Australian Shepherd Health & Genetics Institute

Australian Shepherd Health & Genetics Institute

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Behavior FAQs


Is Behavior Inherited?

Behavior is inherited but heavily influenced by environmental factors.  How much is “nature” and how much “nurture” is a debate that is still raging in scientific circles, not to mention among dog trainers.  Certainly, aspects of behavior are inherited:  Pointers point, sled dogs pull, and stockdogs herd.  Disposition is also to

 some degree inherited – hounds are laid back and Border Collies intense.  Other types of behavior may also be influenced by genetics; there is evidence that very small size and a tendency to bark a lot are connected.

What percent of temperament is inherited?

At present there is no way to put hard numbers to it.  People tend to think it must be caused by environment or by genes.  The fact is a dog’s genes and its environment intertwine from the moment of conception.  Together they produce what we observe in the dog.  A dog could have all the best genes for temperament and be ruined by a terrible environment.  Likewise, a genetically marginal dog might prove quite acceptable in an ideal environment.  What is “terrible” and “ideal” will vary from one person to another depending on their needs and expectations.  The perfect dog for an elderly lady who likes her home to be calm and quiet won’t be a good prospect as a guard dog for commercial property, or vice versa.

That said there are certain temperament traits that clearly run in families and therefore are of high heritability, meaning it requires more genetic input than environment to reach the final result.   Noise phobia, sometimes called sound shyness, is an excellent example of a highly heritable defect of temperament. Noise phobia is an exaggerated fear of thunder, fireworks, gunshots, etc.  The 2009-10 ASHGI health survey indicated that a third of Aussies have some degree of noise phobia.

If you observe any behavioral trait in a group of closely related dogs and those dogs live in different homes and come from different litters, odds are there is a strong genetic component to that behavior.

How do we breed for good temperament?

Temperament (or disposition, as some would prefer) develops from both genetics and environment.  Certainly, traits like sound sensitivity and aggressive behavior toward dogs or humans runs in lines and in some breeds.  Temperament is to some extent genetically controlled, but it can also be “created” by environment.  That said if a dog has significant temperament faults or its disposition is atypical for the breed, it should not be used for breeding.

Is barking and whining inherited?

Barking and whining are typical dog vocalizations.  Yes, they are genetic because they are integral canine behaviors. (You won’t catch a cat barking or whining!) Habitual or problem vocalizations can be learned or an indication of frustration or boredom on the dog’s part.  Behavior modification techniques (possibly for owners as well as the dog) should help.  That said, some breeds are more prone to certain types of vocalizations or vocalizing in certain contexts, indicating genetics also plays some role.  Small size is associated with yappy behavior so the two are connected genetically.  However, science has yet to identify any “barking genes.”

Can extreme noise sensitivity shorten a dog’s lifespan?

Not directly, but in some cases it might contribute.  Longevity for a given dog would probably depend on how much chronic stress the dog’s phobia caused it and what other health conditions it might have.  A dog with severe anxiety issues will be under a lot of stress; chronic stress impacts immune system function and exacerbates some diseases.

Sometimes a dog that is sound sensitive will panic so badly it breaks out of its home or enclosure.  A loose panicked dog could get killed by blindly running into a road or other dangerous situation.   The cause of death, strictly speaking, would be an accident, but the panic would be a major contributing cause.  To the extent that this happens, sound sensitivity can affect longevity.

What is rage syndrome?

Rage Syndrome is a neurological disorder, not a temperament defect or training/socialization problem.  Rage dogs go into a kind of seizure that makes them attack anyone or anything that happens to be in the vicinity.  Rage dogs go off with no warning.  They are fine one moment, violently insane the next.  Afterwards, the dog may be briefly disoriented but it is soon perfectly normal and unaware of what it has done.  You cannot predict rage attacks.  Medication may help but requires a veterinarian who specializes in behavioral abnormalities.

Rage can be to some extent hereditary.  It was first identified in Springer Spaniels and was originally called “Springer Rage” until it became apparent that it occurred in other breeds as well.  It sometimes occurs in Aussies but is rare.  Dogs with rage syndrome should not be bred.

If a young dog is spooky, will it grow out of it? 

Maybe, maybe not.  If a pup is spooky, do the best you can with positive socialization, for her sake as well as your own.  However, if the behavior does not improve markedly as the pup matures it would be better not to breed it. 

Is fighting inherited?

Behavior can be learned or inherited and may be a combination of the two.   Early in the breed’s history some lines were more prone to fighting than others and this is probably true today, though to a lesser degree.  When dogs live in remote rural areas where guarding property from predators is an issue, a scrappy disposition can be an asset.  In the suburbs and cities it can be an invitation to a lawsuit.  Over the past few decades breeders have been selecting for the less pugilistic dispositions, so the dogs with an inherent urge to fight are uncommon.   You should not assume that fighting is in your dog’s genes.  Consult a qualified trainer or behaviorist and follow up on that expert’s advice.  However, if the behavior cannot be modified significantly, inheritance is a possible factor.  An incorrigible fighter should not be used for breeding.

Is fighting with other dogs caused by autoimmune problems?

With most autoimmune diseases, no.  However, thyroiditis seems to be an exception.  Many dogs become lethargic if not treated.  A few exhibit aggressive behavior.    But with thyroiditis or any other autoimmune disease, you should be seeing other signs that something is wrong with the dog’s health.

Does coat color influence temperament?

 recent discovery found that a mouse gene equivalent to one that causes red hair in humans is associated with a scrappy temper.  Human redheads (the same gene) are stereotyped as hotheads, but not every redhead is hot tempered.  In dogs the gene is the one that makes Irish Setters red, Labradors yellow, and Golden Retrievers golden.  None of these breeds is what you’d call “scrappy.”  “Red” in Aussies, caused by a different gene and there is no evidence that any Aussie coat color is strongly associated with undesirable temperament.

Are red dogs better stockdogs?

Unlikely.  Observations about red and stock work had more to do with what dogs were used early on than the color itself.  And not all reds, even in the early days, were or are the best stockdogs.  Since the color is recessive and people liked it, they tended to breed red to red to keep the color, increasing the frequency of red in some working lines compared to the breed as a whole.   Another possible reason people might think red equals better working dogs is that red did not exist in the Flintridge line from which the modern show lines arose.  There are plenty of red show dogs today because the color was brought in from several other lines.  If genes for stock work were linked to the gene for red, then the red show dogs would be much more likely to exhibit working ability than their blue merle and black kin which is not the case.

What is the inheritance of herding/stockwork behavior?

The herding traits necessary to the breeder of working stockdogs are highly complex.  The dog must not only be interested in stock as something other than a potential meal, but have an innate sense of how to approach, gather and maneuver various species of livestock in a variety of conditions.  Some dogs will be better on one species of stock than another, some work better in close proximity to the handler, while others work well at great distance and out of direct line of sight.  Training puts on the fine points, but if the dog doesn’t have the basics “built-in” its use will be very limited and it won’t know what to do in unusual circumstances.

How do we breed to maintain herding behavior?

The only way to maintain herding ability in a line is to breed dogs that exhibit the kind of working style you want and then test the progeny to make sure that they also exhibit those wanted behaviors.  To maintain those traits this must be done consistently, generation after generation.  The genetics that create it are so complex that some of the genes will inevitably be lost to genetic drift if they are not specifically and continuously selected for.

Can we preserve working qualities by breeding to the standard?

Proper conformation is necessary to a breed’s function.  The reason we have so many different breeds of dog is because people needed them to do different things, depending on where they lived and what supported the local economy.  Over time, the dogs got better those functions, partly because their physical traits, along with the mental ones, became more specialized to their purpose.  But without the function the form wouldn’t have developed.

A problem with written standards is that they are open to interpretation:  When does something cease to be moderate?  How long is long?  When does bone become heavy or light?  Standards can be ignored in favor of current show ring fashion.  But even if the dogs have the proper structure and coat for work, that isn’t enough.  Breed standards can’t adequately address things other than appearance.

Breeders must actively select for behavioral traits or they will be lost, especially a complex one like proper herding behavior.  When enough generations have passed without selection, the behaviors will be diminished in many dogs and the complete package will not be produced consistently.