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Can Dogs Really Change?

Updated: Jan 29, 2021

two Siberian husky puppies

I received a query this morning from a student of canine behavior. Based in the UK, she’s writing a paper on whether temperament can be altered by learning. This is a fascinating subject and one I’ve often pondered, particularly because of life with Bodhi.

Just as physical traits like coat or eye color are part of a dog’s genetic blueprint, so are personality traits such as a tendency to be shy or outgoing, anxious or calm, easily aroused or having a high frustration tolerance, to name a few. This is what allows breeders to select dogs who have appropriate temperaments for their breeding lines.

The nature-nurture question makes me think of a good friend who is also an excellent trainer. Almost two years ago, she got a German Shepherd puppy. Naturally, she went way above and beyond what the average dog owner would do as far as training and socialization, especially as she noticed early on that the pup was a bit suspicious of strangers and could be reactive. By all accounts the dog is doing well, but knowing that an insecure, reactive dog’s behavior can become much worse if left unchecked, she continues to work with him through his adolescence. They meet new people, attend classes, work on impulse control, and practice behaviors that help the dog to behave appropriately in various situations. There are more good days than bad, but every now and then the dog has a reaction to an unfamiliar person—usually a man—that is worrisome. This is a perfect example of how temperament has a continuous influence on a dog regardless of how much behavior modification is done.

Fear issues are another area where the effects of temperament are often apparent. Soko, our German Shepherd who lived to be thirteen, was an anxious dog. We did all the proper early and continued socialization and training, and yet she had certain fears, the most troublesome of which were sound phobias. A high-pitched sound on the television would send her careening out of the room, and the microwave beep terrified her. We did desensitization exercises for specific triggers (I used the microwave a lot at the time), and it helped some. But sadly, there weren’t enough desensitization exercises in the world to keep up with her constantly evolving fears.

We adopted Bodhi in his adolescence, so I have no idea what his puppyhood was like. What I do know is that he has a fairly constant, low-level anxiety, insecurity that manifests as reactivity toward other dogs, a sensitive startle reflex, and a low frustration tolerance. Though I can’t prove it, I believe these are part of his genetic makeup. When a friend talks about how her husky calmed down a lot once he reached age four or five, I wonder whether that will happen with Bodhi. I’d like to think so, but I don’t see his behavior as a product of his youth. Another friend’s dog, a Catahoula, is still wild and crazy at 13, with the same underlying, genetically influenced traits he had from the time he was a pup still going strong.

Of course we can and will do all of the management, behavior modification, and training possible, but to think it will change who a dog basically is, is unrealistic. And maybe that’s a relief, in a way. We can stop thinking, If I only work hard enough, eventually he’ll be able to play off-leash with other dogs or In a couple of years, he’ll settle down and be much calmer. It’s nice to think so, and hey, it could happen! But accepting who a dog is deep down, just as with a person, can often lead better understanding and less frustration. We can teach dogs how to behave, but not who to be.


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