Nature and nurture in dog raising

Creative Commons license. Via photopin.com.
Creative Commons license. Via photopin.com.

One of the most important contributions of modern neuroscience has been to show that the nature/nurture debate operates around a false dichotomy: the assumption that biology, on one hand, and lived experience, on the other, affect us in fundamentally different ways. Research has shown that not only do nature and nurture each contribute to who we are, but also that they speak the same language. Both achieve their effects by altering the synaptic organization of the brain. The process by which experience shapes synapses is referred to as “synaptic plasticity.” Although a great deal of synaptic plasticity occurs during early childhood as the brain is developing, plasticity in the form of learning and memory continues to shape our synapses throughout our lives.

— Joseph LeDoux, “Nature vs. Nurture: The Pendulum Still Swings with Plenty of Momentum,” Chronicle of Higher Education (11 December 1998).

Hope B. thoughtfully suggested a post on nature vs. nurture in dog raising, and it’s a great topic. I think most of us recognize, by now, that this isn’t a chicken-or-egg conundrum; clearly, both factors are always at play with every dog (genetics and environment), but it’s a fascinating thing to ponder, especially since dogs can come into our lives at so many different junctures — as purebred puppies, as adult rescues, etc. — and from so many different backgrounds (breeders, shelters, puppy mills, foster homes, the next-door neighbor).

I’d like to frame this post as a discussion of both elements, instead of as a debate between them. As the blog Science of Dogs has clearly explained, the so-called nature vs. nurture debate should have died off a long time ago:

The simple fact is that genes can influence behavior. Behavior can influence environment. Environment can influence genes. It’s an interactive and ongoing bouillabaisse with behavior as the ongoing product, but all are affected by each other. And behavior is not the final product because as long as an organism is alive, it has the potential to change.

— Science of Dogs, “Nature vs Nurture: Time to End the Debate” (25 May 2012)

So here are just some case studies from my own experience. I’d love to hear about yours!

Case Studies

Emma

Sam, my little brother, and Emma, circa 2002.
Sam, my little brother, and Emma, circa 2002.

My childhood dog Emma was purchased from a breeder who also raised miniature horses. He was an old farmer who loved his dogs and didn’t compete in the show ring. By today’s standards, he probably would have been classified as a “backyard breeder,” a term of derision, but I think he did a good job by his dogs — even if he probably never considered their genetic legacy or their fitness for herding, etc. But his Aussies were actually “herding” — albeit miniature horses — and so I suppose they were working dogs.

We got to meet both of her parents (Candy and Bandit), and they were sweet, gentle dogs. Candy was a tricolor and Bandit was a blue merle; Emma ended up with strong markings from both sides. Emma was one of the most tricolor-looking-but-technically-blue-merle Aussies I’ve ever seen.

Emma was a really remarkable, intelligent, and beautiful dog. We did not do right by her, and I regret my adolescent ignorance regarding her welfare. Emma is an example of good nature afflicted by misguided or ignorant nurture. My family didn’t really know what a working-line-level Aussie meant. Emma should have been raised on a farm, like the one she came from; at the very least, she should have gotten 10 times more exercise and mental stimulation than we gave her. We lived in a suburban one-story home in a busy neighborhood with a tiny backyard, and so Emma spent most of her time barking. Barking, barking, barking.

My mom got fed up with her and arranged for Emma to go live with some of her college friends, who had acreage in the country. The day my dad took her to her new home, he sobbed, leaning his head on her crate, as he loaded her up in the truck. To this day, I’ve never seen him cry that hard. I got to see her one more time, when I was a teenager, and we went to visit the family who had her. We all cried when we saw her; she jumped right into our car, even though the car was one of her fear triggers, and kissed all of our faces. Emma met a sad end; she was killed by a car and left on the side of the road.

Even though I was a relatively ignorant and powerless kid, Emma’s story is still one of my biggest life regrets.

Emma.
Emma.

Pyrrha

Her safe space
Pyrrha in her crate for the first time; June 5, 2012.

Pyrrha’s case could be viewed as the opposite of Emma’s: screwed-up nature attempting to be remedied with patient nurture.

Pyrrha came from a backyard breeder in North Carolina. The German shepherd rescue raided his operation when he told them he was planning on euthanizing all of his dogs, because he was tired of being a breeder. (Good solution, dude. Kill all the dogs! Really?!?)

According to the rescue VP, who went on the raid and served as Pyrrha’s foster home, the dogs were kept in filthy outdoor pens. They were completely unsocialized to both dogs and people, and so of course, they all had a ton of fear issues. They were all rather fat, though, because the breeder just gave them tons of food to keep them quiet. I’m not aware of any physical abuse that happened, but Pyrrha, as well as the other dogs from that breeder, were all noticeably more afraid of men than of women.

At 1 year of age, Pyrrha was one of the younger dogs who came out of that situation, and she showed slightly more potential than some of her older relatives, who were almost entirely shut down. I got to meet a handful of her relatives, and what I will say, to the dogs’ credit, is that they were all extremely gentle dogs. For dogs with such a poor upbringing and such a lack of socialization, I continue to marvel at how gentle they were. There was no snapping or snarling or attempts to attack people, which are certainly to be expected of such mistreated, fearful dogs. They were clearly scared of almost everything, but they were very soft, sweet animals, despite it all. Pyrrha is still the same way.

The night we first saw Pyrrha
First time we met Pyrrha, May 2012. See how she was kinda chunky!

Pyrrha was unspayed and intended to become a breeding bitch. I love my girl to death, but I am so glad she was never bred. Not to mention that I think she would have been a pretty lazy mom, but I also believe Pyrrha would have passed on her fearful temperament to another litter of puppies.

She’s made amazing progress since we brought her home two years ago, and she still has lots of progress that will be made. I don’t think we’ll ever be able to “nurture out” Pyrrha’s fearful temperament and her unfavorable background, but she is a testament of how much a fearful dog can learn and grow with patience.

Laszlo

Out back with baby Laszlo
Guion with baby Laszlo.

Laszlo was such a cute, oddly shaped puppy. We fostered him through our rescue organization, and he was our first official puppy foster. His back story was that he’d been thrown over a West Virginia shelter fence in the middle of the night, and that was all anyone knew about him. (He was originally called “Duke,” but I renamed him Laszlo, and his adoptive family kept the name!) Laszlo is an example of uncertain nature raised up through the perfect nurture environment.

I wasn’t tempted to keep him, because Pyrrha didn’t love him that much, and because he had a tendency to get snappish and growl-y when he was afraid. This was surely something we could have worked on, if we decided to keep him. But Laszlo found the absolute perfect home with a young farming couple and their older GSD mix, BB, and their big, lovable cat.

Because of the amazing life he now leads (photos below), Laszlo has blossomed into a really great dog. His human mom works at a winery in the mountains, and so Laszlo gets to go to work with her every day. He lives the old-fashioned off-leash life, and he’s apparently a fantastic dog. I’ve had friends go see him at the vineyard and say that he is the most calm, chill dog they’ve ever seen.

Laszlo "helping" with the harvest.
Laszlo “helping” with the harvest.
Laszlo on the vineyard with his big sister, BB.
Laszlo on the vineyard with his big sister, BB.
Laszlo with his BFF, the family cat.
Laszlo with his BFF, the family cat.

Regardless of his genetic heritage, Laszlo is definitely a win for the nurture side! I don’t think he would have been that great in our household; he really needed that laid-back, anxiety-free owner, and that’s exactly what he got.

So, a lot of text here, but I’m curious to hear your thoughts. Is nature vs. nurture still a debate worth having?

What do you think? How much of your dog’s temperament can be pinned on nature or nurture? Or both?

Mistakes were made (by me)

When I reflect on my (relatively short) time spent raising a dog, I am frequently aghast by the rookie mistakes I’ve made. And yet remembering these mistakes helps me to be more gracious with myself — and with other novice dog owners.

It’s going to be hard to admit some of these things to you, but I’m always encouraged by the honesty of other dog bloggers, who are willing to fess up and share what they’ve learned. So, here it goes.

She kills me
Edie! She is too much.

7 Mistakes I’ve Made in Dog Raising

  1. Trying to bathe Pyrrha with a garden hose… on a choke collar. So many mistakes here. First, we’d only had her a week. She smelled so badly, though, that I was desperate to bathe her, despite the fact that I knew little about her personality (except that she was scared all the time). Second, choke collar. OMG. What was wrong with me?? I don’t know why I thought that was a good idea. Third, garden hose. She was terrified; she was screaming like she had been mortally wounded. Poor Pyr almost strangled herself trying to get away. I stopped the bath immediately, took a soaking wet Pyrrha into the house, and then cried on the kitchen floor. Not my best dog-rearing day.
  2. Taking Pyrrha to a busy outdoor brewery the third night we had her. Knowing so little about Pyrrha’s level of anxiety, I thought she’d just “get over it” and took her to a brew pub with Guion and my in-laws. She saw a bunch of kids and a roly-poly lab puppy on a leash and was petrified. Tail totally tucked under her body, ears flat back, growling. Oh, it was horrible. And such a bad idea.
  3. Using a prong collar on Brando. Brando was our first foster, and he weighed nearly 100 lbs., and was all frantic strength and muscle. This dog was a sweetheart, but a wild one. I could not walk him at all, and so, at the rescue’s advice, we bought a prong collar for him. I had no idea how to use it, never having used one before, and it certainly made him stop pulling, but did it teach him anything — except that people and other dogs on walks were causing an unpleasant pinching? Nope.
  4. Not trusting my instincts on dog body language. The worst example of this was when our foster Rainer met a potential adopter’s dog. The woman’s male German shepherd came onto our yard with immediately aggressive behavior (head down, hard stare, slow predatory walk) directed at Rainer. This made me really uncomfortable. She said, “Oh, it’s OK! He does this all the time. It’s herding behavior.” Instead of listening to my gut and telling her to go away, I let the dogs meet, and Rainer straight up tried to kill her dog. Worst day. (Everyone survived, a few stitches later, but it was such a bad day.) The positive outcome? That incident made me super-vigilant about observing dog body language and trusting my gut with dog–dog interactions.
  5. Not taking Pyrrha’s on-leash reactivity seriously when it first showed up. It is still unusual to me that she didn’t start reactive behavior until we started fostering, but I wasn’t interpreting the behavior correctly or doing anything to help her. I wish I had taken action sooner.
  6. Being a lazy and inconsistent trainer. Ugh, this one still plagues me. Inconsistency is my nemesis in dog training. I know, mentally, that I have to be consistent for the dogs to learn the behavior and repeat it successfully, but practically? I make sloppy mistakes all the time. Instead of making Eden lie down (our decided behavior to curb her mealtime madness) before she gets to eat, I sometimes let her sit. Or balance on her hind legs like a circus pony. Not helpful, Abby.
  7. Yelling at the dogs. I admit, this still happens from time to time. But yelling accomplishes nothing! They don’t learn anything from yelling. Eden is immune to it, and it just startles Pyrrha. And it’s not nice. So, that’s something I still need to totally expunge from my repertoire.

Surely there are many more! But these are the big ones that come to mind. Ugh.

How about you? Any mistakes you made with your dog that now make you cringe?