Understanding the Nature Versus Nurture Concept in Dogs

Updated on April 18, 2017
alexadry profile image

Adrienne is a former veterinary hospital assistant, certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, and author of "Brain Training for Dogs."

Are dog's behaviors governed by instincts or their environment?

The nature versus nurture debate in dogs
The nature versus nurture debate in dogs | Source

Dog Behaviors: Learned or Instinctive?

Is nature or nurture governing your dog's behavior? Studies suggest that a dog's behavior takes place as a result of genetic material (instinct) and experience (learning). The best way to differentiate the two is by asking the question: did the dog have to learn the behavior or was it innate (natural, therefore dictated by instincts)?

A puppy typically does not need to learn to nurse once it is born. Nursing, therefore, is an innate behavior. Puppies are born with a strong suckling instinct and this is what helps the puppy survive. Another instinctive behavior as the puppy grows is the instinct to play. No puppy has to learn to play, it just happens. Nature instilled this hard-wired instinct in pups so they can play with other puppies and practice hunting skills necessary for survival.

However, not everything the puppy does is dictated by instinct. The puppy's environment plays a role in allowing the puppy to learn new behaviors. For instance, upon playing with other puppies, the puppy learns that if it bites a playmate too hard, the puppy bitten will likely squeal in pain and withdraw from the game. With time, the biting puppy learns that in order to play, it must bite less hard. This is how puppies ultimately learn to inhibit their bite.

The main question to differentiate the two is therefore: did the dog have to learn the behavior? If not, very likely it was instinctive. Instinct and learned behaviors are also referred to as nature and nurture.

Nature, as the name implies indicates behaviors dictated by nature, therefore they are natural, instinctive. Hunting, eating, reproducing are all behaviors that are natural.

Nurture is what is learned through the environment through experiences. A dog may hunt by instinct, but may learn through experience that skunks are not a prey worth bothering. Nature did not teach him that, the experience being sprayed did. It is important to note that learned experiences are not passed down to offspring. Therefore, if one has a dog has learned through expereince to not hunt skunk, its puppies will not know to avoid skunks, but their experience over time will teach them.

As much as nature and nurture look like two distinct concepts creating the ''nature versus nurture debate'' in reality, they both are intertwined and work in synergy.

The Nature versus Nurture Debate

There are different disciplines and schools of thoughts revolving around the world of canine behavior. Often there are debates over nature and nurture. Truth is, the two concepts are often intertwined and in reality cannot be separated from each other. According to Paul Chance Ph.D. in Psychology from Utah State University and author of the book ''Learning & Behavior'' asking which is more important in determining behavior, heredity or environment?’ is like asking, ‘Which is more important in determining the area of a rectangle, width or length?’” The two are inextricably intertwined and trying to separate them will not serve any particular purpose.''

A puppy may for instance, initiate play by instinct, but this instinct leads to learning through new experiences. The puppy will learn through experience to inhibit its bite, to caliber its body in a way to pounce better, to give calming signals if another puppy is playing too rough and so forth. Even when nursing, which is an instinctive behavior, a puppy learns through experience. For instance, the puppy may learn to prefer one teat over another and may learn how to keep the other brother from having access to that particular teat. Instinct and environment therefore are inextricably intertwined and they work together in the making of that wonderful animal we love so much, the dog.

Dog Breeds: Why Nature/Nurture Is Important

The debate over environment and genetics plays a significant role in determining the true nature of black listed dogs, victims of breed specific legislation. Do pitbulls, rottweilers, dobermans and so forth, have an inherited predisposition for being aggressive or is this a result of the environment where they are raised? The environment appears to play a very big role. Indeed, pitbulls, rottweilers and dobermans raised in a living environment and by responsible owners, tend to bloom into loving pets. Some have also gone to become therapy dogs!

However, it cannot be hidden that genetics play a role as well. Irresponsible breeders who do not temperament test their breeding stock may yield at times, (either purposely or by ignorance), weak-nerved specimens which may turn out into a liability. However, in the right home, such specimens at times can be turned around. So ultimately, no rules can be set in stone. Stating that rottweilers, pitbulls and dobermans and so forth are prone to being aggressive is like saying that all people of a certain race are prone to criminal acts. We all know that this would be downright wrong, and therefore, just as in humans, dogs come with their own personalities which are the result of both their environment and genetics. As researcher/science writer Robert Sapolsky states definitively goes a long way: “No heredity. No environment. Only the interaction between the two.”

Questions & Answers


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      • alexadry profile image

        Adrienne Janet Farricelli 5 years ago from USA

        Thank you mathira, I am happy you enjoyed this hub on dog nature nurture.

      • mathira profile image

        mathira 6 years ago from chennai

        Dogs are man's best friend and your hub was really interesting, alexadry.


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