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Temperament - Nature, Nurture, or Somewhere in Between?

The question of nature vs nurture has been hotly debated time and again. There have been many studies done to attempt to answer this question. And yet the question remains, are individuals more influenced by genetic dispositions or how they are raised and trained? Even on somethings that seem obviously genetic, there is research being done into whether whelping box traction plays a role in development of hip dysplasia.

Most breeders I've talked to tout the importance of genetics in influencing their puppies. And I've talked before about how it is genetics that make breeds what they are. An eight week old Pointer puppy is going to show some raw instinct for pointing birds. A twelve week Border Collie puppy is going to show some raw talent for circling and grouping. And while we don't know what genes cause this, there is enough anecdotal evidence to take this as all but a fact.

But what about behavioral issues? Again, I am going to present an anecdotal, but it is very illustrative of my stance. While I was working at a busy training center, I worked with well over one hundred Golden Retrievers who were, to use the fad term "English Creme" (essentially white). While I was in the daycare, we kicked out a number of white Goldens because they would resource guard space, counselors, the water bucket. When I moved over to the training department the first white Golden that came in, my mentors rolled their eyes. "Does he resource guard?" They asked. The answer was a resounding yes. And thus begun an unabated trend. Out of the over 100 individual English Creme Golden Retrievers I worked with 95 showed tendencies for resource guarding. And while in some cases, that resource guarding was mild, in many cases it was decidedly not.

It got to be a common enough trend that I started to track the dogs' breeders unofficially. It didn't seem to matter if the dog was from across the country or right in our backyard, they showed propensity for resource guarding. This was in contrast to the other hundreds of non-white Goldens we worked over the years who showed a much much lower propensity for resource guarding. Was this scientific? No , it wasn't scientifically rigorous, but it was enough for us to conclude that in Golden Retrieves, the genes that cause very lightly coloring may be linked to a tendency to guard possessions.

Now, in contrast, I've worked with many dogs that came in with resource guarding that have no known incidence of resource guarding in their lines. Very often, if a dog comes from a breeder, I will ask the owners to check with their breeder to see if resource guarding runs in their lines. In cases where there didn't seem to be evidence of a history of resource guarding in the dog's lines, very often, resource guarding had been inadvertently encouraged by the owners. They would snatch food or stolen items out of their dogs' mouths repeatedly until the dog became resentful and that sometimes escalated into biting.

It was a personal, unofficial study that was fascinating for me and really showed how both genetics and environment can play a role in shaping a dog. One of my favorite sayings is breed as though everything's genetic, raise as though everything's environment. And I love this approach because it plans for every eventuality. A good breeder is aware that weaknesses in a dog's temperament might be inherited, so they find a dog that is strong in those areas, just like they do with physical traits. Then, once the puppies are born, they raise then with every preventative protocol they can: preventative resource guarding, handling issues, reactivity, etc.

I think that you gave me a anxious, guarding, insecure young puppy, I could likely raise them to be an outwardly confident adult. Honestly, with puppies where I have been heavily involved in their training from 8 weeks onward, I've found this to be the case. But ultimately, those propensities will still be there. If a dog is stressed and tired, those propensities are going to come out more and you can see the underlying genetic temperament of the dog. And that I think is good evidence to both genes and raising protocols working in conjunction.

Correct temperament is going to vary by breed. A dog that turns tail and runs from pressure is going to incorrect for a dog lauded for their courage like the Doberman, Rottweiler, or German Shepherd. But in sighthound, that would me more acceptable since they are dogs that are meant to run, not stand their ground.

In an Azawakh I am specifically for a dog that is discerning, that can recognize a friend from a foe. I don't need a dog that wants to be touched by strangers, but I want one that can tolerate if I ask it, which I rarely do. I want a steady dog that doesn't jump at noises. I don't mind a dog that stands their ground when other dogs are pushy, but I want one that's predictable and stable. They should be good pack dogs, able to coexist within their family pack without issues that aren't quickly resolved. In particular, I am looking for individuals that have good work ethic and like to do things. Some level of resource guarding and reactivity is acceptable to me because of the breed's purpose, but those are also traits I will work on decreasing in my litters and own dogs. I love being able to take my dogs anywhere they're allowed and have them be calm and comfortable. I adore the comments I get on their temperaments while at trials. That is something that I will try my utmost to replicate.

I don't want a dog that hides in the corner when scared. I don't want a dog that repeatedly takes issues with random dogs just walking down the street minding their own business. I don't want a dog that can't learn how to chew their bone in peace while their housemates chew their bone across the room. I absolutely don't want a dog that's first response is to lash out preventively as soon as any pressure is applied. Are all dogs capable of biting? Yes. But I have no desire to have a dog that escalates matters as a first resort.

I make a list for both physical and temperament traits. I list my dog's virtues and faults. But I also list the category: acceptable but needs improvement. I'm not one to say that a dog much be perfect in both structure and temperament. Especially in a breed with a small genepool, this would eliminate much of your diversity. Dogs with acceptable but still notable flaws, particularly in temperament, should be paired with dogs that don't escalate those issues into large faults. And I absolutely will never pair two dogs with serious temperament flaws together, because while, with good training, those problems can be mitigated, a good trainer is both hard to find and the extensive protocols needed to help a fearful puppy can be difficult to consistently implement.

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