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Personalities and Quirks – Nature vs. Nurture

by | Nov 10, 2019 | Uncategorized | 0 comments

“It’s all in how you raise the dog.”

How often have you heard this phrase used by other people? What do you think this means? Do you have a dog with behavioral problems? What do you feel when you hear/read the above statement?

While the above statement may have a hint of truth to it, the majority and general purpose of this statement is often used to shift blame to the average dog owner in order to explain why the dog possesses undesirable behaviors: dog aggression, fearfulness, anxiety, etc. There is no arguing with abuse and neglect-it most certainly has a profound effect on how the victim acts and views certain things. But…what if it’s not always neglect or abuse?

What if you’re not responsible for your dog being nervous/fearful/anxious? If you understand basic behavioral psychology and child development, there is a long-standing debate about whether or not nature or nurture is responsible for normal development and personality. Behavioral experts will tell you that people and animals are born with a temperament- a genetic predisposition if you will – which plays a role in directly and permanently affecting behaviors. Personality is developed with age and exposure to the environment and everyday life. Following so far? 

So rather than the above phrase, I prefer this one:

“It’s all about how you set boundaries, manage behaviors, and set expectations.”

This leads me to the meat-and-potatoes of this blog: Mila. Are you reading this post, Post family? (See what I did there) =)


So apparently Mila’s mom had some “crazy” stuff going on with her. This tells me that Mila was genetically predisposed for anxiety, fearfulness, and even aggression. There’s a reason why professional breeders won’t breed dogs with hip dysplasia, and other medical/structural issues. The passing of these genes to offspring is considered a flaw in their profession, and their goal is to protect and preserve bloodlines. Believe it or not, behavioral issues is also woven into the DNA gene passed down to offspring – like freckles, red hair, albinism, and schizophrenia. Every time a being learns something new or acquires information, the brain makes new neural connections. This new and retained information also finds a way to embed themselves into our genetic code. 

With that said, this gives me some background info to make educated guesses and decisions in regard to how I approach our training sessions. In the world of dog training, slow is fast and fast is slow. This remains especially true for Mila.

“It’s the slow, unrelenting effort made daily, towards small amounts of progress over long periods of time” 

-Sean O’Shea, The Good Dog Training And Rehabilitation.

As soon as we were alone on Day 1, we immediately got to work. The first thing I do is introduce Mila to the concept of leash pressure. Pressure on = No, Pressure off = yes. Yes/No are what we call “marker” words – words used to mark behaviors. “Yes” for desired behaviors, “No” for undesired behaviors. So many dog owners make the mistake of throwing in extra words and fancy commands, but the truth is: most times they are unnecessary, and in the beginning can only confuse your dog. You’d be surprised at the stuff you can do with just these two words. It’s almost like playing the Hot/Cold game. Imagine being blindfolded, looking for the front door, and your only source of information is the person directing you with these words: Cold, Warm, Hot, etc. Each word is meant to draw you closer to your desired destination. Are you connecting the dots so far?

Let’s talk about reinforcement and punishment. The general perception of reinforcement is often related with “rewards”, and punishment with abuse and spanking. Yes and No. The real scientific and definition of Reinforcement is “the process of encouraging or establishing a belief or pattern of behavior, especially by encouragement or reward.” I’m a science and psychology nerd, so just bear with me. There’s so much propaganda out there against tools, and it’s my job to make sure my clients understand basic psychology. I didn’t sit around and make this up, these concepts and definitions have been around since the late 1930s. It breaks down to:

Reinforcement strengthens the likelihood of behaviors reoccuring, Punishmentdecreases the likelihood of behaviors being repeated. Now we add in positive/negative reinforcement, positive/negative punishment. Positive and negative used in these concepts do not mean good or bad. Positive is “adding”, while negative means “subtracting/taking away”. So again, it breaks down to:

Positive Reinforcement:

The addition of a consequence that an individual finds rewarding in order to strengthen a behavior. (Treats, petting, voice, eye contact, cuddles, etc.)

Positive Punishment:

The addition of a consequence that decreases the likelihood of a behavior to be repeated. (leash pressure, stern voice, marker word “no”, the heat you feel when you touch a hot stove.)

Now replace the words “addition” with “subtraction”, and you have Negative Reinforcement and Punishment.

Still following?

Let’s move away a little from the boring science stuff. 

With Mila, less is more. Less talk, less touch, less soothing, less [freely given] affection. We can be understanding and empathetic of her fears, but there’s a difference between being understanding and making excuses. There is no excuse for bad behavior and aggression, nor will we allow ourselves to make any excuses for such. We must hold Mila absolutely accountable for her bad decisions, as well as the good ones. Make it so that the good decisions are worth it to her, and the bad ones not so much.

To address the underlying fear and anxiety, I’ve given Mila the understanding that running away and taking off when the garbage man rolls by is uncomfortable. The prong collar and e-collar makes it uncomfortable to leave her handler’s bubble, and the only way to take that pressure away is to be calm and glued to her handler’s side. Now this doesn’t mean she is cured of being fearful. For dogs like her, new environment and experiences are highly stressful, and you will expect some exaggerated stress responses. You must remain calm and reel her back in, and continue on as if nothing ever happened. You must let her know that the only safety she has is by your side.

We all have our little quirks. I prefer to pre-cut my steak/chicken during dinner, I eat the outer edges of my sandwich first and save the center for last, and all the hangers in my closet are color-coded. Some things just can’t be explained, or changed for that matter. It becomes a parenting decision – choosing the lesser of two evils, figuring out what you can live with and what are major deal breakers.

Predict the Behavior – Expect Mistakes – Be Prepared to Act.

It’s our job to know our dogs inside and out, front to back. In this particular case, there’s a grudge between Mila and her older cousin “Ella” at home. There’s been tension and major disagreements in the past over food and toys (resources deemed valuable to both dogs, even attention can be a resource to guard), and the negative attitude towards each other is still there. Nothing you can do can change their feelings towards each other, so you will be taking a mediator role between the two. Once this role is understood between the two dogs, both will learn to look to their humans to diffuse the situation and prevent disagreements from escalating.

Another thing: new environment and experiences are stressful for Mila. Know this about her, expect her to try to run off/avoid the situation, and be prepared to correct and push her through it. If she attempts to flee, apply collar and leash pressure, tap and turn a few times in front of whatever it is she’s afraid of before moving on. Do not attempt to soothe or pet her until she’s pushed herself through to the other side, and THEN celebrate. I understand that sometimes, things get in the way. Setbacks are normal, brush them off and try again another time. Much like arguments, when emotions run high it is hard to remain objective and not take things personally. Sometimes we need time to cool off before revisiting the conversation.

Separation and Supervision.

Like siblings who squabble when left to their own devices, Mila should not be left unsupervised with Ella, even if you have to take your eyes off them for a few seconds to go to the restroom. There is a degree of hypervigilance you should exercise with these two, and eventually this will fade over time once trust is established between all parties. Our priority is tolerance – teaching both dogs to cohabitate in a peaceful manner, they don’t have to be best friends. Also, if we are requiring that Mila leave her cousin alone, it is only fair to require that the other dog leave her alone as well, especially with food around. Mila can be put in “place” or in her crate to passively observe everyone’s activities, no free-roaming. If at any point you have the time and patience for it, put her leash (or long line) on and “pretend to be at the vet”- laying calmly at our feet without engaging with anything/anyone around without permission.

“When can I relax the rules?”

It really all depends on our priorities. Dogs with attitudes and temperaments like Mila’s (nervous, fearful, and anxious with a nasty attitude towards other dogs around food), require that you be prepared to give the dog whatever it needs, for as long as it needs it. Even if it’s for life. Notice I said “need” vs. “want”. Our priority isn’t to be our dog’s best friend. Rather, our roles must be parent, guidance counselor, teacher, even good cop/bad cop if need be. Everything else is secondary, and will eventually fall into place. I promise you, dogs crave this leadership. The rule of thumb is: When your dog listens to you the first time around, rules can be relaxed. Even then, life is a series of accomplishments and setbacks. For every good day, you can expect an equal amount of bad days. Don’t be afraid to take it back down to the basics for a reset when you hit those road bumps. Taking it back to the basics means: prong, leash and e-collar on, tuning the dog back in.

Change the dynamics of your relationship

Remain objective as much as possible. “Treat her like someone else’s dog.” I know it’s hard not to blame yourself for certain things, but being able to emotionally detach yourself and make decisions objectively will help you in the long run. Dogs have emotional responses to their owners and family members, the same way children do with their parents, their best friend, or their grandparents. You notice this when a child prefers to ask permission from the parent who is more likely to say “yes”, or when the child does the dishes at their friend’s house, but getting him to do chores at home is like pulling teeth. This is often the reason why dogs will perform for their trainer, or in a classroom setting versus at home with their owners.

Pull back on the affection, the touching/petting, the coddling and attention. Make her earn it with good behavior. If we give ourselves away too easily and freely, we get taken for granted- by people and dogs. The secret is to make earning our good stuff extra special, so that Mila will have something to strive for and earn. Play hard to get. Let her know that you’ve got these new set of skills, skills that you’re not afraid to use to let her know that you are not going to let things slide anymore.


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