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Behaviour in Dogs & Humans - Nature or Nurtured?

Updated on February 27, 2012

What's the difference?

Ethologists and Psychologists are trying to research how much genetic memory retention, or what could be called instinct, humans and animals are born with, in particular animals. They have instincts to perform activities that they have not yet been shown.

Is animal behaviour developed by nurturing, i.e. teaching, well the answer is yes, but the real question is, how much of the animals’ behaviour is inherent from nature and how much is developed by nurturing?

Messing with genetics

As Bruce Fogle points out in his book The Dogs Mind, humans have been interfering in dog breeding for thousands of years. By selective breeding we have changed their original natural genetics, their behaviour, their wolf-like aggressive, hunting, protective and breeding characteristics. The results of this, have produced offspring with altered genetics who will once again be altered by the upbringing of their ‘genetically altered (and human influenced) parents’ – and so this has been going on for years.

But, has the canine mind changed so much? They still have the instinct to protect what is theirs, whether it be food, toys or parents. A high percentage still have the instinct to mate whenever the opportunity arises. The canine behaviour of scavenging for food is no different to ours, they will eat what is given to them at meal times, they will also eat any food lying on the kitchen floor, they will beg for titbits, and then, if still hungry, will raid bins and food stores. A person will react in the same manner at differing stages of hunger and desperation. Some dogs will continue eating and scavenging for food even when not hungry – because it is instinctive, it is what their past generations have done, these dogs have not been taught, conditioned or influenced by humans to the degree that some domestic dogs have.

Conflicting conclusions

Having read through some of the conflicting conclusions and assumptions from Ethologists and Psychologists, past and present, there is an element within each that makes sense but at the same time conflicts with others conclusions. As the University of Plymouth, Psychology department website says:

behaviour is not simply the result of the unfolding of a genetic blueprint, nor the expression of environmental influences, instead it is a product of the interaction between these two powerful forces”.

This, to me, says it all, no one piece of experiment is conclusive, there are too many variables between species, genetically inherited traits and intelligence, practice, lifestyle and influences. In the dog world, human influence is the key, as is with our own human behaviour, but also environment is a big influence in the human world.

John Broadus Watson, American Psychologist
John Broadus Watson, American Psychologist

I agree partly with what the American Behaviourist, John B Watson believed, learning processes shape and determine our behaviour, that in the human world, the role of nurture is the key to development. He wrote:

"give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take anyone at random and train them to become any type of specialist I might select - doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief, and, yes, even beggar man and thief , regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors".

However, I do not agree wholeheartedly that anyone can be turned into an artist or a lawyer. These, and other professions expect great intellect and some natural talent – if we are not born naturally talented or with reasonable intellect and a capacity to learn, no amount of nurturing can overcome this.

However true Watsons’ belief it would be vital that the nurture is started early enough in life otherwise the environment, influences and contiguity of events will take over and start to form it’s own personality and characteristics. And, this is so true in dogs and other pets, we fear buying a rescue animal because of its past life and influences which have conditioned its behaviour, so we buy a puppy that is young enough for us to influence and bring up as we want. However, experiments later in this paper will show evidence of existing memory or instincts that appear to be genetic.

The American Behaviourist B. H. Skinner believed that behaviour was shaped by reward. Essentially reward leads to the repetition of a behaviour which I agree, this is a big part of animal training (and child development) and strengthens the view of developing behaviour – positive conditioning.

However, according to Austrian Konrad Lorenz, species-specific behaviour develops without the animal experiencing the stimuli to which it responds, or without practice or repetitive patterns. This reflects the view that behaviour may be the result of nature: - inherited, instinctive, innate and genetic behaviour.

This study shows that the tendency to peck is probably innate (nature), but the object that is pecked is modified as a result of experience (nurtured)
This study shows that the tendency to peck is probably innate (nature), but the object that is pecked is modified as a result of experience (nurtured)

Jack P. Hailman's experiment showing the development of pecking preference in young herring gulls also shows results that conflict with developing behaviour. This study shows that the tendency to peck is probably innate i.e. inborn, a result of nature, but the object that the herring gulls pecked at is modified as a result of their experience and practice, which is developed by nurture.

Similar conflicting results were highlighted from Professor Peter Marlers’ research into regional bird song. Same-species birds from different regions have different dialects. Marlers’ experiment concluded that birds are born with a crude template of a bird song and then this is adapted to copy the sound of adult birds within the area, i.e. behaviour from nurturing and development.


Genes are inherited, but behavioural patterns are apparently not inherited, however, looking at the varying results above, it appears that genes do affect behaviour. Learning is a process that changes pre-existing behaviour, therefore we get into a 'chicken and egg' situation. Where does this pre-existing behaviour come from - it cannot be learned!

So, it appears that animals are born with more instincts than humans. Are these instincts gained from genetic memories? Dogs, in particular, have enough instincts to carry them through life with very little nurturing – or did have many years ago, perhaps now with human intervention they rely on us much more than they ever had to.

Humans, on the other hand, are born with very little apparent instincts or genetic memories. They need education and upbringing to develop their personalities and specialisms – and looking, on part, at what Watson implied - we can train and influence them to become any type of specialists we chose, within their capabilities. So, upon conlclusion – well, there isn’t one!

One last thing to add, In ‘The Tempest’ by William Shakespeare, Prospero refers to Caliban as :
"A devil, a born devil, on whose nature Nurture can never stick;".

I must stress that I in no way agree or support any testing on animals or animal experiments in any way. References used for this article are for quotation examples only.

Read about my personal experience of my collie's Hip Dysplasia and Osteoarthritis, and my tips on how to manage this condition.

What do you think?

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    • Purely Nature profile image

      Purely Nature 6 years ago from Lincolnshire

      Thank you both for your lovely comments - I agree Dawn, there isn't any rhyme or reason to it.

    • Nature by Dawn profile image

      Dawn Ross 6 years ago

      This is some great information! I think it is definitely a little of both. Pit bulls, sometimes bred to fight due to their inherited instincts, can be the sweetest dogs if properly nurtured. At the same time, you would probably be hard pressed to nurture him into being a sheep herder.

    • BusinessTime profile image

      Sarah Kolb-Williams 6 years ago from Twin Cities

      Interesting points on both sides of the issue -- good hub!