How much of dogs’ behaviour is learned, and how much is innate? This is a question I often ponder, and to which I have no definite answer. The old nature vs. nurture argument has been on-going for eons, and we really can’t know for sure. I do have some thoughts on the matter, however, based on my observations of quite a few dogs who have now been through my home, or who I’ve met through training and other circumstances.
First, I do believe dogs learn a lot from each other – they can even pick up complex ideas like agility or herding from watching others. At least to a degree. But what about problem behaviours, like alarm barking, fear aggression or thunder phobia? I have often heard people argue that fear of thunderstorms is a learned behaviour, and as such you should never coddle your dog or otherwise encourage his fearful reactions. But that really doesn’t explain why some dogs never develop it, while others have it to an extreme, within the same household.I know several examples of this. Furthermore, at a large agility trial last summer, I watched about half the dogs start to panic as storms rolled in, while the others all lay quietly, often side by side. Right next to where I had my set-up were two x-pens, each with four dogs. The 8 dogs lived together in one household and were a long-standing pack. Two dogs in each x-pen were freaking out, while the other two were napping.
Now if this type of fear reaction is learned, then how can these relaxed dogs sleep through their pack-mates’ panic?
To me this makes it very clear that thunderphobia is something innate, not learned. At least not in most cases. And I would extend this to other fearful behaviours I have listed above.
In my house, each of my dogs has his or her own collection of stresses. Some overlap, others do not. For example, Ross gets very agitated when he sees other dogs on his property. He used to have a lot of dog-dog aggression (due to extreme vaccinosis + a malfunctioning thyroid, both of which have now been address with tremendous change on his part). The remnants of this are that he barks out the front window whenever another dog walks past his property. Hannah thinks this is great fun – she has no problems with other dogs, but still likes to bark out the window.
The difference between these two dogs is that when I tell them to knock it off, Hannah stops immediately, while Ross continues until the dog is gone or I go and interrupt the behaviour. As I see it, this is because Hannah is doing this by choice, i.e. a learned behaviour, and Ross is doing it as a reaction, i.e. an innate behaviour. I allowed Hannah to develop this habit, and she now thinks it’s the thing to do. So her behaviour is my fault. Ross’s stems from his Chronic Disease, or imbalance linked to assaults on his life force incurred as a younger dog.
Mira, who has lived in this household since she was 12 weeks old, has only engaged in this behaviour once. When she was a few months old, she ran to the window and looked out as the others started to bark. Not wanting to add a third barking dog to my chorus, I immediately scooped her up and popped her in her crate. She has never, EVER tried this again. Even when the other two rush to the window to give their warning to the neighbourhood, she lies quietly without paying any attention. Finn also completely ignores the bark fest, thank goodness.
Mira of course has her own issues, and hers is to bark at other dogs when we are outside. Now the other adults don’t do this at all – they only bark when inside. Finn, however, also barks at other dogs when outside, although just a little. Lately he has started barking at people who walk past our back fence. He is the only one of the four who does that, so clearly picked it up all on his own. I consider this to be completely a normal reaction, I should add – he has not yet spent a summer at my house where we sit outside with dozens of people walking past, and all the dogs get used to it. In the winter one person might pass every few days, making the event unusual and worthy of a bark to an unconditioned puppy.
There are many examples within my pack, but my basic observation is that each has his or her quirks. They can indeed feed off each other and learn from each other, but this is not a given. Most of their behaviours, in my opinion, come from a pre-disposition to react a certain way. Now if I take two of them who have similar pre-dispositions and put them in a situation that sets them both off, then yes, they will feed off each other. For example, since both Finn and Mira are a bit reactive when they meet other dogs, I make a point of not socializing them together with other dogs (except dogs they already know) to ensure I am not adding to their stress. I put them instead with the other two who are more confident.
In my experience, when a dog has a genuine fear, it is very hard to break their response patterns and redirect them to something more constructive. This can sometime be accomplished with a lot of work, but not always. When the response is learned, on the other hand, it can be unlearned much more easily and quickly. As such, when I start working with a dog, if it is very resistant to changing its behaviour, I assume that the behaviour stems from a genuine fear and not from a learned response. This was very much the case in both Ross and Mira. I worked with them extensively with very little improvement in their behaviour. With Ross I trained intensively for 1.5 years and saw little difference in his reaction to other dogs.
In these situations I have learned to look for an underlying pathology. Sometimes it is caused by a physiological imbalance (ie. hypothyroidism in Ross’s case), but in all cases it is linked to Chronic Disease. This imbalance prevents the mind from working properly and leads the dog to make inappropriate choices. When the mind is very muddled, all the training in the world will have little impact.
In these cases I then turn to homeopathy to help move things along. I have found homeopathy has done wonders for each of my dogs and allowed the training I do to take hold much more effectively. When I treated Ross’ underlying health problems, he became a different dog. Suddenly all of the training I had been doing caught hold and he responded wonderfully. Mira, as I have recently documented, has also made 180 in her behaviour after homeopathy & chiropractic treatment. Addressing the balance of the life force is a crucial aspect of training, yet sadly one that very few people are even aware of, let alone implement.