Years ago, I read an article describing the successful rehabilitation of a fearful dog for the Show Ring. The article prompted the following response from the president of the national breed club: "...such a shy and unstable temperament is so untypical of the breed that one would hope this dog is not displayed as championship caliber, either for showing, or certainly for breeding".

Whether or not to show a particular dog is best left to the individual owner/handler and to individual judges who are more than competent to judge a dog's relative worth in comparison to the breed standard. The central issue here though, concerns the development and resolution of fearfulness. To say that shyness and fearfulness are atypical for any breed is just pure silliness. Without sufficient early socialization, any dog of any breed is likely grow to be shy and fearful. Now certainly, a super-safe precaution would be not to breed any dog that has any behavioral or temperamental problem, just in case there might be any kind of genetic propensity for developing problems. And it is not as though we are short of dogs to breed. However, whether or not to breed a dog, depends on whether the apparent faults are innate or acquired; whether they are the product of genes or the environment. This is the age-old 'nature-nurture controversy'.

The owner of the dog acknowledged that bad temperament is a fault, but felt that it is one that can be improved, or corrected. He considered the underlying cause of the dog's condition was environmental and not hereditary. On the other hand, the president of the breed club echoed the prevailing sentiment of many breeders: that a dog's unstable temperament is primarily the product of genetic heredity.

It is not uncommon for breeders to offer a flexible diagnosis for the etiology of temperament problems, depending on the origins of the dog in question. If the puppy was originally bred in the breeder's own kennel, the problem is deemed to be environmental, i.e., the dog’s genes are perfect and the problem reflects a lack of socialization, neglect or abuse by the dog's new owners. However, if bred by another breeder, then obviously the problem is the product of genetic heredity and no doubt represents a serious flaw in the gene pool of the competing kennel.

Similarly, in the field of applied animal behavior, there is more than one way to view behavior and temperament problems, namely: 1. A Theoretical Perspective — to understand the etiology and development of both normal and abnormal behavior and temperament; and 2. A Practical Perspective — with the primary aim being the prevention and treatment of problems. Each particular case dictates which perspective we adopt  — decided by and large, whether we intervene before or after conception.

From a theoretical perspective, I agree in part with both viewpoints. Both heredity and experience exert major controlling influences over the development of personality and temperament. However, from the practical standpoint of preventing behavior and temperament problems, I admit a necessary and considerable bias towards environmental (vs. genetic) measures. Indeed, fearfulness, aggressiveness and most other serious temperament problems may be eliminated entirely by routine canine husbandry.

Theoretical Perspective
An animal's basic character and behavior repertoire are the product of species-specific behaviors (instincts), breed stereotypes, individual differences and the effects of learning and experience. The professional dog fancy tends to place an unrepresentative focus on breed differences and instincts, which are assumed to be exclusively the product of genetic heredity and may therefore be modified only by selective breeding. Certainly, inheritance is a primary antecedent of breed variations in species-specific behavior. Considering the amazing variation in size, shape, color and coat of domestic dogs, one would be a fool not to acknowledge similar inherited differences in character. However, placing a credal emphasis on genetic influences is theoretically unfounded and exceedingly detrimental for dogs. It is precisely these misconceptions that have fostered decades of breedist, anti-dog sentiment and given rise to some very silly, insidiously pernicious, and ineffective breed specific legislation. The erroneous assumption that instincts and the breed stereotype are immutable merely advertises a ridiculously simplistic notion of behavioral science. But more devastating, such a silly view deters people from even trying to modify behavior and temperament, even though behavior and temperament training techniques have been proved to be highly effective.

To help regain perspective, it is worthwhile to consider the historical and etymological origins of the term instinct. The concept of instinct arose of philosophical and theological necessity some two thousand years ago. Philosophers in antiquity held that humans had minds and could think, and they had souls and went to heaven, but they were stuck for an explanation of the behavior and actions of animals. For surely, animals possessed neither minds nor souls! Hence they coined the term instinct — an innate propensity, especially of “lower” animals, to act with neither conscious design, nor intentional means to an end. Sorry, but that doesn't describe my dog! The original term had no scientific basis and was merely a nominal fallacy — a label rather than an explanation — a term for the hypothetical something which an animal must have in place of our exclusively human minds and souls. Nowadays, glib use of the term instinct is often touted by pop behaviorists, who still find it conceptually simpler to classify and categorize behavior, rather than attempting to actually trying to understand its origins, development, and immense capacity for change.

Species-specific behaviors are the result of millions of years of evolution, and the earliest breed differences stem from several thousand years of selective breeding. Nonetheless, evolutionary success is hallmarked both by replication and variation; a delicate balance must exist between the passage of selected genes from one generation to the next and preserving sufficient variation within the gene pool to ensure the capacity for adaptive change. A novice breeder quickly learns that dogs seldom breed true to type. The nature of sexual (vs. asexual) reproduction ensures considerable diversity within the line. Although the offspring may resemble its parents, each litter and each puppy is utterly unique — an individual. Much like humans, in fact. I wonder how many parents, sufficiently impressed by their first wonderful child, were tempted “to repeat the breeding”.

The inheritance of behavior and temperament characteristics is much more complicated than, for example, the Mendelian determination of coat color, deafness, or blood type. It is not that a dog has a big-bad-fearful gene and consequently is doomed to be fearful no matter what.  Rather, a complex combination of many genes predetermines the potential of various physical, sensory and mental characteristics and in turn, these specialties and constraints influence the extent to which the dog is affected by its physical and social environment. For example, selecting for specific sensory abilities will alter how the animal perceives its environment and will have profound effects on both behavior and temperament, i.e., better hearing may make for better obedience, or watchfulness. Thus, the degree to which experiences leave their indelible mark on the pup's adult personality and temperament is determined in part by genetic heredity. However, selection for sensitivity and attentiveness in the “obedience breeds”, and in some sheepdogs, shepherd dogs and gundogs, may also make these dogs more prone to overreact to extreme stimuli, such as loud noises (shouting, gunshots, thunder and firecrackers) and sudden movements.  This means that certain breeds and certain lines may be predisposed to react fearfully if not properly socialised.

Every inherited behavioural characteristic has a good side and a bad side. The purpose of socialization is to maximize the silver-lining and minimize the cloud. Sensitive dogs generally require more socialization than most. But the payoff is considerable — a solid disposition in a confident and outgoing dog, which still remains sensitive to the trainer's wishes. The dog has retained its natural abilities that make it easy to train, but it no longer overreacts to normal or extreme environmental stimuli.

Social Heredity
Whatever the potential advantages and disadvantages of natural and artificial selection, these changes are not exclusively the product of genetic heredity. It is the phenotype that is selected, not the genotype. Moreover, by and large it is the phenotype and not the genotype that interacts with the environment. Selective breeding encompasses far more than biological, or genetic heredity, it also embraces the realm of social heredity, or culture.

Humans provide a wonderful example of social heredity. Even though my son Jamie possesses not one American gene in his entire body, he's an All-American kid. And why? Because he was born and raised in the good old U.S. of A. and so, presumably, he will always yearn for hotdogs and baseball and will never thrill at the sound of leather on willow, or tungsten on pig bristle.

The early social environment of different breeds is quite different. It is commonplace for Newfie pups to grow up with a Newfie mum and other Newfie pups. Similarly, Bull Terriers grow up with Bull Terriers and Spaniels with Spaniels. Since different breeds act differently, the early social environment of each dog is entirely different — depending on the breed. The significant effects of the maternal and litter environment may be shown by cross-fostering — by taking a single pup and placing it with a dam and litter of a different breed. In our off-leash, puppy socialization and training classes, we regularly perform  similar social manipulations with dramatic and beneficial results. For example, by having a shy pup skip a grade and participate in a class with younger (and smaller) puppies, the older shy pup now becomes a big fish in a little pond and quickly develops confidence. Alternatively, temporarily transferring the class hyperdog or bully to a class with older puppies, or to an adult class, requires the socially unaware ruffian to smartly reestablish perspective vis a vis its relative position in the canine world.

People constitute the other primary ingredient of a dog's social environment. Owners especially exert a major controlling influence over the development of the dog's behavior and temperament. And different owners are different. Problems commonly occur when a dog passes from an expert owner (trainer and/or breeder) to a novice owner. With decades of valuable experience under their belts, breeders often fail to acknowledge the extent of their own expertise and the beneficial effect it has on their own dogs. Breeders tend to forget that even commonplace husbandry may be alien and difficult for novice owners. And a novice owner can quickly ruin the temperament of a perfectly good pup, no matter what the breed, or what the breeding. The millions of dogs euthanized each year in the U.S. attest to this.

The facts that 1. The temperament of dogs with good breeding may be destroyed in short order, 2. Fearful adult dogs may be rehabilitated, and 3. Regardless of breed, breeding, or individual disposition, temperament training classes can successfully prevent the development of serious behavior and temperament problems in any puppy — all indicate that a dog's congenital disposition is an infinitely mutable, individual quality that may be further molded by the dog's early experiences, i.e., by socialization and training. A sensitive dog is quite normal (and so are its genes) but rather, an abnormal puppyhood environment renders the animal fearful. I would have no reservations about breeding a shy or fearful dog that has other especially redeeming qualities, because I do not believe temperament problems necessarily reflect underlying genetic flaws. Rather, they are indicative of inadequate socialization. Quite frankly, the dog's impoverished early environment has left the dog with too few neuronal connections to cope with the normal social rigors of everyday life.

Practical Perspective
A realistic theoretical interpretation would attribute equal importance to both genetic and environmental influences. Rather than waste time and energy debating whether genes are more important than the environment, or vice versa, let's assume both are crucial, and use our knowledge of how both genetics and experience affect development to improve the temperament and behavior of present-day and future dogs.

From the practical viewpoint of eliminating problems, if we consider genetics only, our choices are limited. The only avenue for the prevention of problems is selective breeding. Prior to mating the dogs, obviously one would focus on a genetically-biased philosophy. In fact my advice about selective breeding is clear and simple: “If you even think there's something remotely weird about a dog, then don't breed it!" Indeed, exclusive subscription to a genetic model limits us to a single option — preventing ill-advised matings. Unfortunately, history has proven that, although essential, breeding controls alone are not sufficient to prevent problems. If selective breeding alone were effective, by now, every dog would be perfect. This is not so. Inherited variation makes it impossible to breed reliably for complex characteristics such as temperament.

But, what are we going to do about the individual adult dogs with temperament problems? Muzzle them? Confine them? Kill them?  An excusive genetic approach offers very little prospect for treating problems. When problem puppies arise our only options are to spay the bitch, castrate the stud, and neuter all the pups, in order to prevent the presumed genetic flaws from being passed on to future generations.  Barring radical advances in genetic engineering, there is little that can be done either to improve the dog's genetic constitution, or its disposition. We can neither surgically remove the offending gene, nor can we physically alter its effect by turning down the aggressiveness gene in the same way we would adjust the volume control on our iPod®.

Regardless of the above, and for that matter, regardless of any abstract and scholarly, theoretically epistemological treatise, once the breeder has chosen the best conceivable stud to breed with the bitch, and once the pair has mated, future analyses of the relative importance of genetic versus environmental antecedents of behavior and temperament are purely academic — a moot point — water under the bridge. Once conception has taken place, it is a whole new kettle of fish. Once the zygote exists… once a puppy/dog has an existing behavior and/or temperament problem, our ONLY options for rehabilitation lie in the realm of socialization and training. The gene-team had its chance and blew it!

I advocate a considerable bias towards social heredity, socialization, behavior modification and temperament training, not because I don’t recognize the importance of genetic heredity, (of course I do), but rather, because from a practical therapeutic viewpoint, a genetic model offers us so little, whereas a behavioral model offers so very, very much. The field of social learning offers an inexhaustible wealth of possibilities both for the prevention of problems and for the treatment of existing or incipient problems — regardless of their etiology.

If we focus on the environment, there is no end to our choice of effective preventive and therapeutic measures. Preventive intervention — providing an enriched early environment allows a dog to realize its full potential and develop a sound temperament. My own view is that, therapy represents the necessary socialization the dog should have received during puppyhood, i.e., temperament problems are the product of severe mismanagement of (what should be) routine canine husbandry. Preventive intervention is the name of the game. Fearfulness, reactivity, fighting and biting may all be easily prevented by early socialization and kept at bay with ongoing socialization. We know that it works. Why then, don't people do it?

Dog owners/breeders may not believe preventive intervention is feasible because of the prevailing genetically biased, breedist attitude towards behavior. I am sorry, but the big-bad gene “theory” is usually a cop-out — a needless perpetuation of the antediluvian philosophical nominal fallacy — a convenient excuse for not even trying to resolve temperament problems, or, more likely… for not knowing how!

Not attempting to prevent or resolve temperament problems, assuming that they are genetically inherited and therefore immutable, is really pretty silly, especially since many breeders go to great lengths to manipulate many environmental variables to improve the dogs superficial appearance. Breeders attend handling classes, they place the dog's feet and hold its tail in the show ring, they feed the best diet and care for the dog's coat. I have met breeders who artificially control day-length and ambient temperature to induce shedding and ensure the dog will be in full coat for a show circuit. One friend of mine wintered her dogs in Alaska prior to the famous Westminster show in Manhattan. On the day of a show, breeders/handlers spend hours grooming the dog to further improve its appearance. There is no earthly reason why behavior and temperament should not receive equivalent care. If you want a total dog — an ambassador for its kennel, breed and species — for goodness sakes, groom its temperament as well as its coat.

This article was based on Dr. Dunbar's monthly Behavior column in the October 1988 issue of The American Kennel Gazette. Reprinted with the permission of the author and The American Kennel Club.

Photo of Savy, curteousy of Shelley Hollen

The Free Course Collection for Dog Owners, Trainers, Breeders, Veterinarians, Shelters/Rescues and Pet Stores