How Genetics Affect Emotional Resilience In Dogs
Our dogs are never a blank slate.
One of the hardest parts of being a canine behaviour consultant is explaining to guardians that life hasn’t given their dogs the qualities to be a Café Society Dog. Their dogs may always struggle with guests. They may always struggle with strangers trying to pet them. They may always struggle with walks in chaotic parks with hundreds of uncontrolled, poorly socialised off-lead dogs who race up to them. Those adjustments can be hard for us, even though they improve our dogs’ lives. Doing what’s right for our dog is not always easy for us.
The adjustments my clients might have to make can be simple ones or complex, life-altering ones. Sometimes, those adjustments can be as simple as moving a couch. Maybe they need to put up screens near the windows and avoid the park at peak times. Other times, my clients find themselves faced with a complete lifestyle change in terms of what they wanted to do with their dog.
It’s especially tough if we wanted a super-social dog. If people wanted the kind of dog who’d happily sit under the table at a pub, they sometimes have to come to terms with the fact that their dog is never going to be that dog. That can be a really tough mental adjustment.
I think that gets harder when puppies are sold as a ‘blank slate’. As if it’s all how you raise them. As if we can magically undo the legacy of their genes and their early development. In the last post, I looked at five reasons why this is not a helpful view.
The Genetics of Behaviour
Ever since Darwin, the race to understand how genetics impact behaviour has intensified. Sure, those who lived and worked with animals knew that their offspring often shared traits with their parents as much as they shared physical features. Science often explores things that are common knowledge. But it took a while for science to find ways to investigate this beyond lived experience.
Since the late 1920s, the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor has been one place where researchers have focused on heritable qualities of behaviour. John Paul Scott was one of those researchers, spending a twenty-year career there. One of his biggest projects for dog lovers was about the heritability of behaviours in dogs.
Scott and his colleague John Fuller focused on five breeds and their hybrid crosses. It was the kind of research that is unlikely to ever be replicated. The lives of almost 500 animals were studied. Although we may have changed our opinion on the meaning of some of the data captured, the detail of the project means that it still has enormous validity.
Many people with a specific breed of dog focus on their working role. This understanding of behaviour is encouraged by kennel clubs, who group dogs by working roles, such as gundogs or herding dogs. But as two more recent studies demonstrated, it’s more complex than that.
Of course it’s about the fact that a spaniel is going to spaniel. A labrador’s gonna labrador.
It’s about looks, too. A golden retriever is going to be golden. A spaniel looks like a spaniel, not a dachshund.
But it’s also about traits and temperaments.
Traits and temperament
It took a while for researchers to catch up on animal traits and temperament. This was complicated by the fact that some of these go towards what we consider personality, and that was a huge scientific no-no. Jane Goodall’s work with chimpanzees broke the mould in suggesting the species most close to us had traits like we do. Heaven help you if you gave them a human name, like Harold or Betty. A decade later, primates were drinking champagne cocktails and wearing dresses in ‘science’ projects as researchers tried to understand if language was something innate or something we learned. Even so, when John Paul Scott and John Fuller started, studying things like traits and temperament was not in vogue.
Gradually, researchers began to investigate whether animals have general behaviour traits. Traits are just typical ways in which we respond to situations. Sometimes, we can think of these as the longer-term, more stable versions of an emotional state. Emotional states are usually triggered by a stimulus or need and are much more transitory. For instance, you might have state anxiety which means you feel anxious in the moment. That’s not to say you have trait anxiety, which is more diffuse.
For instance, you might be fairly gregarious on the whole. You can be open to experience, a curious soul. But that doesn’t mean that you’ll always respond to every situation this way. Being starstruck and shy when you meet your favourite actor doesn’t mean you’re suddenly shy and reserved as a trait.
It probably won’t surprise you much to know that as soon as researchers started looking, they found animals had relatively stable ways of responding to situations too.
Socially anxious dogs
Oddist Murphree was a US Army psychiatrist who wanted to understand the ways in which an anxious disposition might leave an individual susceptible to traumatic events. As many psychiatrists in the 1960s, he worked in both the applied field – with army veterans – and the experimental field. In his work, he deliberately selected for heightened fearfulness towards humans in a line of pointer dogs. He bred two strains: the A dogs and the E dogs.
What he showed was a perfect example of the maxim that traits are heritable, but never perfectly.
On the whole, over successive generations, dogs bred for fearfulness towards humans were exactly that. This was especially evident in comparison to the control group.
Building on the findings of Scott and Fuller, Murphree showed that one trait had heritable qualities.
Sadly, reporting on genetics and heritability is often very limited. It fails to capture nuance, leaving many under the impression that things are ‘either/or’. Height is a good example, because it’s highly heritable. This doesn’t mean that a tall person can’t come from shorter parents. My brother is several inches taller than my dad and grandads were. I’m the same height as my mum. My sister is somewhere in between. Heritability just means it’s more likely in a wider sample group.
In other words, anxious dogs are more likely to have more anxious offspring. Some of the offspring will be more anxious, some less, and many in between.
Traits affecting anxiety
Ever since Darwin, researchers have been speculating about traits. They have been trying to devise the exact number and form of heritable traits in humans. As you can probably understand, this has led to a lot of heated debate, loose agreement and lots of disagreement. Traits are also influenced by post-natal experience and by culture, which makes it harder to know. I always say if you’ve worked with German shepherds from rural areas of Europe, you’ll know a vastly different dog than the German shepherd pet dogs in the UK. I said the other day that they’re almost dogs in a German shepherd suit. Selection in the UK is different from selection in rural France or Spain.
Even so, there are several traits hypothesised to exist in animals that have heritable factors. Emotional stability is one. In humans, this is often labelled as ‘neuroticism’ after the work of Hans Eysenck. Obviously, we don’t like to think of animals being neurotic, especially since the common use of that word is not the same as its scientific use.
Impulsivity is another, often labelled ‘conscientiousness’ in humans. Some dogs take a long time to rev up and others don’t. Scott and Fuller found this with dogs who bark: American cockers barked more quickly than Basenjis, and barked for longer. Their hybrids were somewhere in between, demonstrating heritability rather than learning.
Having spent many years disagreeing about the number of traits, we now all disagree about whether they’re some enormous blobby thing. Impulsivity is a good example. Just in terms of barking, Scott and Fuller found that onset or latency was differently heritable than duration. Dogs who barked quickly didn’t always bark the longest, and both were separately heritable.
Taking a nuanced approach
As we can see, we’ve still got so much to learn about things that can be inherited from our parents and grandparents. It’s as nuanced as the heritability of physical qualities. My brother and sister had early onset loss of hair pigment that is typical in one line of the family. I didn’t. My brother and I both have a weird hairline pattern in exactly the same place as three of our great aunts. Physical features are a collage made from the DNA of both our parents. It’s the same with behavioural features.
Then life comes in and does its bit too. We know in utero experiences change things. We know post-natal experiences, learning and life do too.
The problem is often that dogs selected for physical traits aren’t always selected for behavioural ones. As westernised societies, we’ve prioritised looks over traits or working ability in many ways. In selecting for physical traits, we may have overlooked emotional stability and resilience. In selecting for working traits, we may have caused harmful fallout. As Dr Karen Overall says perfectly, ‘It is possible that in selecting for very quickly responsive dogs we overshot and selected for a pathology in many breeds in which hyper-reactivity seems to be “common”.’
And as she adds, we have no data on this.
As I always say, responsiveness and motivation look a lot like impulsive behaviour and frustration when out of the contexts we want to see them in.
Genetics affects biology, learning and brain function too
It gets even more nuanced than that. Since the 1990s, we’ve become fascinated by the role neurotransmitters play in our emotions and behaviour. Let’s not forget their somewhat less marketable cousins, hormones. It seems like everything I read these days has reduced dopamine function to some kind of slot machine in the brain, as if we’re all chasing ‘hits’ and that we don’t need constant dopamine for a whole bunch of other complex things and as if it doesn’t interact with a bunch of other hormones and neurotransmitters in a fascinatingly complex orchestra with thousands of fascinating, complex instruments who are playing a whole range of pieces over a lifetime.
But we do know that any one of several factors for a single neurotransmitter can have heritable qualities. Sometimes that’s how it’s produced or how much. Sometimes that’s about how it’s processed and recycled in the brain. And we know that these fine-tune bits of our behaviour. Parkinson’s is a very good example of a dopamine irregularity that is not just about having a susceptibility or vulnerability, but also exposure to environmental factors too.
Far from the grand theories of yesteryear, it’s not uncommon for a team of researchers to spend entire careers on one tiny facet of learning. For instance, one thing we now know is that anxious individuals are more likely to struggle as the brain appraises safety. They struggle to learn new safety patterns that compete with fear learning. They’re not just vulnerable because anxiety is a heritable trait, but because new learning that competes with fear learning is ALSO heritable.
Why it’s hard for humans to appreciate complexity
Appreciating complexity is hard, despite our amazing brains. It’s really only in the last 500 years or so that our lives have become more complex. For those born two centuries ago, despite all the changes, they didn’t see change at the same pace we have.
Twenty years ago, I scoffed that the new digital cameras would ever do what we could do with film, lenses, filters and darkroom processing. I remember the first iterations of Photoshop and how amazed I was by how easy it was to complete complex darkroom processes. The art, science and complexity of 1600 black and white film, lighting, push processing, dodging and burning, the paper you used for the print – processes that took hours – reduced to a simple click. Now, I can simply select a filter on Instagram. Despite how complex the world is, we make it so simple that we can barely comprehend that complexity anymore.
Most of my learning has been like that. Perhaps by the end of our careers, we appreciate just how complex our specialisms are. At first we thought they were simple, and then we come to learn how cosmically complex they are.
So when we first realise our dog is struggling in our infinitely complex world, we often think the solution will be simple. Every opinionated bloke who sees us struggling seems to think it’s simple.
“Get them to an obedience class!”
As if learning to sit will help overcome the complexity of genetics.
I can’t tell you how cross and sad it makes me when I see rescue puppies advertised with comments like, “they just need time and love”, as if that can balance out the complexity of the dog’s genetic legacy. Of course, training, time and love are all essential. Neither the rescue nor the man in the park are wrong.
How can we counteract the effects of genetics?
Firstly, we need to appreciate that we can’t do this after Mummy’s genes form a unique new being with Daddy’s genes. We also can’t do it in industrialised dog breeding where profit trumps the production of robust puppies. It takes thoughtful laws, responsible kennel clubs and responsible breeders.
Secondly, we can’t do it without appreciating the complexity of genetic heredity and the fact that heredity is never perfect. We also need to understand the way genes interact with the environment.
Then we need to modify our view about how likely it is a dog will be the Café Society dog we wanted if the breeder, home or rescue we acquired them from didn’t consider this complexity deeply.
We also need to understand that even with the best deal, heredity is only one part of the picture. Gestational experience, post-natal care and handling, weaning and early life experience also play their role.
Finally, we need to understand our own role in supporting the dog, great genes or not. Dogs, like humans, are social animals. We weren’t born to face life alone. Our deficits are unimportant when we are supported by others.
Don’t hesitate to download my free ebook about emotional resilience in dogs if you haven’t already!