Dog Behaviour – Nature Or Nurture

This question is asked of me many times by both clients and friends, they all want to know why their dogs do the things they do. My answer is always “could be either” which is the right answer, but not necessarily the desired one. I’m a Behaviourist, the perceived expert, I’m supposed to have all the answers. But sometimes there is more than one answer and sometimes there is no answer at all, they are just being dogs.

Many behaviours we perceive as socially unacceptable, problem or just downright annoying are actually just normal dog behaviours, the fact we don’t like them is totally irrelevant to our dogs. They love to bark, dig holes in your lawn, hump each other/you/the mother-in-law, eat poo of many and any variety. This is Nature and there is little we can about it other than redirect the behaviour to something more acceptable.

There are times though when our dog’s exhibit unwanted behaviours that are clearly the result of Nurture. Many external factors have an effect on a puppy/dogs personality, some human, some canine and some environmental.


Prenatal – the general health and wellbeing of a puppy’s mother during pregnancy has a massive effect not only on the physical health of a puppy but also on their mental state. A pregnant bitch subjected to stress will produce large amounts of adrenalin, this is passed through the placenta to the unborn puppies, subjecting them also to high levels of stress. This can result in a puppy born with a predisposition to anxiety and nervousness. This is an example of Nature and is often seen in dogs bred in puppy farm environments.

Post Natal

Post Natal – puppies that are poorly socialised or are born to unstable mothers lack discipline and order their most formative weeks. The importance of a mother’s guidance or sibling interaction should never be underestimated. It is particularly common to see behavioural problems in adult dogs like phobias, dog on dog aggression and separation anxiety in dogs that were poorly socialised as puppies or were taken away from their mother and siblings at too early an age. This is an example of Nurture and is most often seen in dogs bred by unsavoury breeders and dogs that were prevented from socialising in their owner home because of vaccination requirements. Please bear this in mind if you take on a young puppy, if they have had their first vaccinations it is vital you let them socialise with other dogs and not wait till they are 16 weeks of age, it’s too late! Of course be sensible, avoid parks and only with other vaccinated dogs you know, but get out there and mingle.


Environmental –this refers to external factors we impose and subject dogs to. It can be through ignorance or sadly through cruelty. Any dog that is exposed to abuse of any kind, be it intentional or not, will develop behavioural coping mechanisms. Sadly working with rescue dogs I have been unfortunate to see some terrible sights and hear awful stories of what humans can and have done to dogs in their care. I would classify these behaviours as Nurture but clearly there is no place for the word Nurture in the context of dog abuse. We choose to buy/adopt a dog or puppy, and that should be with the intention and knowledge we are financially, intellectually and physically able to meet the dog’s/puppy’s needs.

Finally, dogs have personalities just like us, they have inherited traits from both their parents, hence the advice, always meet the parents if you plan on buying a puppy. They are what they are and this is clearly Nature we are a product of our parents and so are our dogs!