gets nervous when outside of them.  There can be varying degrees of kennel dog.  However, puppies that are raised in a kennel environment and placed in homes while still puppies can show the effects of being a “Kennel Dog.”

I have worked with “Kennel Dogs” that were either grown out show pups who did not make the cut or retired show dogs placed in pet homes. I have worked with many puppies and young adult dogs from rescues (shelters and foster homes) all showing degrees of “kennel dog syndrome.” With some of these dogs, a solid temperament is evident.  The dogs may show apprehension at a new thing due to a lack of good socializing but recover fast from the initial shock.  These are dogs that probably come from good backgrounds but the socializing, especially as younger pups, was not done adequately to things other than a small fraction of the world outside the home. However, the dog is probably genetically predisposed to better handle stresses and  “comes out of his shell.” However, other dogs remain scared of their own shadows and take more work to get the dogs to even accept a new person.  (If they can recover at all).

These dogs may have a genetic predisposition to shyness or even fear. They may never be as outgoing as other dogs no matter how much work was done. How many of us have seen dogs that are consistently “shy”?  What about dogs deemed “aggressive” (often a manifestation of fear) and we are told they just need love. How many of us hear that owners have failed their dogs and caused the problem?  If the dog was properly trained and socialized to things outside the home, the dog should not be shying away from things. The dog should not have any behaviors concerns if humans did their jobs. Right? Wrong.

It was once thought that neonatal puppies should never be handled. No, puppies need to be handled and interacted with the moment they are born.  Pups worked gently with during the first 12 days of life showed a lessening in stress and greater recovery when exposed to new things.  Picking up, gentle exposures to temperature changes, etc (just lifting out of the whelping box is a change for the neonate), all are forms of early socializing. Pups left alone during this time often grew into more emotionally reactive adults.  As eyes and ears open, the pups are gradually and gently exposed to sounds and sights. Play yards are enriched with things to climb, knock about, crawl under, etc.  Toys are rotated so that the pups get exposed to many different things.  They are given different surfaces to walk on like grass, gravel, wood, concrete and metal.  This is all done in a controlled environment.

For more on socializing, read this https://westwinddogtraining.wordpress.com/2015/02/19/social-butterflies-socializing-beginnings/

Puppies are gradually introduced to new situations so as not to startle them and risk developing fear responses. Just because a pup is too young to leave the home safely is no excuse for not beginning early socializing.  Some service dog organizations begin teaching basic behaviors on cue such as sit, walking with humans, lying down as well as building confidence in young pups before they go to raisers for the next 12 – 24 months. These puppies are given not only the best genetic basis possible, but early work to help improve the developing temperament of the pup. People breeding and rescuing dogs need to keep this in mind: early socializing starts at birth.  The more you do the first 8 – 10 weeks, the better the chance the puppy has if nature has been fair.

Connor and D'Argo many years ago. Good breeding and good socializing plus good training.

Connor and D’Argo many years ago. Good breeding and good socializing plus good training.

What about fear stages we all hear about? Puppies go through stages all through their development.  Some of these stages include apprehension or even fear of new things.  Some trainers and behaviorists try to give set ages for when a growing pup will enter these “fear stages.”  However, I have found that the timing of stages varies puppy to puppy.  Some pups never appear to go through them. Some are at the other end of the spectrum and seem to be afraid all the time.  Therefore, age-related fear stages, in my opinion, should be used as a guide and not law.  Each puppy is an individual.  When we try to pigeonhole all pups into a set idea such as FEAR STAGES BEGIN AT THIS AGE, we can end up inadvertently affecting the development of the individual pup.  Again, use these stages as a guide but know not to expect all pups to fall into them.

The prime time for socializing is the first 16 weeks of life. If a puppy develops a fear of something during this time, he may remain fearful of it unless worked with carefully.  The developing fears can also include things a pup was not exposed to before leaving the breeder’s or rescuer’s home.  So, get creative and see what scenarios you can mimic in your home to help give the pups you have produced a boost on the nurturing that will hopefully happen in their future environments. Now expand upon this.  Breeders and trainers need to educate new owners about early socializing in the new home before the pup is old enough (a week after the first vaccine) to begin Puppy Kindergarten.  All the hard work you do to get pups off to a good start could be set back if the owners do not continue it.

What about temperament testing? A single temperament test at say seven weeks of age is not a good indicator of the pup’s final outcome.   A pup that tests on the lower end of what you desire on one day, may test higher a few days later as he gains more confidence and is worked with.  A pup that seems fine one day may exhibit apprehension the next.  Pups that consistently exhibit fear and do not recover well when exposed to new things are pups to worry about.  These pups may become problems (such as fear aggressive).  Pups that score very high on tests and show no fear and actually want to seek out new things may be too much for the average dog owner.  These are pups that are sometimes referred to as having high work drives.  In terriers, the term “game” may be applied.  Frequent temperament testing of pups can help you determine what pups are best in what homes or for what events.  A lower key dog may not do well in Agility whereas an overly outgoing pup may be too much for the novice dog owner.  A pup that is very shy and even fearful may be a problem later on if placed in the wrong home.  And to the extreme, some dogs with serious genetic predispositions to either end of the temperament scale may never be able to safely function in society.  Through frequent temperament testing, the environment can be adapted to work with each pup and bring out its best to give the new owner a solid basis to work with.  Even careful observation by a knowledgeable person can be very telling.

For an excellent read on temperament testing adult dogs, read this.  http://thebark.com/content/dog-details

For an excellent read on puppy temperament testing, read this: http://www.veterinarypartner.com/Content.plx?A=2141

What about temperament growth? It has been said that temperament development occurs only during puppy hood.  Yes and no.  The early stages of growth and development can give the basis for later temperament.  This is why early socializing and training from puppy through adult hood is important.  However, there have been cases of dogs that have gone through years of trauma and neglect rebounding and becoming superb companions and even working dogs.  Obviously, these dogs may have something else going on.  If temperament was all nature and development stopped as the dog entered adulthood, then dogs suffering trauma of one form of another would never make it.  On the other hand, dogs who have had great homes, well socialized and trained positively, yet are still behavioral wrecks even as adults may have something else going on here. Maybe it’s those genes?

Temperament is a combination of nature and nurture. Each parent contributes 50% of its genetic material.  Until the genetics behind temperament are identified, isolated and understood, the best assurance for a good background is to breed the best dogs from the best dogs.  Give a solid foundation genetically.  From then on, nurture it along – and pray Nature had a good cup of coffee when she aligns the genetics.

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