Animal Behavior Differences in Nature and Nurture

The eminent behaviorist Dr. Ian Dunbar said, “Once genetics has done its thing, all you have left is training.” This simple statement neatly expresses the difference between nature and nurture. Genetic predispositions certainly exist but, factors and experiences in an animal’s life can drastically alter the tendency to exhibit them.

Since Mendel first began experimenting with peas, nature vs. nurture has been debated on a black and white extreme. One side poses that genetics answers everything; animals are no more than what DNA has designated. The other side argues that no one’s destiny is dictated at the molecular level. In reality, the obvious answer is both nature and nurture are factors in how animals respond to their environments.

Separating the complex interconnections between nature and nurture is difficult. While some dogs may be more likely to fight than flee, the factors that decide one reaction or the other are highly situational. There are temperament differences between genders, within breeds, lines and even litters. Owners further shape differences in individuals with socialization, training methods, even nutrition and medical care. These life experiences pile onto one another over a lifetime creating learned responses to similar events.

When a pet has a disagreeable behavior, such as inappropriate barking or digging, blaming nature does not change the situation at hand. Nurture may have had a part in the current issue, but still isn’t a remedy. Dog trainers have a saying that holds so true; Train, Don’t Complain. To change the way our animals react to their environment, we have four very effective behavior modification techniques:

1. Classical conditioning: much like Pavlov’s dog, the animal is rewarded in the presence of a stimulus regardless of the response. This method can be used in a wide variety of situations and is most useful when the stimulus cannot be controlled.

2. Operant conditioning: a step past classical conditioning, the animal must perform a certain behavior for a reward. Clicker training is an excellent example of this versatile technique. It is an excellent method for acquiring and defining behaviors.

3. Desensitization: the animal gradually becomes used to a previously frightening scenario. A good program starts at a comfortable level of exposure to the stimulus and slowly increases until completed. This method is a key part in relieving all levels of anxiety.

4. Response substitution: often used to instill a new incompatible behavior over an inappropriate response to a stimulus. This is often used to counteract a learned behavior, such as barking at the mailman.

A good trainer or behaviorist will know when, where and how to apply the above techniques. For a real world example consider the following:

Barking can be a self-rewarding behavior for some dogs. It’s fun for them. Dogs in humane service facilities often become cage aggressive. Each time a worker walks past the cage, they go berserk, barking wildly. For the dog it’s perhaps the most exciting thing in an otherwise boring life. Kennel workers walk may past him 50 or more times per day. So, they stuff their pockets with small treats and each time they pass the crate, they toss in a treat. Soon, he is relaxed and wagging his tail when people approach. This is a highly effective use of classical conditioning.

At its most basic level, DNA provides the proteins which affect the morphology (body structures) and biological processes. It determines within a narrow variance, color of hair or fur, size, intelligence, basic personality tendencies and far more. Alleles come from both parents, but environmental factors, such as age and health of parents, fetal nutrition and more can affect genetic makeup.

Here is where the complex causality gets “sticky.” Do animals and people seek out experiences and social relations that feel comfortable with their nature thereby nurturing their tendencies? Can a new behavior actually act as a feedback loop and affect the animal biologically? Answers are being sought to these questions and they may prove nature and nurture continues to be a two way street throughout an animal’s life.

The study of behavioral genetics is a fascinating field that includes ethology, neuro-physiology and psychology. Behavior traits such as shyness, aggression, and dominance are currently the focus of many studies. Researchers assess large family populations and identify those that lack the trait to determine if genes play a part in the quality being studied. They seek to understand how nature and nurture combines to create each unique individual. These studies have already added greatly to our understanding of behavior and may be the final answer to the great debate of nature vs. nurture.