You’ve decided to buy or adopt a dog or already have a four-legged friend. Understanding the factors that influence dog behaviour will be helpful. Otherwise, you face the problem that you do not understand or cannot interpret what it wants to tell you. Or, the opposite happens and your dog cannot interpret what you want it to do. Understanding the 6 Things That Influence a Dog’s Behaviour is the first step in creating a training or behaviour modification plan.
Just like human behaviour is influenced by many things, it is for dogs, too. This guide gives you an insight into all those factors that may influence a dog’s behaviour. I hope it will help you better understand your furry friend and also enable you to take the right approach when training it.
6 Amazing Factors That Influence Dog Behaviour
Table of Contents
- 6 Amazing Factors That Influence Dog Behaviour
- 1. Genetic Predisposition
- 2. Maternal and Litter Influences on Dog Behaviour
- 3. Dog Behaviour – Breed Traits
- 4. Experience and Learning
- 5. Environment
- 6. Dog Behaviour: Physiology, Age, and Overall Health
- 6 Things That Influence Dog Behaviour – Conclusion
1. Genetic Predisposition
A genetic predisposition means that your dog is likely to behave the way its parents did. For example, if you mate two shy dogs, you will often get shy puppies.
This is because the personality of a dog is deeply wired in its genetics. Sure, training and environment can help overcome some of these behavioural issues and traits, but this genetic predisposition is also why many dogs may show reluctance to improve. This is also why good breeders temperament test both their breeding stock before mating and individual puppies that they have available for sale. This allows the best breeders to place puppies into suitable homes based on their personality and behaviour traits.
The 6 things that influence dog behaviour should first be considered before attributing abnormal behaviour to genetics. When we talk about genetic predisposition, we must go even deeper – way back to a dog’s ancestors.
Dominance theory in dog behaviour and training
All dogs are descended from wolves. A wolf is a predator and although humans domesticated dogs thousands of years ago, all dogs are predators first and foremost. This is why dogs show certain predatory behaviour irrespective of their size or breed.
Wolves live and hunt in packs – but do dogs also prefer a hierarchy of doing things? Many dog trainers and owners believe they do and that this means you need to assume the role of alpha for your dog. And if this is not the case, it can lead to problems with the dog – mainly aggression. Your dog might think it is alpha and behave so. Such trainers use force, fear and intimidation to punish behaviour and set strict rules restricting what the dog can and cannot do.
For example, trainers that apply the outdated dominance training method will tell you not to let your dog walk through a doorway before you, lean on you, or eat before you – believing that this normal dog behaviour indicates your pup does not respect you as the leader and wants to dominate you.
Dominance theory debunked
Although it can be harmful to ‘humanize’ a dog and they do need clear boundaries. The dominance theory that some dog trainers and owners believe in, often to justify their use of inhumane training tools such as prong collars, electric shock collars, check chains and slip leads, has been thoroughly debunked. The theory was based on studies that were conducted on wolves in captivity however, wolves in captivity behave differently to wolves in the wild.
Wolves in the wild, work as a family unit and the dominance observed in captive wolf packs, is rarely a motivating factor in the behaviour of wild wolves. So you don’t need to teach your dog to live in a pack and accept you as the alpha or the pack leader. Instead, you should teach your dog the behaviours you want them to do and this can be trained most efficiently and effectively through positive reinforcement or reward-based training.
Genetics, dog behaviour traits and training rewards
A dog’s genetics will influence its behaviour traits and this in turn will help you find the things that they find most rewarding in life. You can then use these rewards to motivate them to perform the behaviours you want to see more of – calmness, tolerance to frustration, flexibility, focus, independence, optimism and confidence just to name a few! For example, border collies will often enjoy playing tug of war, this can become a game that you play with them when they perform a behaviour that you want to see more of – like sitting on cue for example. Use your dog’s genetics to inform what rewards you have in your dog trainer’s toolbox!
2. Maternal and Litter Influences on Dog Behaviour
A puppy learns a great deal from its dam and littermates. This is why no puppy should be separated from its mother and siblings prior to 8 weeks of age.
A temperamentally sound dam (bitch) teaches a great deal to her puppies during this crucial phase. She ensures that the puppies play with each other without biting and aggression. Pups also learn important social skills including bite inhibition during this important phase. And that is the reason why ethical breeders never let their pups leave their litters before they are at least 8 weeks old.
Numerous canine studies have shown that a dog tends to learn good and bad habits from the mother. For example, puppies that are separated from fearful mothers are more likely to be confident than if they were to be left with fearful mothers. Similarly, puppies that are separated from their mother too early show an increase in dog behaviour problems such as resource guarding, fear, aggression, anxiety, reactivity and painful play biting.
This is also why your puppy will see you as a mother substitute when it comes home from the breeder. When you bring your puppy home, surviving the first 48 hours will be a case of reassuring them that they are safe and starting to establish a routine with sleeping, feeding, puppy obedience & manners training and potty training.
A puppy’s mother significantly impacts the 6 Things That Influence a Dog’s Behaviour. She influences 50% of a pup’s genetics, providing initial learning experiences and whether or not the womb is a stressful or calm place. Stressed mothers, make puppies that grow to be stressed dogs; this is one reason why pups raised in puppy farms and by bad breeders are more likely to have behaviour problems.
3. Dog Behaviour – Breed Traits
Some dog breeds are genetically prone to certain behaviours. Take the case of aggression. We often assume that all large dogs like Rottweilers and Pitbull are aggressive. This isn’t always true, as long as the dogs are well-bred, raised and trained. In fact, studies show that many small dog breeds are more likely to be aggressive than medium and large dog breeds.
Take the case of Chihuahuas. They are one of the smallest purebred dog breeds but are often deemed more aggressive than most medium and large dog breeds. This can be attributed to the Napoleon complex or small dog syndrome which stems from their small size. At times funny and cute, these small dogs could end up causing a lot of damage if left to their own devices.
Dog breed intelligence
Dog behaviour is also influenced by the breed’s IQ. For example, Border Collies are the smartest dogs in the world. With appropriate training, they can move a herd of farm animals in the right direction. Not every dog breed can do this. It takes special intelligence and some breeds are more trainable than others. Bulldog and livestock guardian breeds can be stubborn but the best dog trainers can work out what drives them to increase their motivation.
Of course, this is also why herding dogs like Collies and sheepdogs need a lot of obedience training. This is important to prevent them from nipping at the heels of small animals and kids. Their herding instincts mean they are wired to herd small animals and even humans. If you want to avoid this behaviour, you must teach your dog what behaviours to do instead and stop (not punish) the rehearsal of inappropriate dog behaviour.
The same is true with scent hounds. These dogs have a powerful sense of smell (nearly 20 times more powerful than humans!) which causes them to track interesting scents to the point that they might endanger themselves.
Sometimes, these dogs need to be restrained on a leash for their safety. If you have a scent hound such as a Basset Hound or a Beagle, it is essential to train it in basic obedience and recall command. You may also want to reinforce your fence and yard to prevent them from darting into the traffic.
4. Experience and Learning
There is a reason why top dog breeders start early enrichment and socialisation of their puppies before sending them to their forever homes. This early learning is essential to avoid many behavioural issues like shyness, timidity, and aggression in dogs.
Ethical breeders raise all their new puppies at home. This exposes them to sounds like the doorbell, kitchen, vacuum cleaner and garden equipment, kids playing, shouting, etc.
Breeders also take the (vaccinated) puppies on car rides and expose them to other dogs, children, and cats. These early experiences and learning can go a long way in shaping the puppy’s behaviour.
Dogs that do not receive early enrichment of this type often show negative behaviours like jumping on houseguests, growling at other dogs, chasing cats and other small pets, and showing aggression towards other animals and humans. When deciding where to purchase your puppy, consider the 6 Things That Influence a Dog’s Behaviour to ensure you don’t buy a puppy that is likely to have behaviour problems.
Naturally, your pup’s education must continue even after it comes to your home. In fact, you must begin training your dog from the day it first steps into your house. Establish the house rules early on and make sure all family members are on-board with them. This is very important to prevent confusing your puppy with different rules and commands.
Numerous studies have shown that dogs who grow in a home with no other dogs or even in homes of first-time dog owners are more likely to be aggressive. Often, novice dog owners have no clue about dog training.
They make several mistakes when raising the dog – mainly letting the dog get away with bad behaviour. Rehearsing bad behaviour will only make that behaviour problem more likely to occur. As a result, it isn’t surprising to see some dog owners actually “scared” of their small-sized dogs.
Sure, this might seem funny to an outsider but, in reality, it is plain sad. Whose mistake, is it? Certainly not the dogs! It is especially sad to see so many dogs ending up in kill shelters and dog pounds because the owner did not take the time to train them.
Every dog needs to relax at home and that is not just through resting. A healthy dog needs daily exercise, good food, and adequate sleep. The environment should be one of the first things considered when assessing the 6 Things That Influence a Dog’s Behaviour.
If your dog is left alone all day and already has separation anxiety, then being alone all day might not give it adequate sleep. Observe such a dog and you might see it yawning all the time. This is a clear response that the dog has had a strenuous day or has been exposed to some strenuous fears. In such cases, dog owners must take the steps to determine the cause of the stress so they can avoid future anxious situations.
It is not surprising to see dogs left alone all-day urinating, howling, barking, and defecating indoors. Some destroy the furniture. Others throw a full-blown panic attack when the owners are about to leave. All this is a clear indication of inadequate training or a poor environment for the dog.
6. Dog Behaviour: Physiology, Age, and Overall Health
Of the 6 things that influence a dog’s behaviour, this is possibly the most significant. Your dog’s brain and its neurotransmitters play a role in your dog’s behaviour. For example, certain abnormal levels of hormones can trigger aggression or fear in dogs. Hypothyroidism and diabetes could trigger hormonal issues which can affect a dog’s behaviour.
Pain-induced and irritable aggression in dogs can occur due to medical conditions. Un-desexed bitches often go through pseudopregnancy with each heat cycle they have and can become reactive and aggressive toward other dogs and humans. Similarly, a dog that has just given birth could get aggressive towards people who approach her puppies.
Adolescence in dogs
Adolescence or the rebellious teenage phase of a pup’s life can also introduce challenging behaviour problems. During adolescence (6-18 months of age) dogs experience changes in their brain which make them less able to regulate their emotions. Similarly, the ability to express impulse control is greatly reduced and owners and trainers should adjust their training expectations to ensure they’re not setting the dog up to fail. Another frustrating behaviour challenge during this time relates to the inability to respond to previously learned commands. Your pup might have mastered a rock-solid sit-and-stay, but has seemingly forgotten this behaviour overnight. Welcome to the confusing and challenging life phase of adolescence!
An old dog with pain is likely to growl and get irritable due to failing senses like vision and hearing. Diseases like rabies, hyperkinesis, dental disease, arthritis, and health issues that cause fever, can all increase a dog’s irritability.
An aggressive dog with health issues needs proper medical care and treatment. This form of canine behaviour issues might disappear once the underlying health issues are treated. Old dogs must be provided with a proper routine in terms of exercise, meals, and a quiet place to rest.
Sometimes, mild anti-anxiety medication with proper veterinary guidance can help overcome disease-related canine behavioural issues.
6 Things That Influence Dog Behaviour – Conclusion
There are many factors that influence dog behaviour. Humans have been living with dogs as far back as 30,000 years, that’s 10,000 years before the domestication of other species like horses, cows etc. It’s no wonder many of the factors influencing their behaviour have been under human control.
These factors include:
- genetic selection for breed-specific behaviour traits
- health (commercial dog food, breed-specific health issues etc)
- environments (apartment living etc)
- training (punishment and associated trauma) and life experiences (mental & physical stimulation and enrichment)
- puppy-raising practices (puppy farms, backyard breeders etc).
Just as we’ve influenced dog behaviour over the centuries, armed with this knowledge, we can optimise our dog training solutions in order to get the most out of the dog in front of us. Understanding the 6 things that influence a dog’s behaviour is invaluable in setting a dog up for success.