It’s All In How You Raise Them?
I can’t even begin to count the number of guilt ridden owners who have sat down with me in their initial behavioral consult and tearfully explained the difficulties they are having with their dog, only to wrap it up by confessing to me that they know they must have done something wrong to cause these problems. The idea of “it’s all in how you raise them” is not only incredibly inaccurate and misleading, it’s putting far too much responsibility and guilt on good, responsible, and caring, dog owners. My personal belief is that dogs lie on a sliding scale that is initially determined by genetics (nature). At one end of the scale you have a dog with poor genetics, and at the opposite you have a dog born with a great genetic predisposition. What happens from there is indeed determined by the environment the dog is raised in, but it isn’t the whole picture. A dog with poor genetics, but a wonderful environment, may be able to move up the scale, but only so far. These dogs will still likely develop some behavioral challenges, but in a poor environment, these dogs will fall to the very bottom of that scale. Now in contrast a dog born with great genetics and a great environment will continue to thrive at the top of the scale, but even in a poor environment, they will only fall so far. I have personally experienced this scale concept with my dog Brembo, who I have raised since he was a puppy. I did everything “by the book” and I simply couldn’t understand why, at 10 months old, I was seeing signs of reactivity to other dogs. Hadn’t I raised him properly? What had I done, or not done, to cause this? Nothing. In fact, in a different home environment the prognosis for him could have been very poor. With a lot of time, learning (for both of us), training, and patience, Brembo is able to go out into the world and see other dogs and be okay with it. We go to parks, dog shows, group classes, and hikes. It’s always a work in progress, but I’m so happy with how far we have come over the years. I dread to think what could have happened under different circumstances.
The “it’s all in how you raise them” argument is often used in defense of certain breeds who have been labeled as dangerous and unpredictable. If we are being honest, it’s because of how those dogs are being bred, and who they are being bred by, not the people raising them. I cringe every time I see this phrase being used emphatically in support of these dogs because it continues to perpetuate this idea that dogs are born as a blank slate, molded only by the hands of those raising that dog. It’s time we accepted that genetics play a large role in creating the dogs that come into this world. While ultimately behavior can be changed, we are not the only factor at play that determines who that dog will become. This is also the reason that responsible breeding is so very important, but that’s a topic worthy of it’s own blog entry. So to anyone reading this who has a dog who struggles with anxiety, reactivity, aggression, or any other behavioral disorder, please know this, it isn’t your fault. With that being said, how we respond to these behaviors is EVERYTHING and we can, will, and do, determine if they get better or worse. All behavior can ultimately be changed, you just have to be willing to put in the time. Now that doesn’t mean your dog aggressive/reactive dog who clearly does not enjoy meeting dogs is going to eventually love hanging out and playing with lots of other dogs. We need to be realistic about our expectations in order to set our dogs up for success, but it does mean your dog can and should be able to go out into the world and walk by another dog and be okay with that. So the next time you see a post boasting this phrase, please think twice before sharing. You never know who on your friends list has a dog who is experiencing these difficulties and is probably already blaming themselves. It’s time we changed that mindset.
Is your dog struggling with any of these behavior problems? Please reach out, I’m here to help! Dogs that struggle behaviorally often have very small worlds, and it doesn’t have to be that way. With training, changes to the environment, and owner education, we can help our dogs lead happy and full-filled lives with us, we just need to show them how!