One thing that’s becoming clearer to me, and I think I’m realizing is more important that I ever realized, is heredity.
We long ago disproved the idea that humans are born a blank slate, and therefore every personality quirk is from learned experience. We’ve also disproved the idea that everything humans do is caused by genes only. It’s a blend of both: nurture and nature, working hand in hand.
Somehow, though, we still say dogs are blank slates, even though it’s been proven untrue over and over. So let’s talk about that for a minute.
As an example, I’m going to use Doc, my dog that I rescued 2 years ago, and Flea, the former fighting dog stray I picked up last week (as of this writing).
As far as we can tell, Doc wasn’t abused. He was possibly put in a back yard and neglected, but it’s hard to even know that for sure. He has no abuse behavioral markers or physical markers. He “just” has separation anxiety, for which I’ve done lots of behavioral work, training, and put him on 60 mg Prozac daily.
Meanwhile, Flea is a pittie who has NEVER been in a house. He’s intact, riddled with wounds, flinches when someone raises their hand/talks too loudly/makes eye contact for too long. He has lots of physical clues that indicate he’s been outdoors 27/7 since puppyhood.
Given just their experiences, it’s pretty obvious that Doc would be the winner here. Instead, it took me six months to make Doc remotely well trained. It’s taken a week to do most of that with Flea, and will probably take another week or two to get him to where Doc was at 6 months.
Doc, not a fighting dog or a bait dog, took months to lose his (severe) leash reactivity and a year to be able to play at a dog park without being obnoxious. Flea, an intact failed fighting pit bull, doesn’t have any leash reactivity and hasn’t gone to a dog park, but after a week is doing great with my dogs.
After two years of work, Doc still has stress signals most of the time, indicating generalized anxiety.
After a week worth of work, Flea’s stress signals are gone except when a rare circumstance stresses him.
Doc was only a year old when I got him.
Flea is probably three.
The difference? Genetics. Something in Doc’s genes dictate that he’s easily stressed and made anxious. It could be that he was born this way, or that something happened while his brain was developing that changed how his brain developed. Very likely, one or both of his parents would show signs of stress or anxiety.
On the other hand, something in Flea’s genes dictate that he feels secure and confident. Possibly he had a safe space to grow while his brain was developing, or dog parents that were confident and secure.
Obviously, experience matters. Flea flinches, Doc never did. That’s a learned behavior. But it matters along with genetics!
Now, having a dog that is genetically prone to stress, anxiety, aggression, etc isn’t the end of the world, and it doesn’t even mean a congenital problem. It’s just like people: kids born to alcoholics are more likely to have addiction problems. Does this mean they WILL be addicts? No, it means it’s something they are hopefully aware of, and take steps to counter. (I use this example because it’s a personal one! I’m proud to say that my dad has been in AA around 35 years.)
Lily is genetically prone to anxiety, and yet she’s now one of the most confident (*coughs*overconfident) dogs I know. When I got her, she was a basket case. Giving her new coping mechanisms, burning off energy she would otherwise put toward being anxious, and various other things has helped her shuck her anxiety and be awesome. A little too awesome, sometimes. 😉
Doc is a pretty extreme case, and being with Flea has reminded me how extreme Doc is. I’ll probably be managing him for years, if not his whole life, but that’s okay. I have the ability to do so, and he’s a great dog in addition to his crazy. We’re all a little crazy. 😉
Flea is a surprise the other way; despite his experiences, he’s happy to shuck them and bounce back to confidence. This is great, and he’ll make someone an easy – if
stubborn! – dog. Rehabilitating and re-homing would have been VERY difficult with Doc because of his genetics, but will be infinitely easier with Flea, because of his genetics. Woot woot!
So, when you’re having problems with your dog and the usual training isn’t working, keep in mind it could be a hereditary thing. That doesn’t mean it can’t be fixed or at least improved upon, just that you might need to be more persistent or find a different way of doing things. Hang in there! You can do it!