Can Dogs Really Change?

I received a query this morning from a student of canine behavior. Based in the UK, she’s writing a paper on whether temperament can be altered by learning. This is a fascinating subject and one I’ve often pondered, particularly because of life with Bodhi.

Just as physical traits like coat or eye color are part of a dog’s genetic blueprint, so are personality traits such as a tendency to be shy or outgoing, anxious or calm, easily aroused or having a high frustration tolerance, to name a few. This is what allows breeders to select dogs who have appropriate temperaments for their breeding lines.

The nature-nurture question makes me think of a good friend who is also an excellent trainer. Almost two years ago, she got a German Shepherd puppy. Naturally, she went way above and beyond what the average dog owner would do as far as training and socialization, especially as she noticed early on that the pup was a bit suspicious of strangers and could be reactive. By all accounts the dog is doing well, but knowing that an insecure, reactive dog’s behavior can become much worse if left unchecked, she continues to work with him through his adolescence. They meet new people, attend classes, work on impulse control, and practice behaviors that help the dog to behave appropriately in various situations. There are more good days than bad, but every now and then the dog has a reaction to an unfamiliar person—usually a man—that is worrisome. This is a perfect example of how temperament has a continuous influence on a dog regardless of how much behavior modification is done.

Fear issues are another area where the effects of temperament are often apparent. Soko, our German Shepherd who lived to be thirteen, was an anxious dog. We did all the proper early and continued socialization and training, and yet she had certain fears, the most troublesome of which were sound phobias. A high-pitched sound on the television would send her careening out of the room, and the microwave beep terrified her. We did desensitization exercises for specific triggers (I used the microwave a lot at the time), and it helped some. But sadly, there weren’t enough desensitization exercises in the world to keep up with her constantly evolving fears.

We adopted Bodhi in his adolescence, so I have no idea what his puppyhood was like. What I do know is that he has a fairly constant, low-level anxiety, insecurity that manifests as reactivity toward other dogs, a sensitive startle reflex, and a low frustration tolerance. Though I can’t prove it, I believe these are part of his genetic makeup. When a friend talks about how her husky calmed down a lot once he reached age four or five, I wonder whether that will happen with Bodhi. I’d like to think so, but I don’t see his behavior as a product of his youth. Another friend’s dog, a Catahoula, is still wild and crazy at 13, with the same underlying, genetically influenced traits he had from the time he was a pup still going strong.

Of course we can and should do all of the management, behavior modification, and training possible, but to think it will change who a dog basically is, is unrealistic. And maybe that’s a relief, in a way. We can stop thinking, If I only work hard enough, eventually he’ll be able to play off-leash with other dogs or In a couple of years, he’ll settle down and be much calmer. It’s nice to think so, and hey, it could happen. But accepting who a dog is deep down, just as with a person, can often lead better understanding and less frustration. We can teach dogs how to behave, but not who to be.

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5 Responses to Can Dogs Really Change?

  1. Tucker's Mom says:

    Very interesting post. The whole nature/nurture thing is a slippery slope, but on the whole I do think that the way dogs experience, and react to, the world, is a mixture of the two. The only way to really determine for sure which of the two plays a larger role in the way the dog ultimately turns out would be to take the exact same dog and raise it in a few different ways and see what the results were. That being impossible, I guess we’ll probably never really know.

  2. Susan aka Mukki's Mom says:

    Very thoughtful article. I will continue to train and socialize, but have come to accept one for who he is – a companion, and not a pet. I continue to train, socialize and enrich his life. I also love him for what he is and who he is on certain days. Thanks for giving voice to my inner thoughts.

  3. Martha says:

    Thanks for these thoughts…yep, inherited traits are tough to modify!
    the most helpful comment to me in training my GSD after my 3 rd fail of stranger approach on CGC….was ” He doesn’t like people approaching him….”
    The dog never earned a CGC, but he adapts quickly to new people in our home and is well- trained. Bottom line…we manage so all are safe. He is still a great companion…with traits that came with him, somewhat modfied but mostly managed.

  4. Karen says:

    Interesting topic. Thanks for your thoughts on this, Nicole. I have a very shy, timid little dog. I have always thought if I worked really hard on behavior modification, I could get her to like, or at least tolerate, people. It hurts to see her so frightened of people. It is sad to read this post and know that I probably will never be able to help her. I love her like crazy and if she is never a social butterfly, that is OK with me.

  5. Kelli says:

    Dio has been extremely well socialized, trained, etc. He has never shown aggression toward anyone, but has always done his best to just stay out of the way when around people he hasn’t met before…or stick as close to my legs as possible.
    He is my bomb proof dog when working with aggressive dogs, and heaven help me when he passes. He’s definitely a dog/dog who can get along with almost any dog he meets. He’s 3 years old, and is extremely friendly.
    However, he is quite shy with people. He will avoid people like the plague unless I’m standing right next to them to let him know they’re alright, and even then he accepts petting and affection with as much grace as his shy guy attitude will allow (He does it to please me). He is quite fond of children, and has no issue with them laying down next to him for love or petting, and works with me in the store so he has quite a full day of socializing with people and other dogs.
    Once he gets to know people, and has been around them quite a few times he is just peachy, will approach them for attention, etc.
    I believe he is an example of a dog who is genetically predisposed to being shy because he’s had everything from the start, and despite all the socialization and training, and continuance of both; he is still my shy guy.

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