Dogs Nature v. Nurture


As everyone who has read my blog for a while knows, we have 2 dogs: Lola and Kelly. My best friend sent me an article on dog genetics and behaviors the other day that triggered me to think about nature v. nurture in dogs. We theoretically know more about Lola’s genes than Kelly’s, although I hope to do a genetic test on Kelly this year. When my nephew got Lola he was told her dad was a retired German Shepherd police dog and her mother was a rough collie that lived on a farm (Lassie from the TV show) is a rough collie in case you need a picture of this in your head).

This makes Lola half German Shepherd and half rough collie. While I say it myself, Lola is a very attractive dog with her lion-like mane and fluffy chest with golden red hair. As a puppy she had the black saddleback of a German Shepherd but as she got older it went away and the only black left on her is her tail which is decidedly German Shepherd looking while her face, mane, and fluffy chest is definitely collie. At 6 years old, Lola’s personality is well established. By 2 years old she had a mostly grey muzzle, which is a genetic trait that shows up in German Shepherds.

Interestingly, Lola is terrified of more things than most people. There’s the normal dog afraid of loud sudden noises (gun shots, fireworks, storms, etc), but she’s also claustrophobic – I didn’t even know dogs could be claustrophobic – and she really hates change whether that be major changes to the house or a deviation of her routine and new things make her panic. So, her father would not have been a skittish and stressed out German Shepherd, Lola went the opposite direction and is afraid of most things. I had some concerns this anxiety in a German Shepherd came from us and our nurturing of Lola but as the vet reminded me German Shepherds swing from one extreme to the other; some afraid of nothing, some terrified of everything like people are and they think it’s genetic induced. The article didn’t seem to track the fear genes in German Shepherds (but that would be a good study), but did imply genetics in dogs may play less of a role in their behavior than we think.

Interesting, because when I tell people Lola is half collie the next question is inevitably “is she a biter?” What? Why would she be a biter? I have countered that question with “why do you think she’d be a biter?” suspecting the herding instinct in collies which will make them nip at animals and people to move them along might be influencing this idea that collies are biters because and the person informed me no, nipping is not biting and they’ve always heard collies are biters. Okay, well I’m on my 3rd collie (I had a border collie in my teens), Lola who is half rough collie, and the vet thinks Kelly has some border collie genes (because she also has a small mane with black and white fur) and I’ve never had a collie who was a biter. So why does this idea that all collies are biters persists? I don’t know but given the way it’s said to me and the frequency, most people think it’s a genetic behavior. Of the three collies listed: Frisky the purebred Border Collie of my teens, Lola who is half rough collie, and Kelly who is probably less than 10% border collie, Kelly is the one most likely to bite.

The other thing we hear a lot is “oh it’s a good thing you don’t have kids, collies and kids don’t get along.” What!? I am going to take serious exception to this. We got Frisky the year my oldest nephew was born (1993) and Frisky LOVED my nephew. When Michael started pulling up, Frisky would stand in front of Michael and let him grab his fur and would help pull the toddler to his feet. Even when we would get onto Michael for using the dog for this purpose, Frisky would continue to let the toddler do it and when he started walking, we didn’t need baby gates…. Frisky would follow the toddler around and if Michael attempted to walk out of the room with the adults, Frisky would herd him back into the middle of the room. Frisky never growled at Michael and he certainly never nipped him or bit him. And now there’s Lola and Kelly. Lola is a year older than Jude the great nephew and Lola let Jude do whatever he wanted to her. When he started walking, yep Lola would let him use her fur to pull himself to his feet and more than once, we found the two of them curled up on the floor together with Jude using Lola as a pillow. I once caught Jude (he was about two) sticking his finger in Lola’s eye (and he was doing it hard enough I could see her eyeball move!) and I got on to Jude, but Lola was just lying there letting him poke her in the eye. She didn’t growl, she didn’t bite at him or nip at him. Now that she’s 6 years old, she’s less excited about kids, especially babies, but she still loves them in her way. With Kilian the great nephew, she stalks up behind him, sneaks in and licks him, and then she runs away because she doesn’t want his unconditional and overly attentive love in return. But she’s still not nipping at them or biting them, she just gets up and goes where they can’t get her.

Based on my experiences with collies (border & rough), collies are not biters by nature and they don’t have a genetic predisposition to hate children. Kelly isn’t a biter and she also loves children, she’s not as patient with them as Lola and Frisky were, but Kelly was abused and neglected. Given Kelly’s puppyhood, I am not surprised Kelly isn’t as patient with kids as Lola or Frisky, there’s a lot of things Kelly isn’t as patient with as Lola or Frisky, but it isn’t because of genetic predispositions for “bad behavior” it’s about her puppyhood or how she was nurtured as a puppy (and it wasn’t good).

The point being, how many of these “genetic behaviors” are actually based on the nurturing of the dog? I’ve never had a collie that was a biter or wasn’t good with children, but everyone expects Lola to behave a certain way because of her breeds and yes some of it applies, but the majority does not. With Kelly being a mutt and looking like a mutt, people have fewer behavioral expectations for her. However, I will say Kelly is not eager to learn or listen to people. After being told she probably had border collie in her, I thought “oh she’ll be easy to train” she absolutely was not and she still does her own thing even when we are giving her orders. But as the vet pointed out, for Kelly, the nurture left scars (physical and mental) and some behaviors (like jumping on people) may not be something we can train out of her regardless of what we do. The vet wasn’t wrong; even putting Kelly on a shock collar, we were not able to break her of jumping on people. She just gets so excited anytime someone comes to the house or yard, she can’t contain herself and she has to jump on them. It is annoying and I know it (which is why I try to warn people), but we tried positive and negative reinforcement and she still does it… if not even shocking her would break her of jumping on people, nothing will.

4 thoughts on “Dogs Nature v. Nurture

  1. I have never heard of collies as biters! My mom grew up with a “Lassie” collie and she was sweet and gentle with all the kids. I also had a border collie and my childhood best friend had a sheltie (small collie-looking dog) and they were all gentle and great with kids.

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  2. I have never heard of collies being biters. With the nature v nurture it seems nurture prevails. I rescued my Pitt bull from someone who knew he was sick and was going to let him die. Both his parents were aggressive to the extreme but mine is gentle as can be. He has even played horse to my grandson. I have seen him get aggressive two times in his 12 years. Both times were to protect my child. But when he did get get aggressive he didn’t bite anyone. Just got between them and my daughter and growled.

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