What can affect behaviour?
There are many things that can affect behaviour in dogs. And as a holistic trainer they all must be looked at. It’s important to keep in mind however that behaviour is affected by both nature and nurture.
Adrienne Janet Farricelli lists a number of these including genes, breed, experiences in the litter, the puppy critical period, effects of the environment and health. [i]
Not only can genes affect the health of a dog (a clear example of this is hip dysplasia passed on down through the lines) but also behaviour. For example, a fearful dog can pass on its fear to its puppies. And yes, some breeds are more susceptible to separation anxiety than others.
There is little one can do to affect genes for the individual dog (once it is born). However, genes can be affected over time throughout a breeding program by choosing dogs which carry the desired traits and ensuring those with undesirable traits are not used. In the same way wolves evolved into dogs (through a gradual choosing of puppies with likely a more affectionate nature and willingness to have human contact) to the way dogs have been bred to display certain traits such as guarding or herding, so too can we affect change in the traits we want in our dogs.
When it comes to dogs which already carry an existing gene, eg fear, then we must take a holistic approach to support that dog through appropriate training and enrichment, environment and health/diet.
This is rather evident in the classification of dogs into eg working, sport, guarding etc. Each has its own traits which affect how it interacts with its environment.
Dogs with jobs are fulfilling their natural purpose. A border collie which herds cattle or sheep all day is obeying its very nature. A border collie left alone in the backyard with no enrichment/exercise is likely to behave in an undesirable manner. However, a border collie without access to herding can still have its needs met in a city environment thanks to activities such as agility, or enrichment protocols that tap into its drives. Hence, it is helpful to know, even with mixed breeds, which traits might be foremost in its genetic make-up and activities and enrichment put in place to fulfill its needs.
IN THE LITTER:
Puppies start to experience life in the litter and how to react towards the world. It can be influenced by the size of the litter, how the mother looks after the puppies, interaction with its litter mates and, of course, if it is separated from its litter at too young an age the emotional and behavioural repercussions.
It is incumbent on the breeder to give the puppies the best start in life. If the mother is not coping, then the breeder must provide her with all the support she needs. Providing the puppies with enrichment as they slowly grow can include exposure to experiences including a variety of noises, being touched all over their bodies, toe nail cutting, different obstacles, smells and textures, etc. The goal is to create a confident, balanced dog. Where good protocols are not put in place, this can result in a dog that is unsure, fearful or reactive to certain stimuli and environments. If this occurs, taking a holistic approach is essential to formulate a plan to build confidence. This will include training which will involve problem solving and confidence building exercises, creating an environment where the dog feels safe and is under threshold and working towards lessening that threshold on a daily basis.
CRITICAL PERIOD DEVELOPMENT:
This socialisation period from four weeks to four months is called “critical” for a reason. And it is to be hoped the breeder sets the right tone from which the owner continues.
Taking a holistic approach, while it is important that the dog is protected from the risks of diseases such as parvovirus and distemper, it is also essential the puppy is socialised. This does not mean introducing it to other unknown dogs or taking it to dog parks where disease may be rife, but it can certainly mean taking the puppy out and about in a controlled sense, under the arm, so it can still experience life and gain confidence. Take it to playgrounds, shopping centres, the vets, and other areas where it can observe children, noise, cars, water, etc in a controlled manner and feel protected and safe. Where a dog might miss this critical socialisation period, developmental behavioural issues may arise such as fear, anxiety, reactivity. Again, if this occurs training and confidence building exercises, working under threshold, must be put in place to help the dog overcome its difficulties. A dog with no exposure to life knows little about it and has no idea how to cope or deal with it. BUT, it must be said it is also essential to start teaching the puppy to be home alone, gradually, over time, so it learns to be independent and confident when you walk out the door.
It should be obvious that environment will play a factor in dog behaviour, just as it does with a child growing up in a home devoid of love and enrichment. According to Farricelli: “Here the owner may come into play. Litters of puppies raised in dark garages with no sensorial stimulation may be affected for life. Dogs abused, or on the contrary, spoiled may also undergo behavioral changes. If a dog has bad experiences it may become fearful and defensive, whereas if it has many good experiences his confidence will grow. The environment may play a big role in a dog's behavior and it may help dogs born with bad genes or it may turn bad good dogs blessed with good genes.”
Evidently, a dog with no enrichment, no exercise, no mental stimulation will suffer the consequences via behavioural issues. Studies have shown us that most dogs which are surrendered to shelters are teenagers (seven months to two years) and have behaviour issues stemming from lack of training and enrichment. These dogs need positive training and enrichment, and lots of it to help them become better canine citizens. Dogs which have been abused need help overcoming their fear of humans and on the opposite spectrum, overly spoilt dogs can act out in a very unattractive manner and may need help becoming more “dog” than pampered furry human.
This may be one of the most overlooked factors which contribute to behaviour.
Science is always evolving and more recently the connection between the gut and the brain has been determined. A study by the University of California Los Angeles has found gut microbes to be linked to areas of the brain which affect mood and behaviour, including (potentially) on our response to fear. [ii]
Further research has also shown that inflammation as an immune response to obesity, high-sugar diets, high quantities of trans fats and unhealthy diets, may also be the precursor to mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. [iii] This is one reason I advocate all my clients put their dogs on a raw food diet rather than highly processed pre-packaged dog foods.
There are a number of protocols we can put in place to help, for example, the gut (and therefore minimise any negative impact it might have on behaviour). These include titer testing instead of over-vaccinating, using a holistic vet instead of pumping the dog full of steroids, providing fresh rain water instead of chlorinated, using natural remedies for worming, fleas and ticks. Provide probiotics and prebiotics, provide a balanced raw food diet and remove grains, preservatives, sugars and processed foods. Supplement with bone broth, fermented foods and digestive enzymes, along with turmeric (anti-inflammatory) and slippery elm or marshmallow root (to line the gut). Alleviate stress where possible. It should also be noted that exercise can also help alleviate a leaky gut – about 30 minutes a day.
[i] Farricelli, Adrienne Janet, 2016, Factors Known to Influence a Dog's Behavior
[ii] IFLScience, 2017, Our Gut Microbes Strongly Influence Our Emotional Behaviors
[iii] Silcox, Katie, 2017, The Link Between Your Emotions and Your Digestion
[iv] McConnell, Patricia, PhD, CAAB, 2011, Your Dog Has a Brain in His Gut
[v] Dogs Naturally, 2017, Leaky Gut Workbook
[vi] Lomonaco, Casey, 2010, Nine Calming Aids for Fearful, Anxious, or Nervous Dogs, dogster.com
[vii] Miho Nagasawa,Shouhei Mitsui, Shiori En, Nobuyo Ohtani, Mitsuaki Ohta, Yasuo Sakuma, Tatsushi Onaka, Kazutaka Mogi, Takefumi Kikusui, 2015, Oxytocin-gaze positive loop and the coevolution of human-dog bonds