Sunday, November 6, 2011

Patricia McConnell Seminar: The Interplay of Environment and Genetics on Behavior

There was a time when I believed that Maisy’s reactivity was my fault. I got her when she was around 15 or 16 weeks old, from a less-than-desirable place, which meant that she missed out on that vital socialization period. Her early experiences were limited, and no one was watching out to make sure they were good ones. After she responded so favorably to medication, I began to think that perhaps the problem was genetic. It would certainly fit with her origins.

Today, however, I believe that Maisy’s behavior is likely the result of both, and Patricia’s discussion on the interplay of the environment and genetics only confirmed this. Patricia said that it is very difficult to separate out the effects of each one on behavior. There really isn’t a way to definitively know which is causing something to happen. What’s more, most scientists agree that “flexible behaviors” (that is, behaviors that are not instinctual) don’t have just one cause; they are likely the result of both genetics and the environment.

Research in humans has shown that there are a number of behavioral traits that are stable over time and that make up a person’s general temperament- that is, the specific differences between individuals that are present and relatively unchanged from birth. The “big five” that scientists believe are genetically influenced are: openness to experience (curious vs. cautious), conscientiousness (efficient and organized vs. a more easy-going nature), extraversion (outgoing vs. reserved), agreeableness (friendly and compassionate vs. cold and unkind), and neuroticism (sensitive/nervous vs. secure/confident).

As we grow up, our temperaments are overlaid with experience, and this combination results in our personalities. Patricia used a great example to illustrate the difference: a person’s temperament is like a blank canvas where his personality is the actual painting. The finished product can never go beyond the borders of what was originally there, but it may look drastically different based upon the colors and brush strokes that happen.

All of this means that while genes set boundaries, they don’t dictate behavior. Patricia discussed several behavioral characteristics in dogs that she believes are influenced by genetics (more about that in my next post), but noted that even when a dog has a genetic predisposition towards acting a certain way, the behavior still needs to be “triggered” by the environment. Further, while we can definitely influence a dog’s behavior through experience (such as training), we can’t change his genetics. Just as Picasso was confined to the limits of his canvas, so is the best trainer confined to the limits of his dog’s genes.

Interestingly, this means that dogs with different genetics can appear behaviorally similar. The chart below (a recreation of one of Patricia’s slides) is an example of the genetics of two different dogs on the bold/shy continuum. The dogs are limited to what their genes will allow, as evidenced by the range shown.

As you can see, Dog 1 has more genetic capacity for boldness, while Dog 2 is more likely to be shy and fearful. However, their experiences will dictate where each dog will fall within their predetermined range. So, if Dog 1 is kept in relative isolation and Dog 2 receives great socialization, their actual behavior could look the same. The only difference is that Dog 1 will always be capable of being bolder, despite all of the great training Dog 2 might get. And that’s the thing with genes- you can only influence behavior within their boundaries, and you won’t know where the boundaries are until you try.

So was Maisy’s reactivity my fault? Not really. While her experiences (and lack thereof) certainly contributed to her behavior problems, I can no more control her genetics than I can my own. We are what we are. Still, it is my responsibility to take the metaphorical canvas that she is and create something beautiful by using quality tools and an environment full of vibrant colors.

And that's the thing about dogs: they are all individuals. Picasso is not Kandinsky is not Da Vinci, and it would be foolish to try and force Jackson Pollock to be Botticelli. I strongly believe the same is true for our dogs. Encourage them to be their best, of course, but we should enjoy each of our dogs for the works of art they are.

If You Want to Know More
Temperament and Personality: Origins and Outcomes, article by Rothbart et al, 2000
Aggressive behavior in dogs that passed a temperament test, a 2006 study by Christensen et al Patricia said that this study helps demonstrate the effect that the testing environment can have on a dog’s behavior. As a result, temperament tests (which are probably misnamed) are not a guarantee of the future, but rather gauge probabilities.


Tegan said...

Though, of course, I think environments and learning influences behaviours, I am growing more and more convinced that genetics have a much greater baring on dogs than perhaps we give credit to.

I think the biggest persuasive factor was the litter I raised last year. They had the same parents, and the same experiences in the whelping box, but they were so vastly different. The blue boy was crazy - he was hyperactive, fearless, bold, loved people, and was very vocal. He was the first one awake, last one to sleep. The girl was independent and mostly kept her own company. The red boy was very sweet and mellow, but would startle excessively with loud noises or from discipline from the other dogs. These personalities started to come to life at 3 weeks and, though red boy is a lot more confident now, fundamentally, they are the same dogs.

Working in boarding kennels, we had a number of 'back yard dogs' come in who owners admitted that they have never done any socialisation with their animals (not in those words). Though some of these dogs were disasters and dangerous, many were actually very good considering their lack of life experience.

I recently had a rescue Norwegian Elkhound, Mooch, for 2 months who was extremely fearful. She had had very little life experience. I did have the pleasure of meeting her mother, and she was an absolutely fantastic, bomb-proof dog. The contrast was phenomenal. Obviously, the environmental upbringing of Mooch overpowered any of her genetically stable temperament. The good thing was, it took very little socialisation on my part (and her new owners) to get Mooch into a more-normal dog. She is never going to be a confident dog, but she is very good, and I think her genetic predisposition to confidence made her so easy to rehabilitate.

Is this your longest comment ever?

I, too, have a dog that I acquired at 8 weeks and, despite me, in theory, doing the 'right things', I ended up with a dog-aggressive animal. I spent a long time beating myself up about it but, the more I learn about dogs, the more I think that this dog has a genetic predisposition to fearfulness, and my actions did little to influence the outcome.

Pretty much, I have been thinking about this a lot of late, and I can see more examples of strong genetics than I can see of good environments and socialisation. Perhaps we should be changing the battle cry from 'socialise socialise socialise' to 'pick your puppy with care'!

Amy said...

What an interesting theory - I suspect it's true based on my experiences. But I worry that this kind of evidence could be dangerous in the wrong hands, for example those intent on abolishing entire breeds of dogs like pit bulls. It definitely gives us something to think about!

Crystal (Thompson) Barrera said...

Tegan, I love long comments! The only problem is that you have to wait a bit longer for me to respond to them ;)

I had lunch with a friend a few weeks ago. This person also has a reactive dog, and she was just feeling down on herself about "not doing things right." And while we can certainly do things that impede progress, I think that's pretty rare. Look at all of the other clueless dog owners (I was one once!) whose dogs turn out just fine. Maybe I didn't do things perfectly, but... neither did they! There has to be something more than JUST socialization, etc. at play here.

A different friend has two dogs, both reactive/fearful. The first one has been a challenge from day one, and while she's made progress, life is still difficult for her. The second dog improved so quickly and dramatically that she was like, "OH! THIS is how it's supposed to work!" The first dog is likely genetically fearful, while the second probably just didn't get socialized. It's interesting.

I definitely think that we need to choose our pets better, and I think the most important thing we can do is what you suggest: Choose your puppy wisely! I wish more trainers would work with people in puppy selection, and I wish more people would take them up on it. Perhaps the most important thing we can do is abolish not breeds but PUPPY MILLS.

Amy, I sure hope that this idea doesn't lead to people wanting to ban certain breeds. I've met a LOT of REALLY nice pitties. They get a bad rap they don't deserve.

Tegan said...

Amy, though I agree that there is the potential that celebrating genetic predisposition could lead to breeds being ostracised - debatably it's already happening, despite the socialisation emphasis in the current climate. I have hope that BSL will eventually be revoked when it's established to be ineffective a few more times. Meanwhile, I'll keep writing letters saying so. ;)

Can't we get so jealous of those people who do so little with their dogs and end up with angel-like dogs?! There's also the potential to 'beat ourselves up' about our failings as owners and trainers. I really don't think a 'good dog' it's as simple as socialisation and training.

I'm thinking that there is a need for pre-dog ownership counselling! Making sure owners are prepared for the work of a dog, and then select a dog with care. Wouldn't it be a great day if this ever came into effect?

On the other hand, training is certainly an element. My girl, Clover, has a somewhat reactive temperament. Looking at her sister, who barks, lunges, growls, at other dogs on lead, I can see elements of this in Clover. I think Clover's early training and socialisation has stopped her acting like her sister, but I can still see a 'spark' in Clover that shows that she is not comfortable with other dogs entirely and perhaps would -like- to be reactive at times, but she -knows- that there are more rewards in a sit and eye contact. (And she's a terrier, so it's not extraordinary that this exists, nor do I identify it as fault. It is just 'who she is'.)

This has kind of turned into a different discussion in my rambling, but there was a recent blog entry called "Letting Dogs Be Who They Are" that may be of interest:

Crystal (Thompson) Barrera said...

I do wonder if owner expectation plays into whether or not a dog is "good." I know people with anxious dogs who are oblivious to that fact. I have coworkers with dogs who bite, and they laugh it off as a "dog being a dog." They aren't bothered by their dog's behavior the way I'm bothered by Maisy's... So training, socialization and genetics all matter, but I think maybe human perception does, too.

Joanna said...

I've also met plenty of backyard, undersocialized dogs who do remarkably well out in the world, even in stressful environments. I do wish that people chose puppies with more care. I recently did a consult with someone in which I evaluated a litter of nine puppies and passed five for their family and blacklisted the other four. They ended up getting one of the five, so now we're crossing our fingers that the initial hints of a great "temperament" hold up later in life. My boss was like "you did an excellent job!" while one of my trainer friends was saying that the puppies' personalities can change so much that the tests are nearly meaningless. Derp.

Crystal (Thompson) Barrera said...


Patricia said that the tests don't measure as much as we think, but that there as been some study into them, and that they pretty reliably pick out the bolder, less fearful dogs... which is a pretty big deal, actually.

Joanna said...

Good to know. I was really looking at how oriented the puppies were toward people versus the environment, how curious/bold they were, how well they recovered from stress, and how they dealt with frustration.

Crystal (Thompson) Barrera said...

I would say those test items were really all testing various facets of the shy/bold continuum, so well done!

Joanna said...

Haha, thanks!!