Are breed traits important in dog training, or is it really all about the individual dog?
(*Disclaimer: Some sweeping generalisations will be made in this article)
It’s true that every dog is an individual and, regardless of their breed, they will have their own unique personality traits which require a broader thinking than simply signing them off as a generic example of their breed. However, understanding breed traits is still important and it should never be completely dismissed when it comes to working with an individual dog.
There will always be a Nature vs Nurture debate and the impact of each factor can’t ever be definite for every dog. It’s not a case of 40% of personality or behaviour traits comes from the Nature side and 60% from Nurture, these aspects can’t be defined by percentages or numbers. However, there is no doubt that both will have some level of impact on each dog, some may be more genetically influenced while others will have greater influences from their environmental learning.
Breed traits will influence both nature and nurture. Nurture might reduce the strength of some of those traits but it might also enhance them, so when choosing a breed, or considering your dog’s behaviour, it can be helpful to take a look at typical breed traits and consider these in how you work with your dog.
What’s not true is that puppies are born as blank slates, ready to be imprinted however we want, raise it in the ‘right way’ and a puppy will be fit for any purpose or lifestyle you wish. It’s more complicated than that. You could do everything by the book, but perfectly socialising and training your puppy does not mean it will turn out the way you want.
Socialisation and training are important, there is no question of that, it’s important to set your puppy up for success and address any early signs of problems or concerning behaviours, but this is still only ‘nurture’ and it doesn’t account for the ‘nature’ side of things.
To sign off breed traits as meaningless is wrong. If you look back thousands of years, breeds have been bred for a purpose, they’ve been selected for specific skills, traits and behaviours which make them good at their jobs. Whether that’s retrieving, hunting, herding, guarding or simply being companions, dogs are driven for these purposes without being ‘trained’ to do so.
It should come as no surprise then that our pet dogs also have these behavioural tendencies. They may not be appropriate in our homes and lives, but it doesn’t mean we can always completely eradicate these innate behavioural traits.
However, what is more important than looking at broad ‘breed specific traits’ is to consider a dog’s genetic background. This ultimately dictates the traits which a puppy is born with and how much you can modify those traits … it’s a dog’s genetic blueprint, the traits which are passed from generation to generation. Research into canine behavioural genetics show that traits including fearfulness, working drive, impulse control, problem-solving abilities and aggressive tendencies are all strongly influenced by breeding.
This means no puppy is a blank slate, you can only modify what you already have, meaning there will be limits to how much you can ‘change’ or mould your puppy’s behaviour.
There is so much genetic variability within each breed, making broad generalisations is difficult and potentially damaging, but looking at the parents, litter mates or lineage of a particular dog will give a clearer picture of their genetic traits. Within a breed, there are likely to be stronger tendencies and more predictable traits, but specific genetic backgrounds is why there are always exceptions and individuals who don’t fit into ‘breed stereotypes’.
Let’s start at the start …
If you’ve chosen a breed, think carefully about what you want from your dog and take the time to research breeders until you find one who is breeding dog’s with those desirable traits. If you’re looking for a stable family pet, make sure the breeder is selecting from stable dogs who aren’t showing signs of being fearful, nervous or aloof. If you want a dog to guard your home, choose a breeder who is producing dogs with these traits, but then don’t be surprised when your dog takes a dislike to visitors or passers-by!
There is more than just saying ‘I want a Labrador because they’re good family dogs’. The majority may well be perfect family pets, but choose from the wrong genetic line and you could end up with a dog who isn’t suitable for family life and no amount of socialisation or training will make him ‘good enough’. Take the time to choose the right breeder and find a puppy who will be able to adapt to your lifestyle.
Where we can go wrong with breed traits, is labelling certain breeds as not suitable for X, Y, Z. A first-time dog owner shouldn’t get a Border Collie, a young family shouldn’t get a Rottweiler, an older couple shouldn’t get a Spaniel. There are so many claims which suggest you shouldn’t own a certain breed if you don’t match certain criteria.
In actual fact, sometimes the best Collie owners are the first-time dog owners, while other first timers are out of their depth with a Labrador. A young family may find their Cockapoo impossible to live with, while another finds their Rottweiler to be perfect. An older couple might be driven crazy by their little Yorkie, while another has a Spaniel who fits perfectly.
Breed traits can help, but they are by no means definitive about who should own which breeds. It’s far more about how you choose your individual dog, how you bring him up in your lifestyle, how you teach him and help him to adapt to your routine and life. There is so much more to it than simply the breed. There are Border Collie breeders who will produce puppies capable of living more sedentary lifestyles, while others will be producing highly driven, energetic individuals more suited to active homes. This applies to all breeds, so research the history of the line you’re choosing from and find out what traits they are really selecting for.
Breed Specific Problems?
Some breeds are more prone to certain problem behaviours, and while there will be exceptions, there are also some traits to be aware of within breeds. Being aware of potential genetically influenced traits will give you an idea of what to look for when you visit a breeder and when you’re choosing a puppy. It can also be somewhat reassuring to know when you face a challenging behaviour with your dog, that you aren’t to blame and there may be deeper influences going on which are beyond nurtures control.
Sometimes we blame ourselves when a problem behaviour arises and we are quick to say ‘I caused this’, or worse still, someone tells you ‘It’s your fault, you’ve made your dog like this’, when in actual fact, you did nothing wrong. Sure, you maybe missed some early signs but ultimately the behaviour may always have been there, nature created it and nurture brought it out further.
*Breed stereotype warning
We’re going to say it, we know some breeds are more prone to certain problem behaviours, and while these can be seen in any and every breed, we also expect it more in specific breeds…
Spaniels and other gundog breeds can be more prone to resource guarding issues. German Shepherds don’t cope well with frustration. Border Collies struggle with impulse control. Labradors are easily over-socialised. Dachshunds are nervous and bark a lot. Vizsla’s are stressy and like to howl. The list could go on … not every individual conforms to these stereotypes, but we can always make broad generalisations which may or may not be accurate.
Within reason, it shouldn’t be seen as a negative thing to link breeds with certain traits because it can be positive if owners can be made aware of potential traits when they choose a puppy of a certain breed. It can also be comforting to know you’re not the only German Shepherd owner whose dog is struggling with frustration around other dogs, or the only Cocker owner who finds resource guarding to be an issue.
Where it is damaging is when you’re told you can’t change your dog’s behaviour because that’s how the breed behaves. This is where breed specific traits can have a negative impact and make people feel as though they’re stuck with certain problems because that’s simply the breed they chose. You may have to work harder to change your dog’s behaviour, or he may always need a level of management, but it doesn’t mean it can’t be improved to some extent.
Knowing a behaviour is influenced by your dog’s genetics means you can create a better plan of action and a more realistic goal for improvement. If you have a dog who has shown higher levels of fear from a young age and you also noticed nervousness in their parents, then your dog may never change into a super friendly, people-loving dog, but you can set a realistic goal of broadening his social circle and helping him feel relaxed around new people.
Similarly, if you approach a breeder, knowing Spaniels can be prone to resource guarding, and they inform you that they have seen guarding behaviours within their genetics lines, you could walk away from that breeder, or you could go in with your eyes open, ready to start preventative training from day 1. Being aware of potential breed traits will mean you are ready to spot the early signs and work with those traits to avoid them becoming bigger problems.
This is how you train a …
A dog’s breed can be used an excuse for certain training methods. The ‘tougher’ breeds require a ‘firm hand’, they need to be ‘shown who’s boss’ and therefore they should be trained in this way. But that’s simply not true. In fact, it can be quite the opposite, German Shepherds are often seen as tough dogs who require a dominant approach to put them in their place, when in actual fact, many are not confident dogs, they might make a lot of noise and put on a display of confidence, but underneath all that show, they are fearful and confused. Using a harsher approach by shouting at them, physically reprimanding them or putting unpleasant pieces of equipment like choke chains or shock collars on will only increase their fear and uncertainty. The same applies to other ‘tough’ breeds like Rottweilers, Malinois, and Bull breeds, just because they look confident and make a big show, does not mean they are. Breed traits and breed history are not an excuse to take a punishment-based approach, these methods and theories are long out of date and do more harm than good.
All working breeds tend to come with some history of how they should be trained. ‘Experts’ will tell you they’ve used these methods for generations and therefore that’s how it should be done. But times change, and thankfully people move on and develop new methods which are more effective and work in more positive ways.
Trainers should look at the overall picture, breed traits and genetic background can provide useful information, but it doesn’t mean a dog should be written off a ‘untrainable’ simply because it’s displaying a behaviour influenced by its breed, nor does it deserve a particular method of training simply because ‘that’s how the breed should be trained’.
Breed traits are useful to consider in training in the context of reinforcement and motivation. While individuals will have different motivations, likely influenced by both genetic background and environmental experiences, you can use their natural instincts to enhance their motivation. Take some time to think about the history of the breed and how this might influence things they enjoy doing. A spaniel is likely to find motivation in sniffing, a collie might prefer to chase a toy, and a Malinois might love to tug a toy.
This doesn’t have to be set in stone, every individual can learn to enjoy different motivators and rewards, food motivation can built even in breeds who are typically labelled as not being foody dogs. It’s important to work out what your dog loves, this will be an individual thing, but looking at the broader breed traits is a good place to start!
Breed traits exist in varying degrees, they are influenced by a dog’s genetic background but they can be modified by nurture. All experiences through a dog’s life, from puppyhood onwards, can shape those breed traits, making them more or less developed.
All dogs have their own personalities and behavioural tendencies. We can their build confidence, teach skills to cope with stress, train alternative behaviours, and strengthen their bond and trust with their owners, but we can’t change who they are. Work on the things you can change but accept you are working within a pre-existing genetic blueprint and that may require some lifelong management and different expectations for your dog.