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.