It’s Not “All In How You Raise Them”: The Role Of Genetics In Behavior

It’s Not “All In How You Raise Them”: The Role Of Genetics In Behavior

If you’re a dog owner, I’m sure you’ve heard this refrain.

Conventional wisdom says that young puppies come to us as blank slates.  Full of promise and limitless potential, ready to be molded into your ideal companion as long as you do your part – provide lots of love, the right amount of discipline, and appropriate training along the way.  If you’re a caring, responsible pet owner, there’s no reason that your puppy should not grow up to be a model canine citizen.

“Bad” dogs are the fault of bad owners, right?  After all, it’s all in how you raise them.


As always, in the world of behavior – it’s not quite that simple.

There are few myths in the field of dog training that get under my skin quite as much as this one.  Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen so many kind, committed owners with deeply troubled dogs break down in tears during a behavior consultation, certain that they have done something to cause their dog’s crippling anxiety or aggression issues.  After all, they’ve had him since he was a puppy – so clearly, something must have been lacking in his upbringing.

Or perhaps it’s the countless number of fundamentally mismatched dog/owner pairings that every veterinarian and trainer sees on a regular basis.  The gentle elderly couple, with the adolescent field-bred Lab.  The busy young professionals with three children under the age of five, with the spooky English Mastiff who doesn’t like kids.  Or even the lovely middle-aged woman who wants to do therapy work in a local nursing home, with her aloof and introverted Chow.

What all of these situations have in common, at their core, is a lack of understanding combined with an unfortunate and excessive sense of optimism – an unshakeable faith in the notion that any dog can be molded into the perfect pet for the owner’s particular lifestyle, as long as they’re “raised right.”  That every eight-week-old puppy is a formless mass of behavioral clay, ready to be imprinted with whatever characteristics and personality traits are most convenient for their living situation and the wishes of their new family.

Unfortunately for all involved in the examples above, this is utterly and emphatically not true.

But wait, you might say!  What about socialization and training?  Can’t we influence our puppies’ adult characteristics through exposure to the things we want them to be comfortable with?  Can’t we teach them early on how we want them to behave, thus preventing any problems later on?

In other words, a perfectly socialized and well-trained puppy should be a foolproof bet to turn out the way we want – right?

Well… the answer, as they say, is complicated.

Don’t get me wrong – socialization and early learning are very powerful things.  (See my previous posts on these topics here and here for a more complete discussion of how they influence puppy development, if you’re interested.)  There is a lot we can do to set our puppies up for success, and also to address possible problems or behavioral red flags early on.  This is the “nurture” side of the nature-and-nurture paradigm, and it’s incredibly important – but it’s only half of the equation.

So what does nature have to say?

We all know intuitively that behavioral characteristics can be inherited.  After all, this basic notion is the reason for thousands of years of selective breeding in the dog world – it’s why we’ve been able to develop specific lines of dogs who are consistently driven to retrieve things, herd sheep, guard our homes, or track rabbits without any formal training at all.  Why, then, does it surprise us that other types of behavioral tendencies can also be passed from parents to offspring?

The truth is, your dog’s genetic background plays a tremendous (and often under-valued) role not only in what inborn skills he might have, but in who he is – whether he is friendly or reserved with strangers, tolerant of other pets or not, a high-drive athlete or a snuggly couch potato, easily startled by loud noises or relatively “bombproof.”

Since the 1940s, studies in canine behavioral genetics have consistently shown that traits such as fearfulness, impulsivity, problem-solving ability, working drive, and even tendencies toward aggression are strongly influenced by breeding.  Socialization and early learning can certainly help to sway things in one direction or another, but these forces are operating on a pre-existing genetic blueprint.

Is behavior moldable?  Of course it is – to a point.  You can only modify what you already have, not create the dog of your choosing from scratch.  So if you have specific goals for your pup or need a dog with a certain personality type, it pays to make sure that you’re getting a temperament you can live with!

Please note that none of this should be taken as a defense of breed-specific stereotyping or discrimination, on the theory that certain breeds are bound to be aggressive or otherwise “bad.”  There is a tremendous amount of genetic variability within every breed – so much so that it’s not possible to make any reliable predictions about behavior based solely on breed identification.  It’s much more valuable to look specifically at the parents and littermates of a particular puppy, or at a certain line of dogs within a breed.

So, what can we do with this knowledge?

If you have specific personality traits that you need in a dog, don’t choose a puppy based on looks or a cheap purchase price and assume that you can “make it work” – this rarely goes well, in my experience.

Instead, I would strongly encourage you to look into getting a puppy from an excellent breeder, with a good track record of producing dogs with the traits that you want – this is your very best chance of ending up with a dog that will be a good fit for you and your family.  Many owners need a dog that is reliably gentle and tolerant with kids, or with low prey drive because of smaller pets in the home, or easygoing and low-energy because they are elderly or disabled.  Getting an adult dog from a trusted source who knows the dog well (such as a breeder, or a good rescue group) can also be a great option.

This kind of predictability may not be important for all owners – which is fine!  Many of my clients don’t have any specific plans or goals for their dog, and their lifestyle is flexible enough that a wide range of personality types would fit into their household with no problems.  If this describes you, then you could absolutely open your home to a puppy or older dog with an unknown background and see where life takes the two of you.  There are many such dogs who desperately need homes, and the relationship that you have with a dog like this can be extremely special.

By the same token – if you are thinking about breeding your dog, or if you already have an active breeding program, please carefully consider temperament in your breeding decisions!  Most good breeders know this already and are very selective about which dogs they choose to breed, but this idea can be surprising to many owners who are new to the process and aren’t aware that personality traits can be inherited.  Excessively fearful or aggressive dogs should not be bred – period.  These issues should be taken as seriously as hereditary physical problems like hip dysplasia or degenerative myelopathy, as they are every bit as devastating for both the puppy and his/her new family.

And finally, if you have a pup from an uncertain background (or a known, not-so-great background) who is struggling with a behavior problem despite your best efforts, don’t beat yourself up!  For many of my clients, it comes as a relief to know that they have done nothing wrong – the misplaced guilt that comes with having a much-loved dog who is also severely aggressive or fearful of everything can be crushing.

It helps to understand that you can only play the hand you’re dealt; all dogs come with their own personalities and behavioral tendencies, for better or worse.  We can do a lot to help these dogs live safer, happier lives with training and careful management – we can build their confidence, teach them better coping skills to handle stress, and strengthen their bond with their owners – but we can’t change who they are.  And usually, that’s okay.

So if you have a dog like this, to paraphrase the famous Serenity Prayer – I would encourage you to work on the things you can change, and accept the things you can’t.

The trick is learning to know the difference.

47 thoughts on “It’s Not “All In How You Raise Them”: The Role Of Genetics In Behavior

  1. I really love the content of your blog posts. The one on meds was particularly helpful. I’m working hard to change people’s perceptions that cats can’t be trained ( I believe it’s important to teach cats to wear a harness, feel comfortable with nail trims, car rides, carriers, etc. My cats love the time we spend together clicker training. I’d love to hear your thoughts about cat socialization classes at clinics. I know a few clinics are starting to do this. Do you think this will become more popular?

      1. Thanks for stopping by – I’m glad you’ve been enjoying the blog! 🙂

        Yes, I agree with you completely about cats… they seem to get the short end of the stick training-wise, don’t they? I do think that we could do much, MUCH more to help them learn to be comfortable with vet visits, car rides, nail trims, etc. – the prevailing wisdom among many cat owners, unfortunately, is that cats just hate these things and there’s nothing to be done about it. Most of the cats that I’ve worked with do really enjoy training, as they’re quite smart and seem to enjoy figuring things out. It’s all a matter of motivation and finding what works for the learner, just like in dogs.

        I think that kitten socialization classes are a very neat idea. I would love to offer them at our clinic, but I don’t know that we see enough new kitten owners who would be interested just yet. It’s a matter of changing the public’s mindset, in many ways. Another challenge is that the socialization period in kittens ends earlier than it does in puppies, so it’s critical to get these kittens into class at 8-10 weeks if at all possible – we still have difficulty convincing many puppy owners that this is worth their while, and it’s even tougher with cats! But yes, I’m very much hoping that this will be the wave of the future for our kitty clients – I think it could make a tremendous difference in helping them to be comfortable in new environments later in life.

        1. I started out training my cats with a clicker before I even got a dog, and I think it made me a much better dog trainer. And now I have three cats who aren’t all that perturbed when I bring a new puppy into the house, or have people over, or move across the country every year for 3 years….I’ll say it makes a huge difference.

  2. Hi I am 67 yrs. old I have had 3 wonderful Bullterriers. I now have a 2year old spayed female we’ve had from 5 weeks. We took her to puppy training and for 1yr 6 mths to adult training. She learned to sit walk etc. but she is hyper the vet says she has Obsessive Compulsive Behaviour problems which he says is genetic and no amount of training will help, he says she should be put down as she is too much for us to handle and we won’t get anyone to take her! We love her to bits but she is too much to handle, she spins and chases her tail, she gets aggressive to our blind 12yr old Jack Russell and they’ve had a few awful fights. I try to keep them separated as much as possible. We have to walk her in an enclosed school but if someone turns up she screams to get to them (to play I think) same if we have visitors she spins under the table and hits everyones knees she gets into terrible panic(I think) states and pants and gets besides herself. My friends avoid us and even when my Son visits he says he can’t imagine the stress I have he says he couldn’t handle it. Please can you give me some advice. She has been on calming tabs and even Prosac, nothing helps. Thank you Penny

    1. Hi there! I’m sorry to hear that you’re having so much trouble with your girl – she definitely sounds like a challenge. Spinning and tail chasing can definitely be inherited compulsive behaviors in Bull Terriers.

      This can be a difficult problem to treat, but there are many things that can be done to help these dogs – it’s certainly not a lost cause! Prozac and other SSRIs are often used for compulsive behaviors like this (I’m not sure what dosage your girl was on, or how long she was on it), but it’s also very important to have a behavior modification plan in place so that you can interrupt and redirect this behavior when it starts. Providing things to keep her busy such as puzzle toys or chew items at high-stress times might also be helpful.

      Since this is a very complex behavior issue (especially when you factor in the aggression towards your other dog, which would also need to be addressed), I would really recommend getting in touch with a veterinary behaviorist to work with you in person if at all possible – if you’re in the US, you can search for someone in your area here: He/she can evaluate your girl and help you get a more realistic idea of what it would take to manage her successfully, and also come up with a detailed treatment plan to address her issues if you do decide to keep her.

    1. You’re very welcome! I think many of us have experienced this, in one way or another. Thanks so much for stopping by 🙂

    1. I agree completely! The really great breeders that I know already do this, but I think sometimes folks who are new to breeding (or considering breeding their pet dog) don’t realize that temperament is just as important as OFA, CERF testing, and all the rest.

  3. I have just read the very interesting article 8 about behaviour and genetics. Would it be permissable to print this in our quarterly German Shepherd Dog Advisory Council magazine? I have just subscribed to receive articles via email. Look forward to your reply. Thanks, Viv McCambridge. (President, GSDAC NZ)

  4. Good points. Yes, some dogs can be raised into dangerous or bad dogs. But fearful or behaviorally unstable dogs are usually already born that way.

    Fearfulness, boldness, prey drive intensity and instinctive patterns are hardwired. A 8 week old puppy is not a tabula rasa; it has been socialized and taught by its mother and learning from experience with littermates and others, but it has a lot of learning and possible fear periods ahead of it. Things can happen.

    I train my own service dogs; both of my dogs (both mixed-breeds) were evaluated at 8-9 months old and they were unwanted by previous owners. A lot of bright, energetic dogs with quite nice temperaments are surrendered at that age.

    Their temperament tests essentially indicated how suitable they were for the job and a bit about their personalities (fear level, body sensitivity, cooperativeness, comfort around strangers, etc.). That part was genetic and they would not change much from that age onwards in their lives at all, only to flourish with training and positive experiences.

    However, these tests said very little about their instinctive drives and how they would be like to live with, especially as adolescent pain-in-the-tails, although my first dog had such a strong herding dog vibe I knew it wasn’t a lab mix. (The shelter trainer thought he was one, because of the temperament, though.)

    The second dog was harder to read, simply because I wasn’t familiar with the breeds or breed groups involved. But even dogs from the same litter can be very different in attitude and temperament, and intensity of instinctive drive.

    In the end, you just have to let the dog teach you who it is and what it needs to be happy and fun to live with. Adventure!

    1. Yes! Very well said. It’s always an adventure – every dog is different, and as you say, they will teach you who they are and what they need. Thanks for adding your thoughts to the discussion 🙂

    2. There is an excellent website run by a Bull Terrier breeder and dog trainer… PLEASE look this up and I encourage you to send Jane an email explaining your situation. There is a book as well; the book is a great place to start…”When Pigs Fly” is basically a book written about “non-bidable” dogs, terrier and some others who were basically bred for independent work. They CAN be trained, but the methods may differ from those dog breeds that were designed to work closely with owners. Jane’s kennel is MadCap Bull Terriers. She also has an excellent training program for puppies called “Puppy Culture” which also has a website. All of these resources can help you. I put a lot of info in this reply but I have been where you are and if there is a way to help I would grab that rather than put a good dog (with some faults) down. Personally I would change vets. If they don’t have enough sense to use Google and find you some alternative resources, I would question why they became vets! Just my opinion.

      1. Hi thanks so much for info. I eventually managed to get the website through facebook and I am going to buy her book too. Thanks again Penny

  5. Thanks for info. I am in Durban S. Africa. I will get info on veterinary behaviorists in my area, we will of course keep her it would be like putting my child down. I was very surprised at the Vet and wanted your view. Thanks again Penny

    1. You’re very welcome! I’m always saddened to hear of professionals in the dog world making “off the cuff” recommendations for euthanasia – although this can certainly be a reasonable decision in some cases, there are always options for management and treatment as well. And in your girl’s case, it sounds like no one has ever really tried to put together a treatment plan for her, so there are definitely some unexplored possible options that might be very helpful.

      I did some quick checking to see if I could come up with any resources for you to help find a behaviorist in South Africa – check out this website for a list of consultants in the southern part of Africa, including SA:

      I hope that helps a bit! Best of luck with your girl 🙂

  6. Thanks for the pat on the back that it isn’t our fault!!
    We have 2 rescued “Northern Dogs” (basically feral dogs from Communities with no vet services and too many dogs) who were amazing with everyone and every dog they met when we first got them. Slowly they changed and became reactive to other dogs when with us (Absolutely no behaviors change while with the dog walker). We have worked so hard to fix this until we finally decided we can’t fix it, and have learned now to deal with it. It has been a hard challenge, but so worth it as they are the most loveable pups otherwise!! The hardest part for me has been dealing with the judging looks and comments from other owners who have no idea what we have been through, and clearly assume we are bad owners….. tough skin and all that I guess!
    Thanks for the reassurance!

    1. People can be quick to judge, unfortunately! I think this is one of the hardest parts of owning a dog with a behavior problem – especially a highly visible one like leash reactivity. It helps to remind yourself that you’re doing your best, which is all that any of us can do!

      It sounds like your two pups are lucky to have you. Best wishes with them for the future, and thanks for stopping by to comment 🙂

  7. I was this dog owner “Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen so many kind, committed owners with deeply troubled dogs break down in tears during a behavior consultation, certain that they have done something to cause their dog’s crippling anxiety or aggression issues. After all, they’ve had him since he was a puppy – so clearly, something must have been lacking in his upbringing.” I heaped blame upon myself and others cheerfully helped with the blaming. When I picked up my dog after her spay surgery I was tactfully handed a list of dog training facilities. The vet’s office staff had no way of knowing that my dog had already flunked out of the two best programs on the list..

    The current dog is the third of her breed that we have owned (Standard Poodle). The first two obtained Obedience titles and were also TDI Therapy dogs and quiet family companions. They were the dogs that other dog owners wished they had. This one was expected to follow in the pawprints but it became clear early on that there was something wrong. The dog is an amazing mix of overconfidence and anxiety. She is wildly impulsive. She has the canine equivalent of ADHD, zero aggression but a complete inability to control her impulses.

    Our veterinary behaviorist is literally a lifesaver. At the very first session she told me “you did not do this, this is her.” This simple statement helped me let go of my guilt for creating this mess. Without medication and guidance I would not be able to live with this dog. The dog does live the same life as the previous dogs and I’m sorry about this, but she lives a good life. I fully understand that our veterinary behaviorist is going to be a permanent part of our lives.

    Thanks and tremendous respect to veterinary behaviorists!

    1. Thanks so much for sharing your story! I really like Standard Poodles – I’ve worked with several in my agility classes, and they’re wonderful dogs. Great athletes!! 🙂

      I’m so glad that you were able to find a behaviorist to help you with your girl. A good treatment plan can make a tremendous difference with a dog like this, so it’s great to hear that things are more manageable now. But yes, the behaviorist was exactly right – you didn’t make her the way she is. I really think that owners need to hear this more. It’s human nature to blame ourselves when our dogs aren’t perfect… we forget that they come to us with their own inborn personality traits and behavioral characteristics, just like kids.

      Thanks again for your comment, and I’m glad that you enjoyed the post!

  8. Last June my greyhound was attacked by two (you can probably guess which breed…) as we walked past their fenced yard. They popped open the gate, rushed out to attack my dog and would have killed him if several strangers had not intervened. One of the strangers managed to pull the dogs off of my dog, got them corralled and drove us to the emergency vet. (That man was not their owner, just a neighbor of the owners). The attacking dogs had been to obedience training, and are spoiled rotten house pets owned by a well educated young couple. According to neighbors, the dogs had never behaved aggressively before; but I would bet money they’ll do it again now that they’ve done it once.

    Since that horrible day I have had that “but they’re sweet and loving dogs if you raise them right” discussion so many times that I want to puke when I hear those words.

    GENETICS. They matter.

  9. Well said. As a breeder, I have people who want puppies and I rarely let them pick out which puppy they want from the whole litter. I try to match the pup’s personality with the new home and what their goals are for their puppy. If I don’t have a puppy that is a good match, they don’t get one. I’ll return their deposit and apologize for not having a pup for them. Sometimes I’ll have a few pups that could all work, then they get to pick which one they want. Right now, I have one buyer who wants a dog to hunt with, another with a young child and another who wants a dog to show in conformation, obedience and agility. These are very different needs and they will each get a different personality puppy.

    1. Yes – very different needs, indeed! Kudos to you for doing such a great job of matching your puppy buyers with the best pup for them. Too often, owners want to choose based on color or markings, when looks are the least important characteristic of all for a happy life together.

      A great breeder knows her puppies better than anyone, and is the person best equipped to make a good match. I always tell my clients that a really good breeder will probably not allow them to choose which puppy they want – for good reason! All of my puppies have always been chosen for me by their breeders, based on what I planned for us to do together (agility, obedience, etc.), and I haven’t been steered wrong yet 😉

      Thanks so much for your comment, and I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

  10. What a scary experience – how awful for both of you! I’m glad that your dog is okay.

    I do think that owners need to be very cautious with large, powerful dogs if they aren’t sure about their background – even with training and a good home, this doesn’t guarantee that there won’t be any issues with prey drive or aggression if the wrong situation presents itself. And the bigger and stronger the dog, the more serious these issues can be.

    Thanks so much for sharing your story, and I’m glad you enjoyed the post 🙂

  11. It is true that genetics plays a large part of a dog’s temperament. I have had 6 chows certified for therapy work, two still living. My Rescue chow Kobi has the first AKC ThDX for a Chow and a TDIAOV and his predecessor China also had a TDIAOV title with over 250 hospital visits. The personalities across one breed is substantial, and the type of work each does is different. Kobi and China were/are bomb proof. My newest startles easier, so we may not work with kids with her. She came from two solid parents, perfect beginning. Kobi was at a shelter for 4 weeks and came out acting like a golden retriever. Go figure.?

    1. Go figure, indeed! 🙂 There are definitely variations within every breed – I have three Shelties, and while they all have lots of typical Sheltie characteristics (they’re all dainty, quite smart, crazy for food, and they spin and bark when excited), it’s really surprising to many people who meet them how different they are from each other. Your dogs sound lovely, so kudos to you for your work with them!

      Thanks very much for the comment, and I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

  12. My dogs are from the streets of South East Asia – true street dogs. They were born and lived on a construction site but were rescued at 3 months – relatively young. The mother was not found with them. Street dogs live in fear of humans all their lives. Our dogs were wonderful when we first had them, they are full of anxiety now towards dogs and people. To be honest, they are a huge challenge. To me, this screams of their genetics coming through – not positive genetics liking breeding for desired behaviours but genetics from generations of street dogs being afraid, mistreated, malnourished. Does this article equally apply to ‘negative’ genetics as I’ve described? I love my dogs so much and I will work with them to help them every way I can. Andrew

    1. Yes – fearfulness has been shown to be a very heritable trait in dogs, probably because it’s a trait that has a lot of survival value for dogs that aren’t fortunate enough to live as protected pets (as well as related wild canids, like foxes and wolves). So it doesn’t surprise me at all that street dogs in this type of environment would have a strong tendency to be fearful of humans and other animals.

      It’s likely that the puppies you rescued inherited this tendency from their parents and the generations of stray dogs before them – this doesn’t mean that nothing can be done to help them, of course, but you’re right that it presents a challenge compared to a dog from a less fearful genetic background.

      The good news is, genetically fearful dogs often respond well to positive reinforcement training and counter-conditioning, just like dogs whose fear stems from lack of socialization or negative past experiences – it just takes longer to make progress, and there is a limit to how much this behavior can be changed. But most of these dogs can have a good quality of life with owners who understand their fears and know how to handle them.

      Good for you for working to help your dogs as much as possible – I’m sure you’ve improved their lives tremendously vs. living on the streets.

  13. “breed-specific stereotyping or discrimination”- by saying this you deny the essence of what a breed IS. Every time you judge a dog by its BREED- which is what even the AKC does- you are ‘discriminating’. That is not a BAD thing.

    Definition of discriminating

    : making a distinction : distinguishing

    1. Ah… that’s the real crux of the issue, isn’t it? To what extent can we predict behavioral tendencies such as aggression towards humans or other dogs, based solely on breed? Not enough to justify breed-specific bans or discriminatory policies, in my opinion.

      I agree completely that different breeds, generally speaking, should have very distinct behavioral traits – this is a huge part of what makes them what they are. For example, a “typical”, well-bred Labrador or Golden Retriever can usually be expected to be friendly and outgoing with strangers, tolerant of children and other pets, and quite biddable and handler-focused in training.

      Does this mean, then, that we can reliably predict that all Labs and Goldens will have these traits? Not at all… and that’s the rub. They are **supposed** to have these traits – and the majority do, in my experience.

      But I have certainly met a few dangerously aggressive Labs and Goldens in the course of my career, as well as some who are overly fearful or high-strung and very difficult to live with. They aren’t **supposed** to be this way, in theory… but they are. Careless breeding practices can easily result in lines of dogs within a breed who are certainly still purebred, with the registration papers to prove it, but who behave nothing like a “typical” dog of their breed. This is why finding a really good, careful breeder is so important when purchasing a puppy!

      So yes, I certainly believe that we can make some educated guesses on what kind of behavior to expect, based on breed. But I also believe that restrictive laws or policies that discriminate against dogs based on breed alone without considering any other factors are very much missing the point.

      Thanks so much for your comment, as I do think this is a very interesting point for discussion 🙂

  14. Never truer words spoken…..after 28 + years as an Animal Control Officer, I’ve seen most every type and combo out there. People just don’t want to believe sometimes that the dog came hardwired to a particular trait that should have been dealt with in the beginning and not ignored as if it didn’t exist. After all they know what they’re doing – until something terrrible happens – then it is the dog that pays because his owner was too blind, too ignorant, too green, too gullible, too soft, too hard, and on and on. Boils down to the owner being too ‘unkowledgeable’ by their trait. Too many people believe that watching TV can make them a ‘Dog Whisperer’.

    1. I can imagine, in your field, that you’ve truly seen it all! I agree that it’s a shame these dogs often don’t get much in the way of knowledgeable help for their behavioral issues until something tragic happens.

      Thanks for commenting, and I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

  15. I used to one of those that believed training was everything. My 3 year old female is one of the “bomb proof” type, isn’t bothered by (or with) most humans, very independent, not so *obedient* (not food motivated, or toy motivated, or really motivated to do anything she doesn’t want to do) but I can usually trust her to make good choices. My two year old male, raised the same way, in the same house, following the same amateur training plan is kind of a neurotic headcase. He is painfully obedient, and once he knows the rules, will never deviate. Yea, the kind of dog that won’t touch your sandwich on the table! But he’s fear-aggressive, panics at the unknown, can’t even enjoy a simple leash walk around the neighborhood – the way he slouches and slinks, trying not to be seen is rather sad.

    I used to beat myself up, wondering where I went wrong, where I failed him – how could my two dogs be so completely different! Then I met the human of my dog’s brother…. That dog being just as nervous made me feel SO much better! I do still work with my dog, help him to make good choices, but I relaxed my proverbial grip on HIM and starting working more on his environment. He’s come such a long way in a year – but he’ll never be a “play date” kind of dog. And we’re both ok with that!

    1. It sounds like you’re doing a great job with your boy. It’s always interesting to get information about your dog’s littermates later on in life, isn’t it? Sometimes this can be a very eye-opening thing, in terms of understanding that his issues have more to do with “who he is”, genetically speaking, than with anything you did or didn’t do. These dogs can definitely improve with time and effort, and we do try to do everything we can to make sure they can have a good quality of life – but many are never “play date” kind of dogs, and as you say, that’s completely fine 🙂

      Thanks so much for your comment, and I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

  16. You’ve done such a disservice to dogs with your blog….and it generally boils down to pit types. Behavior is not predictable…period…and it IS how they’re raised. How many people tell you how well their dog was raised, trained, and neither is reality. Things like aggressive behavior is no more predictable in dogs than it is in humans. It’s sad that people think, because one’s a vet, that they are in the know on these issues. I’ve been at shelters for 15 yrs., have seen aggressive, untrained dogs come in and with a lot of love, training, patience, leave as balanced adopted dogs. Because you see a dog, what a few hours a yr., in your practice….with the dog being under much stress at the vet’s office, does not give an accurate picture, at all, of behaviors.

  17. Thank you for this well thought out and very, very true article. The reason I select puppies for buyers based on their needs, lifestyle, family situation and experience level or simply explain there is no suitable puppy for them. A dog is a forever family member.

    1. You’re very welcome! I always tell my clients that a good breeder will almost certainly choose their puppy for them, and this is just how it should be. Many new dog owners have an unfortunate tendency to believe that all puppies are more-or-less interchangeable, and any pup would do fine in their home as long as they “raise it right.” Good socialization and training can certainly help a lot, but they’re far from the entire picture.

      Thanks very much for your comment, and I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

  18. Thank you so much for your blog. Reading some of your posts has given me a calming insight on how I can keep helping our new female 7 month old GSP. Especially the read about the dog behavior and the two stages of fear and the last one being a 2-3 week period between 6-14 months.

    We recently brought our GSP pup home not too long ago. She was in a board and train program since about 8 weeks old and came from a fantastic breeder. In fact, during this process of her being at the board and train program she was in a house, crate trained, introduced to dogs early on, had daycare weekly, has done into to agility, obedience, and is e-collar trained. We have been with her weekly or bi-weekly during this process so she knows us. The kid can work and has energy, but honestly not as much as I thought it would be. (Similar to a yellow lab I had years ago). Anyway, we brought her home December 29th and up until New Years Eve, she was perfect in every way. NO issues other than a little whine because she’s a sassy pants sometimes.

    Fast forward to New Years Eve – we made a HUMAN mistake by taking her on a quick walk around the block between 5-6:30PM before keeping her inside for the night (because of fireworks) and someone down the street let off a huge BIG loud boom with lights and the whole thing… It seriously scared me to my core and I know it frightened our poor baby girl – she immediately didn’t respond to commands even with the e-collar, and basically pulled/drug me more than 300 meters all the way home. I was devastated and I feel completely defeated and crushed – like I’ve ruined this dog that has been amazing up until now.

    Although she is getting somewhat better, ever since that day she has been so fearful of ANY loud noise while being outside and walking on her leash. It’s not the entire time, and it was not like this until the fireworks incident. For example: basketballs bouncing, people yelling, diesel trucks taking off, buses, garage doors opening, doors shutting, etc. Inside the house she is totally fine, even with loud noises outside and on the TV, but on the leash she has a docked tail, whines at times, and pulls to escape. I redirect the behavior by sticking to my training.

    I’m still doing the silent drills, and when she becomes fearful I just turn around, switch directions, or stop. I keep moving with our training without speaking to her even when she is very stubborn. I basically make her do what I want regardless. I do praise her periodically with a lil pat, belly rub, or a quick good girl. I also give treats and she has plenty of fun time with fetch in the backyard. I feel terrible if I am making her do too much after the scare, but our trainer says to keep doing it and exposing her to those sounds inside and outside the home without any human reactivity to cause the dog to be alarmed. Other than the loud noises during walks and trying to bolt at times, she’s amazing.

    I certainly hope I am not ruining this dog by forcing her into a frenzy each day. I just want to correct the behavior before it’s too late. We have a training session each week and I’ll also be talking to our trainer about what to do. Any comments or feedback would be greatly appreciated. Thank you so much again for you blog!!

    1. Poor pup! What horrible luck, to have scary fireworks just when you happened to be walking her outside – definitely a very human mistake, as there’s no way we can predict everything that might happen. And yes, it’s particularly unfortunate to have this happen to an adolescent dog because of the fear period that occurs during this developmental stage. No wonder she’s having a hard time now with noises 🙁

      My personal approach for dogs with fears like this is to carry very high-value treats with me on walks (such as chopped up pieces of chicken or roast beef), and praise and reward the dog every time there is a scary noise. Over time, most dogs learn that scary noise = fabulous treats, and begin to look eagerly at you for their reward whenever they hear something loud. Your trainer may have a different approach, which is perfectly okay – if it’s working for you and your dog, I don’t argue with success!

      Thanks so much for reading, and I’m glad you’ve been enjoying the blog.

  19. What a great read! I do agree, its not all about how you raise them. Each animal has their own personality and we have to understand that. Thank you for bringing awareness to this. Keep up the awesome posts! 🙂
    Take care,

    1. Yes! Each dog absolutely has his/her own personality, which should be respected. Trying to force a square peg into a round hole just causes frustration for everyone involved.

      Thanks very much for your comment.

  20. We bought a Schnauzer puppy that is now about 1.5 yrs. old. He is very aggressive when we get onto him about peeing or pooping in the house. He’ll turn and snap at your hand. We couldn’t figure out why he’s so aggressive. We’ve had a total of 4 and have two right now. He is the only one that has been like this. They other 3 were so sweet and loving. We thought it was something we were doing wrong, but also thought that maybe it’s because we have a girl we adopted/rescued and our pup a boy. Reading your article has changed my blame game. I contacted the lady we bought him from yesterday to ask her if any of his siblings were like him. She said, YES! She said that the girls were sweet and the two boys were more aggressive. The father to our boy had to retire from breeding due to him biting a man. The father pup for some reason doesn’t like men. I must say, I was a little pissed off that I wasn’t told upfront before purchasing this pup. Our girl is the sweetest little thing ever and is disciplined. And I wanted her to have a playmate, not a naughty boy. My husband said today that if he ever bites one of us, he’s gone. My heart broke a little and I pray that never happens. I wished I had the answers as to what we need to do. Our pups are out kids and that would just kill me if we had to get rid of him. Please help…. open to any suggestion.

    1. I’m sorry to hear that you’re having this problem! It does sound like there is likely a genetic component to the aggression that you are seeing – but the good news is, this doesn’t mean that the situation is hopeless. Owner-directed aggression is often very treatable with smart management to help avoid problems, and a good training plan to change his emotional response to these situations. I actually wrote a post about this issue a while back that you may find helpful:

      I would also suggest getting in touch with a veterinary behaviorist who can evaluate him in person and help get you on the right track, if this is an option for you – there’s nothing quite like some hands-on guidance for a complicated problem like this! You can search for one in your area here:

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