How often do you hear this phrase uttered? As a pit bull owner, it’s one I hear all the time, and it drives me crazy. Because it’s not true.
Well, it’s partly true.A dog’s temperament and behavior are based on a variety of things. Genetics do play a part. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t have all the different breeds we have who perform the wide variety of functions that they do. We have breeds who were designed to be protective. We have breeds who were designed to hunt and kill vermin. We have breeds who were designed to retrieve birds without damaging them. We have breeds that were bred specifically to be companion animals. In order for these different types of dogs to breed true, to be predictable, there needs to be at least some genetic component to temperament.
But that’s not all there is to it. While genetics might dictate a range of traits your dog might display, each dog is an individual, and socialization and training can help dictate where in that range your particular dog will fall. A dog who is genetically prone to being shy might not ever be a social butterfly, but with careful socialization, he can learn to be braver than he would have been if he’d been kept at home and not exposed to anything else in the world.
Socialization starts on day one. Where your dog comes from matters! Being raised in a home and exposed to all the hustle and bustle, the sounds (tv, doorbell, vacuum cleaner), the people (of all ages and genders please!), and the experiences of everyday family life will result in a different puppy than one raised in a cage or a barn, segregated from real life, rarely handled, and not exposed to all the different parts of the world they are going to encounter later on. A good breeder provides all different kinds of stimulation– different surface textures, different toys, different places. All of these things will contribute to a pup who is more accepting of a wide variety of circumstances later on.
Once your pup comes home, it is important that you continue that socialization with all different kinds of people– men, women, children of all ages, men with facial hair, people wearing hats– anything you can think of. You want them to experience different textures under their feet. Different places. Different (known, healthy, puppy-safe) dogs. Puppy class can be an absolutely unmatchable opportunity for all of this, but you need to make a concerted effort to continue all those things outside of that one-hour-a-week class. You also want to choose a puppy class in which vaccines are confirmed as being up to date for all puppies.
The important thing to remember with socialization, though, is that it needs to be safe and happy for your pup. If you’re stressing and scaring your puppy, you are working against him. Do not force him to do things he’s afraid of. Take his individual personality into consideration. Reward him heavily for accepting new things. Have strangers feed him tasty treats. Be upbeat and happy so that he will follow your lead and be less likely to worry. You don’t want to give him the impression that the world is a scary place– you want to teach him that the world is a really cool place where weird and unexpected things sometimes happen.
The puppy socialization window starts to close around 18 weeks. After that point, socialization is harder and pups are less accepting. But all hope is not lost! It is just a longer, harder process. Even adult dogs can learn to be more accepting of the world around them, of things they find scary. But it is so much easier to do when you’re starting with a baby puppy.
Training is another part of the puzzle, and how you train your dog matters. Dogs who are trained using heavy-handed corrections and punishment are frequently more aggressive than dogs trained using reward-based methods. Well-respected veterinary behaviorist Dr. Sophia Yin has a couple of really nice books available with a positively, dog-friendly approach both to starting your puppy off right as well as for dogs of all ages. These methods are based on the science of learning, but don’t let that scare you! They’re user-friendly and practical and both books are very easy to understand and apply.
I hate the labels “good dog” and “bad dog” as dogs are just animals and behavior is just behavior, but often times the difference between the two is the owner’s ability to recognize a problem early on and their willingness to seek help from a professional before things progress to the point of, say, biting. A puppy who tenses up and holds his head over a toy or a chewie (or his food bowl!) when you approach is a dog who could turn out to be a biting resource guarder in the future if the problem is not addressed or if the problem is addressed with punishment. Resource guarding is a completely normal behavior in animals! But it is not appropriate in our pet dogs, so we work on changing their response to being approached.
Owners who learn to recognize the signs of stress in their dogs are given a fantastic tool in heading off problems before they start. A good trainer will be able to teach you what to do after you recognize that your dog is stressed, and how to change his reaction to that stressor, but not if you don’t know enough to seek help.
Dogs are so much a product of everything– experiences, socialization, training, and genetics. No part can be discounted, and no part can be fully blamed. “Good dogs” are born and raised and responsibly owned. No part exists in a vacuum.
Need more proof? Look at the dogs who were rescued from Michael Vick’s notorious Bad Newz kennel back in 2007. Those dogs were bred to fight. They were raised in the ways that would make them the “meanest” and the “baddest”. They were not nurtured or loved or cared for like a pet dog would be. And yet a number of them went on to become certified Canine Good Citizens; several of them are even certified therapy dogs! Something about them was right even when all was wrong in their worlds. And they were fortunate enough to end up in the hands of people who were willing to help them bloom.
Learn how to help your dog bloom. Learn how to understand him, how to work with him, and how to help him be the best that he can be.