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Nature vs. Nurture: Is Your Dog’s Personality Learned Or Genetic?

| Published on December 6, 2014

Have you ever been told that your dog is aggressive because his dad was, or the parents must have been “resource guarders” because your puppy is one, too? When picking out a puppy, professionals always tell people to meet the parents before taking a pup home, because it will help you know what the puppy’s temperament will be like.

But will it? What about environmental experiences and how you treat her after you bring her home? It goes back to that age-old argument about nature vs. nurture.

Dr. Jerry Klein, DVM is the supervising veterinarian at Chicago Veterinary Emergency & Specialty Center (CVESC). He has over thirty years of experience at CVESC, and he is a long-time breeder of Afghan Hounds, some of whom have won multiple Best-in-Show titles and are AKC Champions. He has even judged the prestigious Westminster Kennel Club show on multiple occasions.

Because of his veterinary and breeder background, we thought he was the perfect person to give us some insight in what we really know (if anything) about dog genetics and how they affect personality.


1.  How much do we know about dog genetics?  

We are starting to learn a lot more about dog genetics due to genetic testing. Breed clubs are finding a lot of genetic issues. So, there is a fair amount of information available now and there will be a lot more information available in the future.

2.  Some professionals say temperament is inherited; others say it depends on the way the mom treats them during those first six weeks; others say it’s solely about socialization.  Is there a correct answer?

All of these things play a factor in a dog’s personality. Specific breeds have a certain pre-disposition, but environment is also huge. The parents and humans that raise the animal also have a huge influence.

I once had two litters at the same time. Different parents, but same environment. The personalities of the puppies from one litter were different than the puppies from the other litter. So, genetics definitely plays a role. The bottom line is that all factors influence a dog’s personality.

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3. Based on all this, how can you really tell if you are getting a nice-tempered dog? 

First, it depends on what you define as a “nice temperament.” Your definition of “good temperament” is different than mine. This is probably one of the most important parts of picking a dog. To find one that is a good match for you, it’s really important to figure out what you want and what your expectations are. A Husky or Border Collie is not a good match for sedentary people. An aloof dog may not be good for someone who wants a dog that will sit on their lap.

Once you know what you want, identify the breed whose characteristics are likely to meet your expectations.Then, find a reputable breeder. Ask questions. Seeing the puppy should be the last step.

When you go to see them, see how the puppy responds to you. Is it high-strung, sharp, aggressive, doesn’t like to be picked up? No matter what its personality, it doesn’t mean a dog can’t adjust, but it may require more work on your part to get the dog to be the dog you want.


4. Should you look at the parents, or does it really matter? 

Just like in humans, the parents have some influence, but there’s no guarantee about what kind of puppies they will turn out to be. Often, if you’re buying from a breeder, you will be able to see the mother. That may help you gauge some of the dog’s personality and looks, but the mother only accounts for 50% of the breeding.  It’s important that you’ve done your own research and follow your instincts.

Pet stores are becoming less common than they use to be.  You don’t know what you’re going get because you’re not in direct contact with the breeder.

Wherever you get your dog, there should be an agreement that you can return it in a couple of weeks if it’s not a good match. You need a chance to see how the dog is doing and to have it checked by your veterinarian to make sure it has no obvious issues.

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5. How much does the breed play into temperament?

Predictability is found in purebred dogs because people have selected specific traits from generation to generation.

For example, if you’re buying a Golden Retriever, you are pretty much assured that it will weigh around 60 pounds, have medium to long golden color hair, and have a friendly, outgoing personality. A pug will also look a certain way and will act a certain way. It’s important to know if those breed traits are compatible with the lifestyle you, and subsequently your dog, will lead.

A good source of information on purebred dogs is the parent club. They have information on that breed and its common characteristics. Dog shows are also a great way to learn about breeds; observe how they act and talk to breeders or exhibitors.

Once you know about the breed, you’ll know what to ask the breeder in terms of health checks or certifications that are appropriate for the breed.

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6. What about an older dog at a shelter?

Shelter dogs are much more in favor right now, and for good reason. There’s some incredible animals at shelters, and often you can find purebred dogs at shelters and through breed rescue groups.

Many of the larger, more established shelters are very helpful when it comes to identifying personalities and helping you find a dog that matches your expectations. A good shelter will have neutered/spayed the animal, given it a health check-up so you know the state of its health, and will give you guidelines about training. Good shelters can help guide you with what type of dog is right for you. You should be open to their insights.


In Short:

It’s not all genes.

Most of the time, you have to investigate, have knowledge, and ask questions. Know what you want before you ever look at a single puppy or dog, either with a breeder or at a shelter. Your heart and brain should be working together.  Let your brain do the work first, before you go look at the dog.

Decide what kind of temperament you want in a dog. What activity level is a good match for you and your environment? Be honest about the type of lifestyle you and your dog will lead. Then, do your homework. Try to be as informed as possible. Ask questions.

Once you’ve done all that, then it’s time to pick a dog. You can let your heart influence the dog you select.

But selecting the right dog is just the beginning.

Training, time spent walking and playing with the dog, good nutrition, regular grooming, engaging toys, and timely and regular veterinary care are all part of making certain that you and your new pet live together happily for its whole life.

Your influence will shape your dog’s personality just as much as their genetics.


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