One thing that’s becoming clearer to me, and is more important that I ever realized, is heredity.
We long ago disproved the idea that humans are born a blank slate, and everything that happens to them is from learned experience. We’ve also disproved the idea that everything we do is caused by genes only. It’s a blend of both: nurture and nature, working hand in hand.
Somehow, though, we still assume 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 I picked up last week, wandering aimlessly around the neighborhood.
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.
From what we can tell, Flea is a pittie who has NEVER been in a house. He’s intact, riddled with wounds and scars, 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, and endured major physical abuse.
Given just their experiences, it’s pretty obvious that Doc would be the behavioral 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 leash reactivity and a year to be able to play at a dog park. 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 and the other dog he met.
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, if I ever found them.
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. Flea becomes afraid when a stranger stares at him for too long, Doc never had that issue. Flea is cautious around people, whereas Doc has always loved humans. Those are all learned behaviors, but how easily they move past it or are able to bounce back has to do with genetics.
Now, having a dog that genetically is 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 a child of an alcoholic — sober 35 years! — and addiction runs rampant in my extended family. I, however, am not addicted to anything but Candy Crush.)
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 could 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 spite of 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 come 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, just that you might need to be more persistent or find a different way of doing things. Hang in there! You can do it!
PS: Flea is undergoing a lot of surgeries and things to solve the physical problems someone gave him. I want to rehabilitate and re-home him, but financially it’s going to be rough. If you’d like the whole story, or to help, or to donate or share so others can donate, you can find all of that and more on his gofundme account!