By Diane Jessup
For the Sentinel 

Companion Animal: It's in the genes

 

Contributed: Diane Jessup

PROPER MANAGEMENT: Managing a pet properly means knowing what their in-build genetic disposition is and respecting it.

"It's all how you raise them!"

If you own an American pit bull, German shepherd, Rottweiler, Doberman or any other breed labeled "aggressive" by the media and public, no doubt you have received this widely held but utterly false piece of guidance many times. Of the many myths surrounding dog ownership, "It's all how you raise them," is the most well-intentioned yet ultimately detrimental concept concerning dog ownership.

Usually intended as a positive and affirming assertion congratulating the dog owner on having produced a dog which is not making negative news headlines, in fact the comment does much harm by lulling a dog owner into thinking that their actions alone will ultimately change temperament caused by genetic hard-wiring.

In psychology, "temperament" refers to consistent individual differences in behavior that are biologically based and are relatively independent of learning. "Biologically based" means genetic-present at birth-not learned. What mother has not noticed siblings, raised in the same home, who, from birth, displayed opposite personalities? One happy and easy going, one fussy, shy, and easily upset. Temperament in animals is primarily controlled by genetics.

If "It's all how you raise them" were true, then why the abused and isolated fighting dog that licks the hand of its rescuer? Why the heavily socialized and kindly treated Corgi that grows into a snarling, snapping horror? Shyness has been shown to be highly inherited, and scientist have produced lines of English pointer dogs so shy they can't function in normal life, simply by breeding shy dogs together. Environment could not influence their shyness. So, no, not every cringing dog was "abused"; most are simply born with genetic shyness. The other end of the spectrum is the breeding of police and military dogs, which must be selected for boldness and courage far above the average dog. If a dog's temperament could be so easily influenced by its owner, then Golden Retrievers would be taking down bad guys for the police while Greyhounds would be guide dogs for the blind. Not so, for the simple reason dog breeds have been selected for specific characteristics for thousands of years.

Not all purebred dogs possess correct qualities of "breed temperament," so that there are exceptions like Labradors who hate the water and American pit bulls who are afraid of other dogs. But purchase a well-bred dog from a reliable breeder, and there is a good chance you will end up with somewhat predictable behavior from your dog. And this is where "It's all how you raise them" becomes problematic.

When a person believes that it is "all how you raise them," they are going to ignore the inbred genetic tendencies of their dog. The number one reason given for getting rid of a dog (as recorded at shelters) is incompatibility. Either the dog owner did no research into which breed fit their lifestyle or they blatantly chose to ignore it-thinking the dog's behavior would ultimately be the result of "how they raised it."

A sled dog in an apartment. A hard charging bird dog with an invalid. A strong willed and aggressive dog with a meek owner. A dog with high prey drive with a thoughtless owner who allows it to run free. In these cases, if the owner truly believes they can alter the dog's nature by "how they raise it," they are in for an unpleasant surprise. At best, an owner can teach their dog obedience to commands, give it as much exercise as its nature requires, and manage the dog in such a way it does no harm to others and leads as happy a life as possible. Managing is recognizing a dog's temperament and working with it-not trying to change genetic hard-wiring.

 

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