Is It Nature or Nurture That Determines Our Dog’s Reactions?

A week ago I had forwarded a post on Facebook about a woman who was walking her service dog and was accosted by a loose dog.  The loose dog started fighting with her service dog and she had to kick at the loose dog to try and get it to back off.  Thirty seconds of a negative interaction because of a negligent dog owner caused her several years of trying to get her service dog to not be frightened by approaching dogs.  My heart broke for this woman because I’ve been to many functions and rescue events with both my shelties and collies and have found the majority of people attending these events say things like “My dog is friendly.  He likes dogs and people”. WRONG!  Dogs are like humans in that they have likes and dislikes and no dog wants their personal space invaded by an overly friendly or loose dog.

The article I posted brought quite a few comments.  I had posted a second story where two loose dogs had jumped a 4′ fence and attacked a Sheltie in its backyard.  The Sheltie came outside his doggie door to lay in the sunshine. These two dogs caused quite a bit of damage to the Sheltie before the owner came home and chased them out of the yard all the while fearing for her own safety with these two dogs.  Unfortunately, the Sheltie lived for two days before he passed away from his injuries.  I hadn’t mentioned what breed of dogs had jumped the fence but one of my friends asked as part of a comment on this particular post.  I told her it was a pair of pit bulls.

A lot of discussion ensued after I indicated that it had been pit bulls that had attacked the Sheltie.  The majority of people commenting felt that it was 100% bad owners that caused those dogs to jump the fence and nature had nothing to do with it.  But is that really the case?

I don’t hate pit bulls or any dogs for that matter.  Each breed is unique in their abilities and each breed has been selectively bred over the years to display certain characteristics.  I happen to love the herding breeds and have had these dogs in my life for over 60 years.  The herding breeds have been bred to herd cattle, sheep or even ducks. Border collies and collies like to run behind the sheep to herd them where they want them to go. Shelties being smaller will nip at the heels of sheep to make them move and that’s why Shelties of today tend to nip at their owners pants legs–they are doing what they have been bred to do.

The hunting group of dogs has been selectively bred to flush out game such as the spaniels, to retrieve game such as Labrador Retrievers or Golden Retrievers or to point out game such as the Pointers.  The terriers were bred to be low to the ground and to hunt and kill vermin such as rats, mice, gophers, etc.

Hazel, one of the Golden Retrievers in our therapy dog group, wearing her Pawks!
Hazel, one of the Golden Retrievers in our therapy dog group, wearing her Pawks!


Pit bulls were created by breeding bulldogs and terriers together to produce a dog that combined the gameness and agility of the terrier with the strength of the bulldog. In the United Kingdom, these dogs were used in blood sports such as bull-baiting and bear-baiting.  When large animal baiting became illegal, many pit bull owners turned to using their dogs to fighting each other and dog fighting became a huge money making sport.  While dog fighting is illegal in the US, there is still a large number of people who illegally use their dogs for fighting for money. Unfortunately that old saying “follow the money” is true in this case.

Pit Bull
Pit Bull

Okay, so through selective breeding we have many different dog breeds.  If nature had nothing to do with dogs and how they behave, then why would there be such a plethora of dog breeds out there?  Wouldn’t one breed be able to handle working sheep, retrieving birds and making sure there are no rats in the barn?  So let’s agree that nature does play a part in our dogs’ instincts and behavior.

On the other hand, just because collies were bred to herd sheep does not mean that every collie is a good sheep herder.  Many are not. I brought Shelby over to take the herding instinct test.  She herded sheep all right but she was much too aggressive at it often trying to bite and snap at the sheep.  My collie, Harley, does not have much herding instinct and absolutely no instinct for lure coursing (chasing a fake rabbit on a wire around a course) something that whippets, greyhounds and other members of the hound group love.  Just because dogs were selectively bred to display certain characteristics does not mean that every dog of that breed will exhibit those same characteristics.  But this is where humans come into the picture.

A collie herding sheep--not Shelby!
A collie herding sheep–not Shelby!


We humans can help bring out the full potential in our dogs.  First off, all dogs should be trained in obedience–I’m a stickler for that one.  They should learn how to heel on a walk without dragging you on the leash, they should know how to sit, stay and come when called.  The basics are so important for our dogs to be good canine citizens.  If you adopted or purchased your dog to be a companion pet only, then work with your dog to be the best companion available.  If you got your dog to go hunting with you, then take the dog to a specialized hunting training facility and get it trained.

Now we come to the bully breeds.  Obviously we don’t want to emphasize or further train what they have been selectively bred for.  Most of the bully breed dogs are very loving–many of them make great therapy dogs when trained properly just as any other breed of dog does–that is, provided that they have the right instincts to do therapy work which requires the dog to want and ask for interaction with people and other dogs.

And now we’re to the place where bad owners have a huge part in many mishaps with dogs. Anytime you let your dog run off leash (and not in a dog park), you face the possibility that your dog will revert to its basic instincts and traits that have been bred into dogs for centuries. That’s why the dogs that jumped the fence and mauled the Sheltie mentioned above probably were doing nothing more than their breeding told them to do.

A case in point–a couple of years ago I brought Harley outside with me to water my plants out front every morning in the summer.  Harley is my dog who has the most training and is the most compliant of all my dogs.  One morning, Harley was sniffing around the bushes in front and managed to scare out a rabbit.  The rabbit ran and Harley ran right after it.  I yelled for him to stop and stay but the centuries old predator/prey instinct of chasing rabbits, squirrels and chipmunks took over and nothing I said or did would get him to come back much less turn around when I called to him. Harley ran in front of a car on the next street over in his quest to catch the rabbit.  Thankfully the driver saw it happening and stopped before Harley got to him.  I managed to catch up to Harley and grabbed him by the scruff of the neck, thanked the driver for being so watchful and hauled his butt home.  After the adrenaline settled down in my body after Harley’s escape incident, I made the decision that Harley will NEVER be off leash outside a fenced yard again.  In fact NONE of my dogs will ever be off leash outside the fenced back yard.

Harley in all his glory!
Harley in all his glory!


So while the story of the Sheltie being mauled in his own backyard was the direct result of negligent owners letting their dogs run off leash, the fact that these two dogs jumped a fence to attack another dog was the result of their selective breeding over the centuries.  I can guarantee you that if any of my dogs were off leash and came to another dog enclosed behind a fence in his own back yard, jumping the fence to maul the dog and kill it would not be on their minds.  It’s just not in their nature or part of their breeding.  They might attack or defend themselves against another dog that jumps into their back yard, but they would not seek to destroy and kill another dog in that dog’s own yard.

It’s incumbent on every breed rescue to know and understand all the inbred traits and characteristics of their breed. And it’s imperative of every breed rescue to insist that any dog adopted from their rescue will NEVER be off leash and allowed to run free except in their own fenced back yard or a dog park (and I’m personally not comfortable with dogs parks but that’s the subject of another post).  I know shelters don’t have the resources that many breed rescues do to perform home visits on prospective adopters, have adopters fill out forms (some of them are 6 pages long from some of the rescues I’ve adopted from) or have the manpower to follow up with the adopter’s vet, referrals, etc.  But they need to do everything in their power to make sure that the potential adopter of any of their dogs will be a responsible owner and will train the dog and keep the dog fenced.   Because when you get down to it, responsible owners can keep dogs from acting on their inbred instincts and characteristics–especially if those instincts include aggression towards other dogs.

So, is it 100% bad owners?  Or is 100% bad dogs?  I think neither.  It’s my opinion that it’s a balance of nature and nurture that determines the outcomes of our dogs actions.  Good training, loving care, good food and shelter can go a long way to keeping our dogs loving and loyal companions.