Nature and nurture: dogs are individuals

Written on November 10th, 2017

Your dog is not the perfect prototype of his/her breed. Your dog is not purely the product of your efforts as an owner. Your dog is not identical to any other animal out there, because your dog is an individual.

As I’ve spent more time investing myself in the dog community, I’ve primarily heard two different takes on what makes a dog who s/he is: generalizations based on breed, or the idea that it’s all about “how you raise them”.

While both of these myths are well-intentioned, they can be harmful, especially to new owners who don’t know what to expect.

The truth is that every dog is unique, even within a certain breed, even within a certain home, and even within a certain litter. We can use predicted characteristics and situational factors to make helpful generalizations, but we must accept that every dog is different — at the end of the day, our predictions may be wrong.

I’ll use my family’s husky, Snort, as an anecdote for a moment.

It’s all about the breed

Snort is a purebred, AKC registered Siberian Husky. But while she exhibits many traits associated with snow dogs, some are also noticeably absent.

She is not, for example, particularly destructive or high energy; while she could readily go longer (and often does), even just a one-mile walk is enough to tire her out for the day.

She isn’t “stubborn” or extremely independent. She’s a bit shy and not all that outgoing. She doesn’t exhibit much prey drive and even comfortably lives with two cats.

There are other details, but here’s the sum: if I didn’t know without a doubt that Snort is a purebred sibe, I might not believe it. She doesn’t match my “perfect” image of her breed… but she is, undisputably, 100% Siberian Husky.

(Whether or not she is well-bred as opposed to just purebred is a topic for another article, but I think the anecdote helps make the point regardless.)

It’s all about how you raise them

Snort’s life didn’t exactly get off to a great start. Born in January 2015, she was sold to another family where after 18 months of living outside as a breeding animal she was abandoned at a shelter.

Her previous owner threatened to tie her to a tree and leave her in the middle of nowhere if no one would take her in — that quote comes straight from the mouth of the shelter staff where we adopted her.

It’s safe to say that Snort wasn’t necessarily “raised right” for the first year and a half of her life.

Her next six months in a shelter weren’t horrible, but they weren’t ideal either. She was loved, but the workers simply didn’t have the time to properly train/bond with her the way a full-time owner could — imagine working in a bustling building full of unwanted animals who all need your attention.

By the time my family adopted Snort, she was two years and one month old. She had never lived in a real house. She had not been taught basic obedience. Many would consider her a total wildcard.

And yet from day one she has been an absolute sweetheart. She passed all of her behavioral screening at the shelter with flying colors. Of course we’ve worked with her, but even at the beginning she was a great dog.

By the “it’s how you raise them logic”, this shouldn’t make sense. Snort’s behavior should have been rough when we adopted her, mirroring the imperfect upbringing she had with her old owners… but she wasn’t.

So then what?

If Snort isn’t a perfect representation of her breed, and she isn’t a complete product of her upbringing, what does make her the way she is?

The answer is lots of things. And yes, her breed is one. So is her past. And especially her current training and the temperaments of her parents/other direct ancestors.

It would be remiss to act as if only one part of a dog completely defines who they are. Being a rescue or having an unfortunate past doesn’t mean a dog will be “bad”. Being from a long line of champion canines doesn’t guarantee a dog will be “good” (though proper breeding with health/temperament testing greatly increases the chance of stable behavior).
There are always exceptions and unpredictabilities, and as responsible owners we need to be prepared for them.

I’m not saying we should do away with generalizations as a whole — they can be massively helpful! Yes, a husky is different from a chihuahua. Yes, an abused dog is more likely to be nervous, and a carefully-curated line does typically produce great dogs.

But while it’s great to make use of generalizations in a broad sense, we must not commit to them as complete truth in every situation.

Asserting that a dog’s breed fully determines his/her personality is harmful to the new owner expecting a lazy couch pal who ends up with a high-strung companion — even though it’s supposed to be a mellow breed.

Bleating that it’s all about how a dog is raised is hurtful to the handler who has done everything right and still has a dog with genetic temperament issues, despite training classes and research and their best attempts at proper socialization.

At the end of the day, our dogs are individuals much like we are individuals. What works for one may not work for another… and that’s okay!

We can select our breeds and structure our training based on helpful generalizations, but we need to respect the fact that exceptions are always possible. I can’t necessarily treat Snort exactly like a friend’s husky, and I can’t necessarily treat two dogs in my own home exactly the same way even if they’ve been raised side-by-side.

Each individual dog has a different personality, and each individual dog needs slightly different ownership. When we commit to bringing an animal into our home, we must be prepared that they might not be exactly what we expect.

It’s important to consider everything that goes into making our dogs who they are — even the things that are out of our control. When we accept the reality of our pets and work to manage their specific personalities, we open the door to a much happier, healthier life together.

We have to work with the dog in front of us. Not the dog we used to have, not the dog we wish we had, and not the dog we were promised. The one in front of us.