Understanding the Nature vs. Nurture Concept in Dogs

Updated on January 8, 2020
alexadry profile image

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, former veterinary assistant, and author of the online dog training course "Brain Training for Dogs."

Understanding the Nature Versus Nurture Concept in Dogs
Understanding the Nature Versus Nurture Concept 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 instinct)?

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 whether the dog had 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 who has learned through experience to not hunt skunks, 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 vs. 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 blacklisted dogs, victims of breed-specific legislation. Do pit bulls, Rottweilers, Dobermans and so forth, have an inherited predisposition for being "aggressive" as insurance companies want us to believe or is this a result of the environment where they are raised?

The environment appears to play a very big role. Indeed, pit bulls, Rottweilers and Dobermans raised in a loving and nourishing environment with 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 can be turned around.

So ultimately, no rules can be set in stone. Stating that Rottweilers, pit bulls 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.”

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2011 Adrienne Farricelli


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    • profile image


      16 months ago

      i like

    • profile image

      Mike Hunt 

      16 months ago

      Thank you so much for this hub about dogos it was extremely helpful .

    • profile image

      Derrick ramsey 

      16 months ago

      lovely article :0

    • alexadry profile imageAUTHOR

      Adrienne Farricelli 

      8 years ago

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

    • mathira profile image


      8 years ago from chennai

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


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