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Dog Training & Dog Genetics: The Two Most Important Slices of the "Dog Behavior Pie"

Updated: Aug 15, 2022

There's a common misconception out there that "a trained dog is a good dog." While we do tend to agree in the majority of cases, this isn't always 100% true. Why? Because training isn't the only thing that affects a dog's behavior. Genetics & socialization (we'll discuss socialization in our next blog post) are also two factors that will determine a dog's temperament. So while a trained dog is usually a good dog, a trained dog can also be a very fearful dog. A trained dog can be an under-socialized dog. A trained dog can be a naturally defensive/reactive dog. Training unfortunately isn't the "end-all, be-all" to getting that perfect dog you've always dreamed of... Sometimes you're dealt a genetic hand that you just weren't expecting, and training can swoop in to save the day and help you manage (notice we didn't say "fix") those genetic issues. So how much "stuff" can training actually fix, and how do you avoid ending up with a puppy/dog that has genetic behavioral issues? Stick with us, because we're about to tell you.

Contributing Factors to Dog Behavior

When it comes to dog training, simply put, it can fix a whole lot. It can solve your house-training problems. It can enable you to walk your dog on a loose-leash without getting drug down the street. It can ensure your dog comes back to you when you call him/her. It can prevent your dog from jumping on you or your friends/family. Training is pretty great, in our opinion. In fact, in our experience, it's the most important factor that will determine your dog's behavior. Genetics are a close second, however... So let's talk about those.

For the purposes of this blog post, when we say "genetics," we're talking about your dog's genes or their "genetic make-up." We're talking about all of the lovely (and perhaps not-so-lovely) traits that your dog's mom & dad passed along to your pup. When it comes to genetics, we've found that there's essentially three different scenarios that can occur:

1. Some puppies win the genetic lottery when they're born and seem to get all of the best behavioral traits from both their mom and their dad. These puppies grow up to be well-rounded, easy-to-own dogs. They require very little training, if any. They have no behavioral issues pop up at any point in their lives. They adjust easily to any environment/situation they're in. Many of them make great service dogs or therapy dogs. We often refer to these dogs as "unicorn dogs." They are quite rare.

2. Some puppies neither win nor lose the genetic lottery when they're born and seem to get mostly good behavioral traits from their parents along with a few not-so-good behavioral traits. These not-so-good behavioral traits are typically easily managed and/or fixed with training and proper socialization, especially if it's started young. With the help of training, these puppies/dogs are able to overcome their genetic behavioral issues and make great companions that are a joy to live with. This is the most common group by far. What are these not-so-great genetic behavioral issues we're referring to? Examples can include minor environmental issues (issues walking on slick floors, slight hesitation in new environments, etc.), minor nerve issues (aloof with new people or dogs but recovers quickly, etc.), minor reactivity issues, etc. The key is that all of these genetic behavioral issues are minor and can be overcome with the help of training. Without training, these issues will remain and/or worsen with time.

3. Some puppies unfortunately lose the genetic lottery when they're born and seem to inherit very poor behavioral traits from both their mom and their dad. This is not to say that they are bad puppies and that they can't overcome this genetic hand that they were dealt. They simply have the cards stacked against them when it comes to their potential for developing behavior issues, and intervention (proper training and socialization) is needed quickly and consistently. This type of puppy will be exhibiting moderate to severe fear/nervousness/hesitation around people/places/things, anxiety, reactivity, food aggression, etc. at a very young age (although these issues can certainly develop later into puppyhood or even adulthood as well).

If you're an owner that has ended up with Scenario #3, you're probably wondering if there's hope... We're happy to report that there certainly is! This is where training comes into play. Obedience training can provide the opportunity for many dogs with genetic-based behavioral issues to live normal, happy lives. With training, dogs that might have to be carried outside because they're too scared to leave their house can finally gain the confidence they need to tackle (and even enjoy) the outdoors. Training can open up a whole new world of freedom for dogs with reactivity (barking/growling at other people or dogs) issues by giving said dog's owners the tools and confidence that they need to handle unexpected scenarios. If the issues are caught early and the training begins early, these more severe issues can typically be easily managed. However, they can't always be fixed. Fixing an issue and managing an issue are two different things, and training unfortunately does have some limitations when it comes to genetic behavioral issues.

A naturally defensive dog (we'll refer to him as Fido) with significant insecurity issues is always going to be defensive and insecure. However, we can use training to help Fido properly handle scenarios where he may feel the need to be defensive. For instance, prior to training, Fido may be exhibiting aggression every time his owner has company over. This aggression is getting worse, and Fido has started barking/growling/snapping at company when they come in the door. After some much-needed training, Fido has learned a very solid "stay" and "place" command. Fido's owner is now able to enforce a down/stay when company comes in the door, eliminating his opportunity to be aggressive. In this scenario, we are using training to manage Fido's insecurity. We can't necessarily fix the insecurity... He was born with it, and it's always going to be there to some degree... But training can certainly help Fido's owner keep a handle on it. However, even after training, if Fido's owner forgot to put him in a down/stay and let company inside the house, Fido would most likely revert right back to the barking/growling/snapping that he had done previously because training does not eliminate genetic behavioral issues... It simply helps us manage them. Furthermore, when it comes to more severe genetic behavioral issues like fear/insecurity/reactivity, management (using training) is for life.

You're probably thinking that having a dog like Fido and constantly having to manage him in scenarios where he may feel the need to be defensive sounds like a lot of work, and you're right. It is a lot of work, especially if you have a dog with severe behavioral issues where a lack of management can result in another person or animal getting injured. That's a big responsibility, and it's not for everyone. So how can you avoid getting a dog that might have some underlying genetic issues? Sometimes, you just can't. Sometimes, you can pick the most confident/outgoing puppy in the litter only for that same puppy to start showing significant insecurities a few short weeks later once you have him/her home. With puppies, it's often a gamble. There are, however, a few tips we can give you if you're not looking to take on a potential, genetic-based behavioral case:

  1. Don't pick the scared puppy/dog cowering in the corner. Although this is the type of puppy/dog that we all tend to gravitate towards when we're looking for the next member of our family, there are some red flags with a puppy/dog that is unable to venture out of a corner. This is typically a sign that they are not environmentally sound (they may be fearful in other new environments as well), and are fearful of new people (they may want to avoid other people they meet as well). The issue with a fearful puppy is that the fear can turn into fear aggression later on if the fear is due to genetics. When you aren't sure on the genetics (you didn't get to meet the parents, the puppy was from a backyard breeder, etc.), your safer bet is to avoid the cowering puppy/dog in the corner and choose the puppy/dog that seems confident and happy to greet you. If you do feel called to adopt the scared/cowering dog in the corner, seek training immediately so that you can begin confidence building exercises. Do not wait, even if the puppy/dog seems fine once you get him/her home.

  2. Pick a reputable breeder. If you decide to purchase a puppy vs. adopt from the animal shelter, research breeders extensively. Choose a breeder that has both of the parents on the premises. Ask to see the parents. Make sure the parents both seem well-adjusted. The parents should not bark at you, and they should not be fearful of you. They should be happy to see you or neutral towards you. Ideally, you also want to choose a breeder that will let you meet, evaluate, and pick your own puppy (stay tuned on our blog post regarding how to evaluate puppies). If you are the last on the list and are going to get stuck with the last puppy available, ask to pass so that you can have first choice on the next litter. If the breeder won't let you choose your own puppy, make sure that the breeder at least chooses puppies for owners based on the puppy's temperament and the owner's lifestyle. Breeders should be trying to match the appropriate puppy with the appropriate owner. Do not choose a breeder that assigns puppies based on color or gender preferences and/or who sent in their deposit first. Furthermore, try to choose a "repeat breeding" litter, meaning that the breeder has bred these two parents before and received good feedback from the puppy parents.

  3. While this one really has nothing to do with genetics, it can impact future behavior a great deal (especially if there are some weaker genetics at play), so... Avoid getting a puppy that is under eight weeks of age at all costs. This is the minimum age that a puppy should be leaving his or her littermates. Regardless of whether you are choosing a puppy from a breeder or from the animal shelter, that puppy should be eight weeks or older and still with his or her littermates. Sending puppies home at five, six, or seven weeks of age (or as soon as they are weaned from mom) is a bad-breeding practice that can have lasting repercussions on the puppies including but not limited to insecurity, anxiety, fear, reactivity, and aggression. Puppies learn a great deal from their littermates such as bite-inhibition, impulse control, appropriate play behaviors, and how to communicate with other dogs. Their littermates also give them the confidence needed to explore new environments, greet people, etc.

  4. If you're adopting from an animal shelter, choose an animal shelter that will let you spend a day with the dog (many shelters offer this option now). Take the dog out and about away from the shelter and see how he acts in new environments. Does he suddenly seem much more scared than he did at the shelter? Is he barking at every person/dog he sees? These are some potential red flags that you'll want to discuss with a trainer first before you sign those adoption papers.

While this is not an exhaustive list, sticking to these suggestions can increase the chances that you won't be dealing with significant behavioral issues from your new furry family member. With that being said, some genetic-based behavioral issues can appear when a dog reaches maturity (around 1.5-3 years of age) or during any "fear-period" within their first year of life. Therefore, even if you think you have won the genetic-lottery with the puppy/dog you chose, we always recommend training. Proper, balanced training never hurts. It will simply give you a better, more-confident version of the dog you already had and can help to ward off genetic-based behavioral issues that might otherwise find their way to the surface.

Interested in learning about the third slice of the "dog behavior pie?" Check out this blog post where we discuss all things socialization-related.

Interested in learning about behavioral issues that aren't genetic-based but are instead "handler-created?" We'll be talking all about that next week!

Happy training!

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