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Nature vs. Nurture - the roles of heredity and environment in development.

Why is this article important?  Most breeders will blame problems on environment, and not genetics.  Much of my career deals with investigating biology and behavior, and I'm versed enough in behavioral genetics to know that genetics counts for a large variance in behavior.  Less so in humans because we are considered rational animals with higher levels of thinking, but more so in animals.  If we're going to breed animals, we better know a little something about biology.  

Nature: the reasoning that organisms behave according to genetic predispositions or even "instincts."  ex: When you are hungry, you eat. 

Nurture: the theory that organisms behave in certain ways because they are taught to do so or because of their environment.  ex: You like to eat X, Y, or Z.  

This debate has been going on for centuries, and just recently have new theories about interaction of nature vs. nurture emerged in the behavioral and biological sciences.  How is this applicable to dog breeding?  Many genetic problems have been sugar-coated by claiming that they were due to the environment.  These problems can be temperament, structure, or even health.  It is important to understand that though nurture can play a big role in development, nature should not be ignored. 

The general understanding of the interaction of nature vs. nurture begins by viewing nature as the ground work.  Nature (genes/instinct) is  the basis, whereas nurture shapes behavior.  For example: dogs naturally like to dig (nature).  You teach your dog to dig only in a certain area (nurture). Keeping everything in mind, genes are what is passed down through breeding, not environment.  When breeding, please consider the true genes (free of environmental factors).  

Examining the variability in temperament, structure, and health, it is apparent that temperament is the most variable area in dogs. Diagram follows.  

 

 

Temperament

For example: If you start out with a poor temperament dog, one can spend hours and hours and hours conditioning the dog to behave.  However, this dog may still relapse into its previous behavior due to its poor temperament.  On the other hand, some dogs have very sound temperaments and it would take much abuse to change its behaviors.

Often we hear of people claiming that their dogs doesn't like humans/children/other dogs because of a fight or abuse or other.  Often we hear claims of food aggression being caused by bad upbringing or dog aggression because of the lack of socialization.  And even still we hear claims of crate aggression because the dogs are in the crate too often. If the problems are truly caused by the environment, then breeders should place their puppies in better environments.  

It may be possible that these temperament problems can be aggravated by these environmental variables, but it needs to be examined carefully.  Dogs with good tempers are plentiful, and it takes severe abuse to cause these problems.  So if poor temperaments are found in loving homes, then the problem is more likely genetic.  If high frequencies of offspring with poor temperament come up, then the problem more than likely lies in the genes, not the environment.  

In my experience with fostering rescue dogs, many of them came from extremely poor environments.  Some never saw a human, and others suffered physical abuse.  However, they all turned out fine after spending a several weeks at my house.  They are perfect examples of dogs with good temperaments who were not permanently affected by environment.  I'm also extremely aware of people who blame behavioral problems on temperament.  That shows that the temperament of the dog just isn't stable or strong enough. 

Structure

You might think that this one is an odd one to address. On the other hand, it is known that some breeders actually put splints or braces if you will on a puppy in hopes that it will conform more to standard.  Not only is this unethical and unacceptable behavior, but how would a puppy live its life in braces.  My feeling on this is, a pet quality dog is a pet quality dog.  Find it a pet home.  Getting a CH title on a pet quality dog does nothing for the breed.  If the dog is bred, it will pass down its poor structure, not what a CH title is supposed to stand for.  

The only other things that should affect structure is nutritional factors.  Poor nutrition or excess weight can harm the development and structure.  Lack of nutrition during growth can cause foot problems or toes to become flat.  However, good nutrition and proper weight will not improve a poorly angulated front or poor movement.  Pat Hastings has more in her book, Tricks of the Trade, about these issues.  A must read for conformation exhibitors.  

Health

The health issues that I'm referring to are only heritable ones, NOT lymes, rabies, or parvo which are pick up in the environment.  The ones which I'm referring to include but are not limited to hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, heart problems, neurological disease (epilepsy). Scents and lights do not cause epilepsy perse, they can aggravate it or trigger a seizure.  Walking does not cause dysplasia, though it may aggravate it.  Dogs are predispositioned to health problems through breeding, not due to the environment.  You can treat a health problem, but it will still be passed on if you decide to breed.