Is That Behavior Trained or Genetic?

PUBLISHED ON May 16, 2016 by adria karlsson

Training a dog is about way more than teaching them to sit on cue or walk on a loose leash. When you first bring a dog into your home, there are so many things that you would like them to do or not to do. These rules may seem arbitrary to your dog, and may in fact be arbitrary. I have about as many clients who want their dog to sit with them on the couch in the evening, as I have clients who don’t want their dog on the furniture. How’s a dog to know what to do?

This is where science helps! We know from studying behavior that reinforced behaviors will increase. Punished behaviors will decrease. We also know that behaviors that fail to pay-off are “extinguished”. Extinction is actually a great tool, when used correctly, as it can avoid some of the negative side effects of punishing a behavior. What does this mean? If we feed, pet, praise, or chuck toys to our dogs for keeping four feet on the floor and lying on the rug… we’ll get a dog who doesn’t go on the couch. Conversely, if we do all those things for joining us on the couch, we’ll develop a couch potato.

When someone has a new dog in their home, I tell them to carry food all the time. If their dog does something they like, feed them. If they do something they don’t like, walk away and ignore it if possible. This usually starts to shape up the dog’s behavior into something that is appropriate to their new household. Even if someone isn’t doing this intentionally, you can bet their dog is learning. It might just take a bit longer.

How does this relate to Darwin’s Dogs? It means that we faced a big problem when trying to look at what behaviors might be primarily genetically derived versus human reinforced. For example, your dog may fetch a ball because you actively trained it to do so with a clicker and treats. Or your dog may fetch a ball because you threw it and that’s just what your dog does. (Or your dog, like mine, may stare at the ball in confusion and wonder what the point of this game is.) Your dog may love to swim… but is it because they were born that way or because you play with them in the water? What behaviors does your dog perform that you don’t care either way? Eating grass? Licking the dish? Circling before pooping? We tried our hardest to think of behaviors that we wonder at rather than try to train or fix. You’ll see those questions popping up throughout the surveys. But teasing apart hereditary behaviors from those we reinforce in our dogs is part of the challenge that this project poses.

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