What do we mean when we say behavior is genetic?

PUBLISHED ON June 16, 2016 by jessica hekman

When I first brought Dashiell home, people who met him regularly exclaimed “What a confident puppy!” I worked hard to expose him to lots of varied experiences, but I joked that it wasn’t necessary – he took everything in his stride. He had no trouble with playing on a wobble board with unsteady footing, and he trotted across a grate over a river at age five months, astonishing the professional dog walker I was with. Meeting adult dogs was no problem – he was relaxed and happy with them, never intimidated even by dogs much larger than he was.

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When Dash was six months old, he started being afraid of stuffed animals. I found this hilarious at first. Who is afraid ONLY of stuffed animals? I taught him to relax around a teddy bear in my house, but he had trouble getting over his fear of the stuffed dogs we encountered at the pet supply store. Faced with their unnervingly direct stares, he would bark, his posture would lower, and he would back away.

A month later he became afraid of having a bath. I joked on Facebook that this was my fault for not going slowly enough with him the first few times I had to scrub off the mud. But as slowly as I went from then on, I could not convince him to get in the bathtub of his own accord. After several desensitization/counter-conditioning sessions, he would come into the bathroom; he would watch me shower off our other dog; but he would not get into the bathtub, even with the water off.

At age eight months he became afraid of the bedroom at nighttime. We had all the windows open one windy night, and the blinds rattled. He went downstairs and would not come back up to sleep with us. We now keep the window over his bed closed and often sleep with the blinds up so they don’t make noise, but on nights when the windows are open, he insists on sleeping downstairs.

Then one day in agility foundations class, our instructor was explaining how to teach a new obstacle to our dogs. She gave instructions about how people with less confident dogs should handle the obstacle, and glanced at me. Suddenly my world view shifted, and I realized that “confident” is no longer the best word to describe Dash. I’m still head over heels in love with him, but his personality is different than it was when he first came home.

At age nine months, I’m still seeing new fears pop up, and I’m still working slowly and patiently to ameliorate them. (Exactly what I’m doing is an entirely different story, but, to the dog trainers who read this article, never fear, we’re working on it.) A behavior consultant friend commented that “fearfulness that appears at this age and doesn’t go away in a month or so is usually genetic.” I thought to myself: now, what does that mean?

The concept of a “genetic” behavioral trait may be more complex to me than to most dog owners, because my area of research is these types of traits: what causes them, and how much genetics and the environment affect them. To many dog owners, I think a genetic behavior is one that is predestined: the dog’s genes have set him up to be anxious or aggressive or friendly, and the best (or worst) socialization program in the world isn’t going to change that. Do completely predestined behavioral traits like this actually exist in companion dogs? Probably, but I suspect they’re rather rare. More commonly, the dog’s genetics interact with the dog’s environment to produce a behavioral trait that may, to the owner, appear to have come out of the blue.

Still, I did everything “right,” and I strongly believe so did his breeder – so what genetics and what environment interacted to produce this unexpected trait? The interplay of genetics and environment starts at conception, continues through relationships with mom and littermates, and then into the socialization period with the breeder and then the owner. During all of this, genetics allows for different possibilities. We don’t know details about how personality develops, but we imagine that some dogs have a set of alleles that make it easier for them to develop anxiety (with relatively few environmental triggers required) and other dogs have a set of alleles that make it more difficult for them to develop anxiety (with relatively more environmental triggers required). In the case of some dogs in some homes, fearfulness may in fact be almost inevitable no matter what the owner does. However, if those dogs had grown up in a different environment, maybe working on a farm, their personalities may have turned out quite differently. If the behavior is inevitable in the environment of your home, does that make it genetic? On the other hand, if the behavior would be different if the dog were in another home, does that make it not genetic? I’m not sure the term “genetic” really makes sense when applied to behavior, in the end.

So what’s going on with Dash? It’s possible that hitting puberty meant that when he started acting more like an adult, other aspects of his behavior changed as well. It’s possible that growing up around my very fearful dog Jenny opened the door to his developing his own anxieties. Of course, I don’t know, and it doesn’t really matter – I just manage him differently now than I did before. But maybe some day, all the work scientists are doing on understanding the development of canine (and human) personalities will help us better answer questions like these.

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