Temperament inherits. Modern trainers often hear that everything depends on the environment the dog is raised in. Whether you use good, humane methods, or if you ”claim leadership”, both schools tell you you will end up with a dog that will accept all other dogs, never be afraid, always behaves and doesn't develop issues like hyperactivity or separation anxiety. No matter it sounds very soothing, unfortunately you can't train away bad temperament or certain born traits. You can train your dog to co-ope and survive, but you can't train away characteristics.
When I got Mr. Arthritis years ago, he was afraid of coffeemaker. He ran under a sofa the first morning when I made some coffee for my mother and father with whom I was staying before continuing the trip to my own home. He actually got stuck there, too, and it took us some time and effort to get him out.
He was from a very nice breeder who had all the pups out during the days in a big big pen where they could hear and sniff everything. Unfortunately, the bitch, mother of the litter, was very anxious and even tried to snap at my father when we went to see the puppies. The breeder said she had always been wary of men.
I, as someone who already had experience about dogs and who had been told it's all about the upbringing, took the pup in anyways and raised it with the best tips I could find. And, mind I say, now that Mr- Arthritis is 11, he is very trustable dog, I can take care of his coat and nails and such, but deep down he is, was and will always be a nervous dog.
We have gone through a LONG road with him. I have made huge mistakes, I used wrong methods, but eventually with time and effort and more knowledge I found better and better ways to cope with his anxiety, fear aggression and stress. I learned to control it, I taught him ways to manage his anxiety levels, but no matter how hard I train, that part of him will never cease to be. He is always a nervous dog, and I need to remember that in any situation so I don't let him hype himself up to a point where he reacts badly to something.
Mr. Arthritis is what eventually made me ”a problem consult”. Maybe, hadn't I went through this road with him, I would be one of those who say it is all about the upbringing. It is not. Temperament is inheritable, and that is exactly why right kind of temperament is essential for a breeding dog. That is also exactly why you should choose the right breed/breed mix for yourself. Of course environment plays a part, too, and in this post we will have take a peek in what all makes the dog's character.
Genetics play part in what kind of a temperament a future pup will have. While some things in breeding are always gambling, there are certain traits that have been said to pass on easily.
Anxiety is said to move from parent to pup very easily. Some studies with people have shown a possible increased risk to fall sick with depression or develop anxiety if those diagnoses are frequently met in your family tree. It has also been reported with dogs; anxious, stressfull parents are more likely to have anxious pups. While some of the behavior is very likely the result of witnessing an anxious parent and learning wrong kind of behavior patterns, or maybe from the stress hormone drank with milk as some experts also suggest, some of it is simply inherited with genes. Our genes make us who we are, and if both parents are known to be anxious, or even one of them, there is a possibility that nerve structure will pass on to pups.
Fear is a result rather than a trait. It's a symptom of something, in this case a symptom of bad nerve structure, also called anxiety. Fear can lead to aggression, and dogs that show aggression when fearful are more likely to snap at you or bite. They may lack social understanding or simply be too nervous to really handle the situation and walk away. When cornered, they become very dangerous. Fear aggressive dogs can't be dominated to submission and trying to scold them or ”show them who is the boss” will shut them down and make them ticking time bombs. Or then they just simply attack and one ends up with a bite wound.
Dominance is something I address more in my post about pack hierarchy, but to make it simple, it's ”the born greedyness of the dog”. Greedy dogs want more resources and they have more will to fight for those resources. Dominance inherits, and there are certain breeds that are often said to be dominant. These breeds are more likely to compete about resources rather than submit to a following role and be happy with whatever they get. Dominance itself is not a bad trait, but combined with bad nerve structure it may cause trouble.
Aggression is a very easy trait to breed forward to, thus we have many breeds who have a sad past as fighting dogs. Aggression, may it be dog aggression (can also develop as a result of certain environment) or aggression towards everything, is, in the eyes of modern scientists, inheritable. Breeding aggressive dogs will create aggressive pups, and if we are not careful with temperaments when breeding, we may cause a real problem to the breed.
Back in 70s and 80s in Finland afghan hounds were said to be more fierce and hard to handle. Breeders say it was hard to find imports with good temperament. I remember seeing some pretty harsh in rings during 90s, too. Breeders in Finland tried their very best to change the temperament to a more calmer but more importantly less aggressive, and they eventually succeeded, too. There has been similar cases in many breeds, specially in breeds that for some reason become ”famous in one night”, usually because of a successful movie or something similar, and are bred in large numbers to answer to the popularity.
Nerve structure, dominance levels and tendency to behave aggressive are all traits that will inherit. Because our breeds are in general isolated groups of dogs, it is safe to say that the breed matters when it comes to these traits. Can you have a pure bred pit bull that is not dog aggressive? Most certainly there are some individuals like that, but most within the breed tend to be aggressive towards other dogs and that is something to remember. Can you have a Central Asian Shepherd in a small apartment and live happily? Yes, if you happen to get that one in a million animal that is nothing like members of it's breed are usually.
My point is, as these traits matter, so does the breed you choose. Depending on what you want from your dog, make sure the breeds characteristics match with your needs. And more so, when breeding, always mix dogs that have right kind of temperament. No matter some dogs are supposed to be bad ass and keep strangers out and their own family safe, you want those dogs to have strong nerves so they wont turn against those that thet are supposed to protect.
No matter toughness has something to do with nerves, it's also not quite the same. It's more so about remembering nasty things and how much does it effect the dog's behavior.
In many temperament tests for dogs we talk about toughness. It the dog how tough or soft. To make it very simple to understand, toughness is the ability to forget unpleasant events. For example, if your dog during a walk gets scared completely by a child, next time it walks past the same place or sees another child it's mind will remember the unpleasant encounter that scared it. Tough dogs will not be afraid and they will not show aggression or anxiety. Maybe they glance around, maybe they hesitate during a step, but their behavior is not changed dramatically just because once here in this place a child scared them. Soft dogs will be nervous. They may be fearful, they may refuse to walk past the spot, they may show their teeth to the child. They are clearly still affected by what happened and they are preparing themselves to the nasty things possibly happening again.
The ability of the dog to forget unpleasant things and recover from them is called toughness, and the faster the recovery time and the smaller the reaction in future, the tougher the dog is.
Toughness of the dog affects it's abilities to work in certain roles. In most cases, a dog that's toughness is somewhete between somewhat tough and somewhat soft is the best kind of a pet. Very tough dogs can be stupidly courageous to the point of it being dangerous to them, and very soft dogs are afraid of their food bowl because it fell yesterday and made a sound (dramatic, but you get the point).
While genes play big part in what kind of a temperament the dog will have, so does the environment it grows up in. Specially the first 12 weeks are highly important considering socialization and balanced nerves. Even the best pup from best possible parents can develop issues if it's kept badly, if it has to withstand violence or if it's badly socialized. Fixing these man made issues can be hard, and it gets harder the older the dog is. This is something to remember when you want to take in a rescue, for example. If you don't know the past, remember that you need to prepare for anything. There might be some things you will find hard to fix, in some cases even impossible. The same goes with any dog that spends majority of it's life in inappropriate surroundings.
As much as you can boost the positive traits in your dog with training, you can also help to ease the effect of the less positive ones with training. If you have an anxious, aggressive and/or fearfull dog, using positive, humane methods that will not feed the dogs aggression or fear and proper socialization will give the dog tools to cope with it's challenging traits. The world is a scary, chaotic place for a nervous animal, and with training and proper upbringing we can give the dog tools and tips on how to live it's life as stress free as possible. And when I say we give tips of how to behave to the dog, I really mean it. We can teach the dog certain manners for certain stressful situations that will help the dog to get through them more easily. For example in my old apartment I taught Mr. Arthritis that whenever he gets anxious, he can go to the bathroom to lay on a black fluffy carpet and other dogs are not allowed to follow him. No matter it was me who had to take him there for the first times, eventually he learned to go there himself when he had bad moments. He learned it was a safe place and he learned that laying there he can be sure nothing bad happens to him and whatever causes him stress can't reach him. It did make our life easier, and depending on the day he spent more or less time laying on his carpet, calming himself down.
I taught him other methods, too, and as years passed, he has made good use of them. Of course sometimes I need to step in and stop certain behaviors or point him to a right direction, but having those small mechanisms to cope with his bad nerves eased his overall stress to the point his general behavior turned more and more happy every passing year. As a retired gentleman now, he is amazingly happy-go-lucky compared to what he was seven years ago.
Trauma can also alter the behavior. Leash reactivity is the most common issue created by trauma; a dog gets scared or injured by an unlucky encounter with free or leashed dog and the softer the dog is, the more this encounter will haunt it's mind when it next sees another dog when walking. Sometimes even one of these bad meetings can cause a major issue.
While temperament is a result of certain gene mix and certain environment the dog is raised in, with training we can alter it's behavior in many ways. We have to remember, however, that training only teaches the dog certain patterns and tricks, it doesn't change how the dog is. Deep inside, the dog has a certain kind of character and everything we do must be thought through remembering how the dog is by nature. What kind of a temperament it has. Will it pull through what I have in store for it?
With children we have long known we can maybe encourage them to do something, like for example ballet, but we can't ultimately decide that they will be professional ballet dancers. They will do that themselves. With dogs, however, we still live thinking with training we can make the dog whatever we want and make it work in whatever hobby we got it for.
It doesn't go that way. Dogs are individuals and no matter how much we might have wanted a certain kind of a dog, sometimes the dog will simply turn out different. In those cases, instead of making the life hard for both the dog and the owner, we should instead accept this is how our precious family member is. We can train it and we can do things with it, but we need to respect it's boundaries.
Love your dog as what it is. It didn't decide it's temperament any more you decided yours.
Mr. Arthritis didn't become my super agility and conformation show champion, but he did make a very talented trickster, NoseWork dog and a friend, the last one being the most important of all.