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?

“Sorry, she’s a rescue…”

Am I the only one guilty of this transgression?

Relaxing a bit
Pyrrha, circa June 2012. A few weeks after we adopted her. (Check out the pup cooler-raiding in the background.)

Scenario: Your dog has a reactive outburst. Or growls at an approaching toddler. Or does something behaviorally embarrassing to you, the owner. You see the shocked or scared faces of people around you. And so you say, “Oh, sorry about that. She’s a rescue…” by way of explanation.

Excuses, excuses! It’s terrible, I know, but I’m pretty sure this statement has spilled from my lips in a tense public moment with Pyrrha.

It feels like an easy “out,” especially with strangers. They then just seem to think, “Oh, I get it. Your dog has a lot of baggage.” And yes, it’s true: Pyrrha does have a lot of baggage.

But I’m just reinforcing negative stereotypes about rescue dogs whenever I say this. Some rescues are totally issue free. And some aren’t. But I’m adding to this public perception of rescue dogs as damaged goods whenever I say this. And I want to stop.

Better explanations I can issue to strangers, if Pyrrha has an outburst:

  • “I’m sorry about that; she has some fear issues that we are working on.”
  • “I’m sorry; we are working on training her.”
  • “Hope we didn’t scare you; we are working on polite behavior in public!”

Do you ever say this about your dog? Have you found more helpful things to say to people to explain your dog’s sometimes problematic behavior?

 

 

Pro-rescue doesn’t have to mean anti-breeding

Lately, I have been thinking about this post on My Rotten Dogs and about the division between the pro-rescue and pro-purebred camps of dog lovers. Can they peaceably coexist?

There are purebred elitists — people who think the only dogs worth having are from registered breeders — and there are rescue elitists — people who judge the purebred elitists and think the only dogs worth having are from rescues.

I am unequivocally pro-rescue. Both of our shepherds were adopted from Southeast German Shepherd Rescue, and we served as a foster home for SGSR pups for about a year (something I’d love to start doing again one day). The beauty and mercy of rescuing a homeless dog is a matchless feeling, and that is a tie that really binds.

But I am not anti-breeding or anti-purebred dogs. Our dogs are both purebred, and I am an advocate for ethical breeders, because I have seen first-hand what irresponsible, negligent breeders can do to dogs, both physically and emotionally.

Laszlo in the evening
Laszlo, our foster puppy, a German shepherd mix.

A Pro-Rescue Person Defends People Who Purchase Purebreds

I will always have a rescue dog in my life, but that doesn’t mean I don’t see the serious benefits of raising a purebred puppy from Day One. I believe that Pyrrha, for instance, could have been a totally different dog if we’d met her at 10 weeks of age instead of at 1 year.

Rescue dogs, almost by definition, come with some kind of baggage, or at the very least, an element of mystery. This doesn’t mean that they are going to be screwier than a purebred, by any means, but it just means you know a lot less about their background and heritage.

Anecdotally, the most stable dogs I know are purebreds raised from puppyhood by their current owners. The dogs I know who have the most issues to work through are almost always the rescues, even those that were raised from puppyhood. This doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to have a purebred who is a psychopath, or that it’s impossible to have a totally sound, issue-free pound puppy: both definitely exist. But the odds of having a dog with some form of baggage to work through is greater if you’ve got a rescue pup.

Playdate with Josie
A well-bred GSD (Josie, on the left) and a poorly bred GSD (Pyrrha).

I confess that I sometimes get jealous of the people who have carefree, sound, emotionally stable purebred dogs (like Josie, Heath, and Loki). These dogs all came from responsible breeders, and the dogs are a testament of their breeders’ conscientiousness and their owners’ care. Josie, Heath, and Loki can go anywhere and do anything; they have no fear issues or reactivity; they love people, children, and other dogs. I marvel at them sometimes.

Of course, there are also rescues who are essentially bombproof (Roland and Zoe come to mind, of the dogs I know). They do exist. But when a dog-loving person buys a purebred puppy, I put aside my rescue righteousness and think, “I get it. I really do.”

I was talking with Carolyn, Josie’s mom, about this very issue during our recent play-date. Her first German shepherd, Maya, was a rescue, and Maya had some fear issues and reactivity issues with other dogs, among other things. Josie, however, came from a highly respected working-line German shepherd breeder and entered Carolyn’s household as a puppy. Josie is unfazed by most things and is a very smart, stable dog; she was the most laid-back dog at the play-date.

“Maya was my heart dog,” Carolyn said, “and I would never say anything against her, but my life with Josie is so much easier. I almost feel like I have more joy in my relationship with Josie, simply because she has fewer issues.”

That struck a chord with me. I would never trade Pyrrha or Eden for the world, and anxious Pyr is my heart dog, too, but I sometimes dream of a life with less anxious, high-strung dogs.

Support Each Other

If you’re in the rescue camp, support ethical, responsible breeders. I believe people are always going to want purebred dogs, so if we accept that as truth, we should support great breeders. Champion breeders who do their research, who produce the best possible version of a breed, and who care about the mental and physical health of their dogs. The world needs more breeders like this. If you have friends looking for purebred puppies, point them in the right direction to such breeders as these (and not to pet shops or backyard breeders).

If you’re in the purebred camp, support smart, proactive shelters and rescues. Share your knowledge of a particular breed with a breed-specific rescue (like where our girls came from). Volunteer as a foster home or as a dog walker at your local shelter. Get to know your local rescue organizations and learn about their missions and their needs.

The Bottom Line

In conclusion, I am still a person who would tell people to rescue before they bought a purebred puppy, but I will never judge anyone for the decision they make, as only that person knows what kind of dog is best for their family and lifestyle. Even though I think I’ll always have rescues, I still dream about choosing that “perfect” purebred puppy.

When you acquire as much knowledge about a subject as we* have, it’s hard to stop ourselves from becoming unbearably opinionated and judgmental. (*I say “we” because if you’re reading this blog, you probably have a deep, abiding interest in dogs, dog culture, and canine behavior, more than the average person.)

But let’s stop judging each other for our decisions. You bought a purebred puppy from a great, responsible breeder? Good for you! You adopted a mix-breed dog from a shelter? Good for you! Either way, good tidings and blessings in your adventures in dog raising.

Sweet Heath
Heath, a purebred golden retriever.

Do you ever find yourself having to withhold judgment, on one side of the rescue/breeding camp or the other? How do you think rescues and breeders can do a better job supporting each other?

Related Reading:

Vote for Pyrrha to appear in a calendar!

Guilty pageant mom request!

If you’re feeling bored and on Facebook, wanna vote for Pyrrha to appear in the rescue’s calendar?

All you have to do is click “like” on the Facebook page.

The photos with the most “likes” get into the calendar. All calendar proceeds will benefit Southeast German Shepherd Rescue, and calendars can be pre-ordered for US$23.

Even if you don’t want to vote, the entire album is worth looking at; there are so many beautiful, happy, rescued shepherds! They make me so happy.

Thanks, and happy Friday!