Behavior: Learning and Genetics

© By Linda J. Brodzik, Dog Trainer & Behavior Specialist

Sub-topics covered in this article:

Whether a breeder, trainer, other animal professional, or average companion dog owner, we all want to have dogs with “good” temperament: breeders strive to produce puppies that are genetically sound in body and mind; pet owners hope that they will adopt a puppy with a happy disposition; competitors and trainers often evaluate and discard dogs that don’t display the correct attitude; and approximately 70% of dogs who are adopted as companion dogs are discarded due to behavior/training or temperament issues. So what exactly is temperament? What factors determine a dog’s personality? Is it genetic, and therefore passed from parent to offspring? Is it shaped and guided by the environment and experiences a dog encounters? Can we change temperament through training? If so, how do we teach a stable disposition?

Defining Temperament
Let us first look at the definition of temperament. As defined by The American Heritage Dictionary, temperament is “the manner of thinking, behaving and reacting, characteristic of a specific individual.” German police dog trainer W. Handel in his article “The Psychological Basis of Temperament Testing” defines temperament as “the sum total of all inborn and acquired physical and mental traits and talents which determines forms and regulated behavior in the environment.”

Temperament can be defined then as an individual’s way of behaving or reacting to specific or general stimuli or situations. Reactions can include fear, inquisitiveness/curiosity, boldness, willingness, sharpness, courage, aggression, etc. The subject of temperament is certainly a controversial one.

As “dog people” we seem to fall into one of two belief systems concerning this subject. The first group believes that all bad or problematic behavior displayed by dogs is genetically based. These people do not know (or believe) that training can prevent/solve a great variance of behavior problems. The second group believes that nurturing and training can solve everything. These people tend to believe that if they love their dog, this in itself will solve any behavior difficulties present. Unfortunately, the latter group often becomes blinded by their love for their pets and learns to “accept” the ill behavior in their lifestyle.

The reality is that temperament is a combination of genetics and environment. Genes define the limits of how and what an animal can learn. However, experience shapes the moment-to-moment direction and changes of behavior.

Read about canine Genetics.

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