People have been debating whether behaviour is controlled by ‘nature’ or ‘nurture’ since we first learnt how physical things like hair colour and height are inherited. Some used to argue that we are all born as a physical ‘blank slate’ and that personality and behaviour result solely from experience. Others believed that personality is genetically programmed in the same way as physical traits are and that learning can do little to change this. Over the years research has shown that we are in fact controlled by a combination of both. Most recently remarkable advances in our understanding of genetics has shown that our experiences and the environment can actually switch genes on and off, further confirming the link between nature and nurture.
The value of such advances in scientific understanding cannot be under estimated. We are living in an age of unprecedented growth in our knowledge about our world and everything in it. This applies as much to dog behaviour as it does to our sister professions such as human psychology, education, child development, psychiatric medicine and veterinary science. In fact our understanding of dog behaviour has been transformed through such research in the last 10 years.
But there is more to changing a dog’s behaviour than theoretical knowledge. Behaviourists also need practical skills, experience and a genuine empathy with both their client and the dogs. Interpreting canine communication takes a great deal of experience and a degree of natural aptitude that can only come from a genuine connection with the dog. Being able to work out how scientific knowledge relates to each dog and how to adapt different training methods to suit the individual dog, owner and situation also only develops through experience. Experience is therefore just as important as having a thorough and up to date understanding of the latest advances in canine research when it comes to modifying a dog’s behaviour.
Yet I have heard it suggested that academically trained behaviourists do not have these skills. I am never quite sure where that idea stems from. Why is it sometimes thought the two are mutually exclusive? I cannot imagine anyone even starting a course of study about dogs if they do not have a natural love for and overriding desire to help them, and in my experience academically trained people have spent as many years living with, learning from and loving dogs as they have studying them. To use myself as an example I grew up with dogs from birth, have kept dogs of my own for over 20 years – including ones with problem behaviour – and have worked with them for nearly 25 years. Throughout that time I have watched, worked with and handled all kinds of dogs on a daily basis.
However, whilst I agree that academic training alone is not enough I also believe experience alone isn’t enough either. It is the combination of study and experience that has taught me what drives and changes a dog’s behaviour, so I can both understand and empathise with the dog’s thoughts and emotions as well as observe his external behaviour. It is the combination that has enabled me to avoid repeating the pitfalls others have already learnt from in the past, so I don’t make the same mistakes as they did. It is the combination that has enabled me to continually check myself to make sure I am being objective in my work, and not relying on every human’s natural tendency to only see things that agree with what they already believe.
So, there is one common answer to both these questions. Is dog behaviour due to nature or nurture? We now know it’s due to both. Do we need a thorough and independently tested knowledge of the current scientific understanding of canine behaviour or do we need practical experience, empathy and compassion to treat canine behaviour? Again the answer is we need both.