Nature or Nurture: What’s more Significant for Dog Training?

Nature versus Nurture – the great debate! But how do each of these affect dog training? And do they combine to help dog’s learn. James Shore from Labrador Training HQ discusses this for Pet Problems Solved…

Nature or Nurture: What’s more Significant for Dog Training?


The oft-quoted myths say that the unwanted dog behavior, like aggression, anxiety, fear, are inherited traits which cannot be changed by training. Darwin favors genetic inheritance as a major influence on behavior while Thomas Hobbes, Karl Marx, and John Locke consider social environment and experience to be playing a significant role in shaping behavior.

The long-standing debate on Nature versus Nurture now concludes on a note that they are two sides of the same coin. Research conducted in 2015 on 14.5 million twins for over half a century ended with a conclusion that the match is a draw1. Gabor Maté, a Canadian physician who worked on childhood development and trauma, wraps up the whole truth:

“In the real world, there’s no nature vs. nurture argument, only an infinitely complex and moment-by-moment interaction between genetic and environmental effects.”

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The intelligence of a dog and his character traits define the way it should be trained. There are variations in strengths and weaknesses of every dog. Environment either strengthens the Nature or weakens it through Nurture.


“Natural” Factors To Be Considered Before Buying New Pets

In terms of Nature, various factors should be considered before buying a new pet dog or puppy:

  1. Who is the breeder? Reliable or Unreliable
  2. Who are the dog’s parents? What are their character traits? Ask the breeder.
  3. Is the dog pure-bred or a mix breed?
  4. Have complete before-hand knowledge of common characteristics (strengths and weaknesses) of that breed and consider your schedule or lifestyle; do they match well?
  5. The intelligence level of the dog should be considered. Why? The smarter a dog, the higher will be his energy and greater will be its need for mental stimulation. Can you provide so much attention?
  6. Training needs/Exercise requirements of the dog.
  7. If you are buying a dog, not a puppy, find out his prior dog-parent or trainer; and gather all the necessary information.

Training is secondary to nature. However, it has been commonly observed that rescued dogs have a better capacity to adapt to new environments and a better trainability as compared to other dogs who were brought up in favorable conditions.

Nature or Nurture: What’s more Significant for Dog Training?

Nature and Nurture at a Glance:

Personality Traits/Nature

A dog’s inborn personality plays a significant role in training. A research Personality Traits in the Domestic Dogs was conducted on 15,329 dogs of 164 breeds by Kenth Svartberg and Björn Forkman to find the personality traits in dogs2. They gave a narrow-range of common personality traits of dogs:

  1. Playfulness
  2. Curiosity/Fearlessness
  3. Chase-proneness
  4. Sociability
  5. Aggressiveness

These common traits differ from breed to breed to develop dog’s personalities.


The Significance of Nurturing/Training:

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When it comes to Nurture, a puppy differs from a grown-up dog because of his high trainability and adaptability.

A puppy can be trained to curb wrong behavior instantly after you catch him engaged in an unwanted behavior. Despite the genetic inheritance, puppies can be trained to tone down unwanted behavior by positive reinforcement of good behavior.  Dogs need the motivation to achieve something before working for it. Nurture plays an important role at puppy stage of a dog’s life.

Dogs do not understand your words but actions. Remember, when you kept silent, while your puppy started barking at the other dogs. You, in actual, negatively reinforced its behavior by staying silent. Later on, you punished the poor furball for its previous inappropriate behavior when he was playing with the dog toys. What happened next? He stopped playing with the toys as you interrupted his acceptable behavior with a wrong action.

Training a puppy requires time and patience. Nurturing a puppy to socialize, stay confident, adapt to the changing circumstances, solve different mysteries, be playful, etc takes a lot of training during 8-12 weeks of age.

Nature or Nurture: What’s more Significant for Dog Training?

Nature Can Be Trained And Overpowered:

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How do dogs learn? A grown-up dog can only be trained in a limited capacity of his inherent strengths. For example, a police dog cannot be trained to face and fight dangerous situations, but a German shepherd can learn it at its toe-tips. In contrast, German shepherd cannot be trained to flee away from terrifying situations because it is born to fight the fear with confidence.

Nature can be trained to its best capacity in a limited sphere of strengths. Once the dog gains the competence and confidence in its inherent strengths; he can overcome its weaknesses with greater positivity. Donald L. Hicks says,


“When you nurture nature, the nature nurtures you”

Dog’s psychology is no less different from our children. With motivation and appreciation for the dog’s natural strengths, a dog will attempt to excel in its capacities to do more for the owner. Moreover, a dog should be allowed to take baby steps to overcome its fears. It should be made to walk in the limelight. Dog owners should remember that few characteristics are in their genes and they can be overpowered for as long as they are positively reinforced and constantly trained. For example, bulldogs are aggressive and protective by nature but can be trained to stay calm, composed, and obedient.

An attention-seeking puppy is trained through love while an assertive and independent dog would enjoy more freedom besides love. Here, nature joins hand with nurture to provide a proper environment for a dog’s upbringing following its innate characteristics.

Nature or Nurture: What’s more Significant for Dog Training?

Nature and Nurture: Adopting a Trained Dog:

What if the previous dog owner encoded certain behavior traits in your dog’s mind? First, identify whether the behavior is a result of nature or nurture, by considering “natural” factors in your dog.

When the trainers reinforced a negative natural in your dog at an early age, it takes patience to get the dog off the hook. You, as a dog-owner and a dog-trainer, need to focus on other positive attitudes and strengths till the dog allows you to interrupt its permanent negative behaviors.

When a negative trait is a result of nurture, the job of training gets super-easy. All you need to do is avoid similarly training the dog as the previous owner did. You should never leave behind any positive cues for the dog to continue the unwanted behavior.



To conclude, Annie Phoenix advises in her book The Positive Dog Walkers for the training of reactive and aggressive dogs, whether genetic or trained, that the owner should build a bond of love and trust with his dog where he knows the dog more than “what other people tell him” or “assume about his dog”. He should know when to give the dog confidence to face certain challenges and when to protect him from dangerous situations. Once the owner knows his dog’s nature, the nurturing part becomes easy and fun.

1Nature vs nurture debate
2Personality traits in the domestic dog


About the author: Nature or Nurture: What’s more Significant for Dog Training?
James Shore is a part-time dog-trainer and dog behavior consultant. He is a professional freelancer with years of experience in dog training. He is interested in finding out fun ways to handle dog behaviors, specifically, Labradors to help dog-owners enjoy their companions at all times. His pet-passion led him to develop to help people.


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Puppy training: A guide to canine learning and training your new pup
Training Your Dog: Which learning style do you use?


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