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Some debates are timeless, spanning decades and centuries. One debate where there's no denying the waters run deep is Nature VS Nurture and which might be driving behaviour. Trying to discern the role of both when sharing time and space with beings of the 4-legged variety can be astounding when you take a deep dive. This post will help you identify how to use your dog's nature to strengthen your training efforts and how to give the relationship you share with with your dog a great boost by appealing to those instincts!

Defining Nature VS Nurture


Nature
- "the phenomena of the physical world collectively, including plants, animals, the landscape, and other features and products of the earth, as opposed to humans or human creations."

Nature includes things that are instinctual in tendency and innate to the being in question - the qualities of nature exist without human influence and often in spite of it. 

Nurture - "care for and encourage the growth or development of." - this is the influence part. Be it human influence from sharing space with us or environmental influence that guides the creature and allows for learning and growth, nurture can play a giant role in our dog's development and perception of the rules of life.

Nurturing nature is truly what dog training is all about.

Canine Instincts

All creatures are governed by the laws of their species. This is not up for debate, it is fact. When a pup is born, they are given DNA that defines them as a canine - their DNA does not match ours. This is so obvious in print, but one of our biggest struggles as dog trainers trying to help clients overcome issues is convincing them that their dogs don't think like they do and therefore, measures that will work to nurture us can often backfire when used on them. 

I endearingly refer to this as head vs heart. The love we have for our 4-leggers is vast and with the nature of our relationships, it often leads us to read our dog's behaviour emotionally rather than intellectually.

This is where the waters muddy.

When trying to apply human emotions to our dogs, it doesn't make sense from a logical perspective, so we go to an emotional appeal and fill in the blanks with anecdotal information from our own experiences.

Dog peed on the bed? They must be angry with you.

Chewed your shoes? It was spite!

These are human responses - not the tendency of the dog. They have their reasons for peeing on the bed (your smell was a comfort and that's where they happened to be or there was an existing smell that triggered their instinct to go).

They chew your shoes because they don't understand the rules of the home well enough not to and chewing shoes is rewarding for them. 

Shredding is fun for dogs!

Stinky things are AWESOME to dog noses and smelling leads to taste and chew. 

A human might take spiteful revenge for a real or imagined wrong, but that's not the nature of the dog. If we have any hope of treating the symptoms, the diagnosis must be for the right species!

What will serve us much better is remembering that their nature differs from ours and if we want to help our dogs live well in a human world, we need to put it in terms that will nurture their nature. Not just ours. 

In my 21 years training dogs professionally, I've redirected a lot of misguided assumptions about dogs. One of my favourites was from a lovely woman who thought that if her puppy peed in the house, she could punish that by not adding carrot pieces to the pup's kibble at dinner. 

Happy to say we cleared the air and helped her train her pup to have reliable house training habits, but this is far from a unique way of thinking. 

As humans, we humanize - it's part of our nature 😉

If a child makes a mess, we can punish them by removing something they like, such as dessert. This consequence of taking away something that the child is expecting and looking forward to is valid for a child who needs to comprehend long term consequence for misbehaviour. A time out. Deprival of dessert. Grounded from the TV. Due to the nature of most children, these will be consequences that will leave an impression. In theory, they will spend the time learning from their actions as they experience the consequences of those actions.

This nurturing of action and reaction will likely change behaviour moving forward assuming the consequence was negative enough for that child. The being decides what is rewarding and what is aversive or punishing. Not all kids love candy and some kids, with great imaginations and the ability to play solo, might be happy with a time out!  

How Do Dogs Differ - Correction Vs punishment

The same tactic when applied to a dog is flawed and will never change behaviour since the consequences don't speak to their nature. 

There is a difference between punishment and correction. Correction is a redirection in the moment to help the dog understand. It might be a light noise or it might be a physical redirection. The most important differentiator is that it happens to change behaviour, not to punish it.

To punish is to try to make one sorry for a thing. Since dogs don't have a human style conscience or moral code, they don't need to feel sorry to change their behaviour, they need information to go on to change their behaviour. 

If a dog makes a mess - say they ransack the garbage while you are away and you come home to a pile of debris. Sending them to their crate for a time out may be a negative for them depending on how they feel about their crate, but it will never stop them from rummaging in the garbage again at the next opportunity.

The nature of the dog is different.

They are opportunistic by design as creatures that scavenge and forage. Exploring the garbage is an innately rewarding behaviour - it appeals to the dog's nature. Truly, they don't even need to find anything wonderful to be reinforced. The scavenging itself holds innate value for a dog.

Finding a snack after the forage is just the cherry on top!

How Can We Use Nature to our Benefit?

If we are to ask our dogs to ignore their natural instinct to scavenge, we need to create a system of communication that will make sense to them. That includes decreasing the rewards that drive undesirable behaviour. 

A time out will never change the dog's behaviour. Especially a time out that comes long after the giant reward of scavenging and perhaps finding a few cherries too. If we hope to override nature, we have to be fair, clear and thorough in our approach and it needs to make sense to the learner! They are dogs. 

A multi-tiered plan will be necessary to override the dog's instinct to forage without resorting to harsh correction or intimidation tactics as the overwhelming method of teaching.

Teaching an understanding that the garbage is off-limits should include management (preventing access to prevent rehearsal as you work it out) as well as training (teaching the dog that the garbage is not an option) and as a last resort correction (scolding/disciplining for getting into the garbage as it happens). Resorting to correction without teaching will leave your dog confused over why their instincts are failing them and it will translate to you being unpredictable and potentially unsafe in the dog's eyes.

The ideal situation has you spending your time in the management and training phases so there is little to no need for correction. A good tip is that if you find yourself correcting your dog for the same thing twice, you need to go back to management and training. You might even have to adjust your tactics to clarify the expectation to your dog. 

Long-term consequences, like kibble with no carrots for dinner is not a suitable means of teaching a dog. Their nature does not allow them to be nurtured in this way. 

Part of being a good and fair leader is considering nature as one of the drivers of our 4-legger's actions. It allows us to develop the right amount of empathy for our dogs. Perhaps their noses are making them struggle, not making them stubborn. Maybe the environment needs to change so we can help our dogs learn.

Knowing that their nature drives them and differs from ours will help you nurture them in the right ways. 

Breed Instincts

These should play a great role, not be an excuse! 

The purebred dog is a deep dive into certain instinctual qualities that we might find desirable. We want a tenacious dog to face hissing rats head-on without fear, so we breed terriers. We want a soft-mouthed dog who will bring back our downed birds, so we breed retrievers. There are qualities that we nurture through breeding so that we can use our dogs in partnership for activities or chores that are much more difficult, or even impossible, without them.

When we find ourselves noting the nature of the breed as negative qualities, that, in my opinion, is just not fair. 

The terrier was bred to be tenacious. When we're not using the terrier to keep our barns rat-free, we call it stubborn.

The retriever loves to grab, hold and carry items. When we're not in a holding blind, we call them thieves. 

Knowing the tendency of your breed is a beautiful window into their furry little minds - there's a LOT going on in there that we don't think about or give credit for. Open that window and take a look! 

Now, think about how you can use that instinct to drive good behaviour. 

Ned is a thief! 

Tried and true, Ned is a thief. 

I knew when Ned came home, he would be a thief. I've been blessed to have lived with several Tollers in my time.

All thieves! 

Those who are long gone are lovingly remembered for many things including their thievery. Jayden was the first, born 20 years ago and the only one of my tollers who was ever punished for having a thieving heart. Apologies buddy - the best we can hope for is to live and learn so we can do better. 

As I acclimated to life shared with the nature of the retriever, it became evident that their tendency to steal was usually more related to the innate desire to have something in their mouths and only occasionally related to a desire to possess or play keep-away. Their selective breeding has channelled this desire to make our lives easier. Why would we want to have to train the retrieve from square one when we can start with it existing as an instinct?

It became obvious that in times of joy and stimulation (We're going outside - oh yay! It's time for a walk - oh yay! It's mealtime - oh yay!), they desired the feel of something in their mouths. Rather than trying to dissuade them from that by suppressing the instinct to hold an item, why not allow this expression of joy channelled appropriately? What if, through proactive training and good management, they learned to reach for the thing they were allowed to grab and hold? 

Better yet, why not use that innate reinforcement to help build joy for behaviours that are NOT innately reinforcing? 

Make Your Nurture Support ThEIR Nature

When Ned came home, a lot of his early teachings built on the idea that bringing items to me was valuable. Knowing that he was going to be a thief, I wanted to put systems in place that would allow me to control and direct his desires. Ned is now 4 and there is a palpable enjoyment that I feel when he brings me a thing, 'Hey, mom! I found this pinecone - do you want it?' 'Hey, mom - here's another walnut that fell from the tree - do you want to play? Throw it for me?' 'Hey, mom! I found this deer bone - what do you think?' 

All true stories which are a direct result of nurturing nature rather than trying to suppress it. He still would have found those items without my influence, but what might he have done with them? Kept them to himself to avoid punishment? Eaten them possibly causing a blockage? 

If I brought home a terrier, it would serve me well to build value for chase and tug games with me knowing that the grab and shake is a very reinforcing activity for them. I could then use this innate reward to build drive on the recall which will translate into reliability through repetition. Knowing that terriers have a tendency to chase, I can make that work for me. 

If the creature has a rehearsed outlet for their instinct, we can use it to our benefit. 

This age-old debate will rage on for as long as we do and if we are lucky enough to be open-minded to the idea that not all creatures think like humans, we can do better and be better for our 4-legged family members and consequently, live much nicer lives with them.

Until next time,

Happy Training!

Hi! I'm Shannon Viljasoo and I joined the McCann team in 1999 while training Quincey, my wonderful and spirited Rottweiler, to have good listening skills. I'm the Director of Online Training for McCann Professional Dog Trainers and I enjoy writing about dogs and dog training for the McCann Dogs blog. I currently share my life with 2 Tollers (Reggie & Ned) and I love helping people develop the best possible relationship with their 4-legged family members. Join us for in person or online training classes and learn how The McCann Method can change your life!