Dogs are often affectionately referred to as “children” by their owners and some new research shows that the similarities may run even deeper. Just as you can influence a child’s personality to some degree (nurture), a dog personality may be influenced by its owners in the same way.
Now, there’s a long-held, ongoing debate in human psychology known as the “nature vs. nurture” theory. The idea is that nature is what you inherit from genetics or biology, and nurture is what you learn from your environment – your life experience.1
The question is, how much of human behavior is made up of each? Which is more dominant, nature or nurture?
Now this question is being asked of canines. How much of an animal’s personality and temperament is biological, and how much is related to the family they live with?
Let’s start with biology (or breed), as that’s how people have long assumed that dog personality works.
Why Some Dog Breeds Have a Bad Reputation
Some dogs carry with them a bad reputation because of their breed. Large, strong dogs — like pit bulls — are a prime example. In fact, the idea that all pit bull varieties are dangerous has led to them being banned in several cities and countries around the world.2
But, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), one main reason some dog breeds have a bad reputation is because of the way statistics work.
Any dog can be aggressive – big dogs and miniature dogs. But small dog bites are less likely to inflict serious damage, so they often go widely under-reported. When large dogs attack they can inflict massive damage, so the attacks are far more likely to be reported.3
Another reason for breed bias is buried within some dark history that’s shown the world just how aggressive some dogs can potentially be – i.e. pit bulls used for dog fighting, German shepherds used by the Nazis, bloodhounds used to hunt slaves, and Rottweilers used as aggressively-trained guard dogs.4
Why High Energy Breeds Can Be Destructive
Now, a dog is often labeled as “bad” when it has a habit of acting out. For example, a high-energy dog may continuously destroy possessions around the home.
It’s true that certain dog breeds seem to naturally have greater energy. Some of this may be biological – for example, some dogs have been bred for centuries as hunting or cattle dogs which involves a lot of racing about.
But it’s much more likely that your high energy dog isn’t getting their physical, mental, or social needs regularly met. And, this can result in ransacking your trash, peeing on the rug, or shredding your slippers. This is why it’s vital that before you get a dog, you take the time to learn about basic dog care and which breed is the right match for your lifestyle.
High-energy dogs have specific needs, including:
- A good exercise plan
- Regular training
- Solid mental stimuli
- A specific diet to help meet their energy requirements
- Rewards for calm behavior5
If you have concerns about your dog’s energy levels, it’s time for a chat with your veterinarian.
Dog Personality: Dog Owners
Which brings us to YOU — the pooch parent.
As you’ve just read, a high-energy dog’s outbursts might be part of their nature, but you might unwittingly be contributing to this behavior. For example, you might not have enough time or energy for regular dog walks or training.
Science suggests owners can shape their dogs’ behavior. One study showed that dogs may have specific personality traits that shape how they react in certain situations (just like humans). These traits may be heavily influenced by an owner’s behavior. They can also change over time with age and life circumstances.
In the study, extroverted humans rated their dogs as excitable, active, and less aggressive towards people and animals.
By contrast, owners with more pessimistic, negative emotions rated their own dogs as more fearful, less active, and less responsive to training.6
As it turns out, scientists believe, the personalities of dogs are greatly influenced by the concept of “nurture,” which is quite distinct from their biological breed.
Dog Personality: Good Training
When you look at all of this information on what can influence a good dog or a bad dog, one thing is clear: good training from the beginning is key. Training offers many benefits for your dog:
- It instills in them a sense of right and wrong.
- It provides good mental stimulation, which keeps them in good spirits (just like humans).
- It gives your dog plenty of exercise, ensuring they’re physically spent by the end of the day.
Now, many reputable dog organizations recommend reward-based training methods. This involves rewarding and reinforcing good behavior and ignoring bad behavior. Reward-based training also helps develop a happy relationship between an owner and their pooch.
What’s the right age to start training your pooch? Booking puppies into dog obedience classes early on can help start them off on the right foot. The RSPCA suggests there’s a “critical socialization period” from 3-17 weeks of age where the animals can best learn social cues and how to communicate with other dogs.7
Good Dog, Bad Dog
Saying a dog was born high maintenance or that it has a natural instinct to maul humans because of its breed is wrong. That’s like saying you must be a bad human because you share ethnicity with Ted Bundy! It’s far too broad, and it’s just not fair.
In fact, a study conducted by the AVMA of over 256 dog bite-related fatalities from 2000 to 2009 found that most were characterized by preventable factors, and a dog’s breed wasn’t one of them. What were these factors? They included:
- Dogs off leash without an owner
- Owner failure to neuter dogs
- Dogs kept isolated from regular, positive human interactions
- Owners’ prior mismanagement of dogs
- Owners’ history of abuse or neglect of dogs8
Labeling a breed as “bad” or “dangerous” can also give people a false sense of security around other supposed “good” breeds.
The fact is, any dog is capable of being a good dog or a bad dog. And many times, the owner is responsible for this behavior.
You and Your Pup
As it turns out, the most important factor in developing a dog’s personality traits is responsible dog ownership. You truly do have the ability to influence your pup’s behavior by your actions toward them from a young age. So, make sure those actions are nurturing ones.
It’s also possible to really impact a shelter dog’s life with nurturing. A dog may come to you with a scared, introverted personality, but giving that pup plenty of love and affection can go a long way.
You no doubt already treat your dog like a beloved family member, so why wouldn’t you want to joyfully shape its life as you would a child?
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