Genetics and Dog Training
Nature vs nurture is a hot topic even in the dog world. Genetics and dog training can go hand in hand, and knowing the background of your dog can give you a much needed leg up in training or at least provide you with insight into your dog.
Dog genetics is also unfortunately overlooked by many owners or would be dog owners and is a massive factor in rehoming and behavior issues. This misunderstanding and lack of information on what makes up a dog’s breed, what needs of theirs need to be met, is an unfortunate player in good dogs being euthanized unnecessarily.
Dog Genetics - Nature and Nurture
Basic science courses teach us about genetics and DNA, the building blocks that make up living organisms. Genes are responsible for so much of what makes up an animal/human, much more than most want to realize.
On of the most common things that I see owners and regular people do is categorize dogs into the simple category of dogs, with subsets based on appearance only. I ask most owners why they chose their particular dog/breed, and being visual beings roughly 90% will mention something to do with the dog’s appearance, admiring the breed, or something to do with how the dog looked at the moment.
How a dog looks is only a small fraction of what dog genetics are responsible for, and discounting or downplaying all the rest lands owners and dogs in bad situations. Breeds of dogs can be so vastly different from each other when compared yet that is minimized by many people and the assumption or misconception is that a dog is a dog is a dog. This can’t be farther from the truth.
A lot of noise is out there of people vehemently defending the false idea that “it’s all in how you raise them”, which isn’t just detrimental to owners, but also to dogs, and reputable breeders. Genetics isn’t just the clothing that a dog comes in, it’s also a blueprint for a dog’s behavior, habits, and predispositions.
It isn’t Nature VS Nurture, it’s Nature AND Nurture. These two things work together to produce your individual dog. Yes there are things that can happen to the dog due to their owner or how they were raised that build fear and nervousness. But this can also happen in the womb before they are born, and if their parents had nervousness or fear problems, that will be passed down to a degree. Same with many other unwanted behaviors.
Better breeding, better dogs
The breeder’s responsibility is to improve their breed. This means finding the BEST candidates to breed, doing appropriate health checks, not breeding dogs with behavioral issues, and also having proved their lines in either the showring or dog sports. DO NOT BE FOOLED. AKC or other registration DOES NOT mean quality, it simply means the breeder has paid to register the litter.
This chart is from the AKC website. It’s simply a matter of money, not a matter of the quality of the dog at all. Unfortunately this lack of knowledge is how puppy mills and backyard breeders essentially scam owners looking for a puppy.
This is not to say that good breeders don’t or shouldn’t register their pups. The dogs should absolutely be registered, however that is not how we measure the quality of the dog at all.
Breeding dogs is about both consistency but also improving the breed as a whole. Backyard breeder and puppy mills are so detrimental to this goal especially when neither is producing dogs that are high quality or even behaviorally stable.
Signs of a good breeder
- Interviews you about your goals and wants in a dog
- Has health tested both sire and dam and freely gives out the information for you to examine
- Freely shares the pedigree of both the sire and the dam
- Both sire and dam have proven themselves in the show ring or in dog sports
- Has a contract
- Offers a health guarantee and lifetime support of the puppy
- Is passionate about their breed
- Can tell you extensively what they were hoping to improve in both the sire and dam and why they chose these two particular dogs
- Little or no health testing
- Doesn’t help you pick a pup or pick one for you
- No pedigree to show you, reluctant to share papers proving lineage
- Dogs are not titled in anything in the show or sport world
- No contract
- Dodgy behavior
- No papers
Genetics and Dog Training
Genetics is the measuring stick for your dog. For a simple example genetics say that for any given trait your dog has a predetermined and finite range. Let’s say 1-10.
The dog’s environment, their training, their mother’s prenatal care, and the way the puppy was raised are what help determine where exactly on that range the dog falls. There is a level of inflexibility that is determined by the genetic range. For certain traits the range may be very narrow, for others it may be broad.
Training CANNOT change the genetic range. That is hardwired into the dog. We can’t fight nature, we can only work with it. It is as permanent as a physical characteristic, like a long coat, or floppy ears.
Training instead can influence where on the range your dog falls. If they have aggressive tendencies, fear problems, anxiety, etc, those are all things that training can help change. There is a limit though, and one that is hidden in the genetics of the dog.
The Right Breed for the Task
In addition to a wide range of appearances, many breeds have been specifically bred for many generations to fill roles to help us in our lives. Traits have been bred into them to help them best succeed at these tasks. These are both physical traits, like body structure, size, and coat type, and also more esoteric traits like energy level, biddability, calmness, courage, and sensitivity.
Our lives have changed drastically in the past few generations. Which means that the lives of our dogs have as well. The problem arises though from the fact that many parts of our lives are in direct conflict with the traits of our dogs. Dogs are no longer fulfilling both roles as companions and vital working partners in our day to day lives. The latter has been amputated for many dogs. A symptom of this is behavior problems, which we have an epidemic of nowadays.
For the wellbeing of your dog it is so important for them to be the right fit for your lifestyle. A dog who is made to work all day, who’s genetics scream out a huge need for physicality, is never going to be able to adapt to apartment life with no real outlet. Dogs can become destructive, neurotic, unruly, and too much for owners to handle. Reactivity is another very common symptom of this as well.
For the wellbeing of your family and current or future dog, it’s well worth your time in doing real breed research. Not just deciding you like the breed because of how they look or how you perceive them due to limited exposure to one. What was the breed bred for? What will their main daily tasks be at home? Are you needing a calmer or laid back dog? There is an ocean of free knowledge about this online or in libraries for anyone to access. Taking some time to do so will give you a much clearer picture of what kind of dog would fit into your lifestyle and save you the heartbreak and stress of a bad match.
No amount of training can fix or change something genetic. Those energy requirements in your dog aren’t changing, we can’t diminish them to something You’d prefer or more convenient to your lifestyle. We can only channel them and fulfill them.
Traits > Looks
I hate to break it to you but when we’re talking about genetics and dog training, looks have to be talked about too. Maybe you’ve admired the Belgian malinois you’ve seen in movies or on tv. Maybe that German shepherd has caught your eye, or you imagine yourself walking that border collie or having great fun with a spunky cattle dog or husky. Or maybe a you love the thought of a Jack Russell or Miniature Pinscher.
All of these breeds have their own unique traits and characteristics that separate them from the next breed. All of them purposely bred into them and genetically hardwired. This doesn’t mean that they’re bad dogs, however their looks are always going to be secondary to their physical needs. And for some of these listed breeds, their physical needs are more than the average person can handle.
Looks mean nothing when you’ve got a dog with behavior problems on your hands. Purchasing a dog because of how they look or as a status symbol is not the right way to go about it and will end with behavior issues. Dog genetics aren’t something you can outrun.