Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Nature vs Nurture

After Louise displayed her fierce athletic prowess, I discussed options for fixing the fence with Ernesto, my gardener-cum-handyman.

No option would be cheap, so I decided to wait, as I hoped to train Louise not to aggressively react to Italia.

"It doesn’t matter what you do. Nothing will keep your dog from getting through that fence."

Hmmm… what does that mean?

"You can’t change her nature. It’s in her blood."

I disagreed but Ernesto raised an interesting point: certain behaviors are driven by nature. Though I might be able to manage Tommy’s powerful prey drive, I don’t think I could ever stamp it out so that he doesn’t want to chase and pounce on a squirrel. But are Louise's issues in her nature?

Before Ernesto left, I reminded him to check in with me before going into the backyard on his next visit.

"Of course. Your other dog, he’s okay. But the new one, I have to be careful of her." (He hadn’t yet seen Louise, but formed his opinion based on the Tasmanian devil story.)

He parted with these words, "That dog is like me: dangerous."

A few days later, Ernesto looked surprised when I came into the yard with Louise.

"My neighbor has dogs just like her."

I learned his neighbor lived on El Sereno and Woodbury, which sounded familiar. Hadn’t I just read of a drug bust there?

“An FBI SWAT team detonated flash-bang grenades about 5:30 p.m. Thursday as they forced their way into a home at El Sereno Avenue and Woodbury Road, officials said.” (You can read more here.)

Yep, that was the house with the dogs that looked like Louise. Ernesto and his teenaged son had watched the drama unfold from their front lawn.

I’ve driven by many times, but I haven't seen the dogs. And I haven't detected a hint of recognition from Louise, no whining or cowering in fear, no heightened sense of arousal.

Whatever Louise’s past, she clearly has a defensive posture around any threat, perceived or real, from another dog. Can I train that response out of her?

Jenina came by on Saturday and gave me some tools for counter conditioning. I’ll write more in an upcoming post, but here’s a hint: our session was all about Tommy (well, almost - chewed post compliments of Louise).


  1. Hmmm, it's an interesting question, nature vs. nurture. Nature seems to mean two things here--animal instinct and in-born propensity to act a certain way. It seems like most, if not all, of the things we try to teach our dogs go against both definitions--living in a house and all its trappings, eating kibble from a bowl, holding their bowels and bladders for the appropriate opportunity.

    Maybe it really comes down to whether Louise has the propensity to trust humans to the extent that she can let go of her defensiveness. If she can trust you and wants to please you, then I think she can be taught just about anything.

    I'm really interested to hear what Jenina said regarding Tommy!

  2. It just occurred to me that if we could all get on a conference call one day and share our stories, we'd get a lot of this figured out so quickly! There's a little nature and a little nurture involved in all of us, right? It's up to us to give our dogs the tools they need to be their best selves. Sometimes it's just hard to know what those tools are. How do I help Toni become confident? How do I teach Téa that she doesn't have to go after every dog because she is safe with us? How do I teach Strut that his idea of affectionately gnawing on my arm to express his love will scare the bejeezuz out of a kid or a mom? You have great resources - you'll get this sorted out. Promise.

  3. Good luck with the raining - but just in case it's nature, do you have insurance?

  4. When I first got Phoebe, she was ready for fights. Must have been her background. But eventually I learned she loved any creature that was weak and small. Babies, little dogs, kittens. So I let her indulge in this softer side. Parents were brave enough to let Phoebe kiss their little kid's face.

    And then came the time when she had no interest in fighting. She was just looking for nice, gentle creatures.

    Phoebe would (will) stand up for herself if challenged, but she has preferred not to be challenged for years now.

    So when it comes to nature vs nurture, I believe most strongly in the latter.

  5. I like to hope nurturing wins out, given enough time. {Err, I hope your shoes don't resemble that fence post, Susan.}

  6. There's a dog on Facebook, Breyden The Brave, that was used for a bait dog. His new hoomins are surrounding him with older, even tempered dogs that don't react to his defensive behavior and posturing. I think this is in keeping with KB's ideas about gentility. Personally, I think we can all use a bit of that from time to time.

  7. I figure the whole idea behind "domestication" is to nurture the parts of nature you prefer. With that said, I know of the best lumber yard to pick up cedar plank. Straighter and cheaper then Home Despot.

  8. interesting dog story out of the LA Times from 2008. Enjoy dog lovers!

  9. Do you think Louise was living in the bust house? Interesting. I am rooting for you and the dogs. I think that Pitties are people loving dogs, and many are selective about their doggie friends, but even those can be trained to be tolerant. Check out the BadRap website, they have lots of stuff about multi dog households, and I am sure Jeanina will continue to help all of you.

  10. I think dogs are smart and they can learn anything. We have to be sensitive to how they learn from us and what we're reinforcing. When we reinforce their good behavior they tend to crave that, and will do it more and more until it crowds out the bad behavior.

    Of course, some take more work than others.

  11. You might have a memoir here, Susan. You are able to spins these adventures into real stories, and it helps that you engage and talk to all kinds of people. Bravo.

  12. This issue Nature versus Nurture is very interesting. I agree with Petrea, "when we reinforce their good behavior they tend to crave that". I really would like to know more about this theme Nature vs Nurture, because I confess that I don't have a shaped opinion about that yet...

    I read a book very interesting wrote by the
    psychoanalyst and writer Jeffrey Moussaieff
    Masson named "When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals" and I would like to read his other book "Dogs never lie about love". I think the issue is amazing.
    I am so deeply motivate to know more about dogs...

    Have a pleasant weekend.

  13. Thanks Pasadena Adjacent for the link to Sasha the Siberian Husky. Souds a very amazing story and I think I will learn more about dogs reading the chronicle of Sasha.

  14. Mimi, that’s so true: we do train our dogs to go against their nature all the time. I hadn’t thought of that. I think you’re right that trust will form the foundation for Louise’s progress.

    Pit Bull Addict, with 3 pitties, you’ve got the pit bull pulpit. It’s wonderful to get your experienced perspective.

    Bellis, excellent point. I have insurance for Tommy but I should add Louise. Best to be prepared.

    Hiker, what a sweet Phoebe tale. I love how your kindness brought out her softer side.

    Shell, I’ve been keeping a closer eye on my shoes since you mentioned them. So far they are all intact - thankfully!

    Paula, a bait dog… sheesh. What a world. I’m glad Breyden is now in good hands.

    PA, fascinating LA Times article. Thanks. I never knew that about Huskies. Ah, a cedar plank. I’ll email you.

    Daisy Dog, you’ve summed up the pit bull in one brilliant sentence: “I think that Pitties are people loving dogs, and many are selective about their doggie friends, but even those can be trained to be tolerant.” Yes, BadRap is a great resource.

    Petrea, wise words from an avowed lover of the Noble Beast.

    Margaret, wow, you made my day. Thank you.

    sonia, the Elephant book sounds amazing but is it heartbreaking? I feel so bad for those magnificent creatures and what they have to endure. They’re such sensitive creatures. But we have so much to learn from stories about animals so I’ll take a look.

    Thank you all for the comments. I’m so grateful for your support. And I’m glad the scale is weighed toward nurture.

  15. Hi Susan,
    The book is not much heartbreaking... it's very informative about the emotional lives of animals, like chimps, dogs, lions... I bet you will like it.
    Have a pleasant Sunday.
    Big hugs.

  16. Good to know, Sonia. It does sound like a book I would enjoy. Thanks again for telling me about it.

  17. There is truth to both nature and nurture but not sure one can outdo the other in some cases...I have friends with hunting dogs and those dogs are the sweetest. most loving pets but when they are in hunting mode, all of that goes out the window and one just has to know to back off and stay away from them at that time. I do hope Nurture prevails in your case! You have your hands full. I must admit I do not envy you but certainly admire your perseverance and dedication......and you have a lot of people rooting for you! May I recommend you contact my Animal Communicator? She may give you some insight.

  18. Here's a saying I don't recall hearing before, SC. So I guess I'll take credit for it: you can't teach an old Dog new tricks. (imho)

    I say this cuz, I think humans are smart & it's possible they can learn anything. (imho)

  19. I think you CAN teach an old dog new tricks or maybe even some old ones! :) Hang in there, Sue!

  20. I think it's all a bit of a crapshoot! Sometimes nature wins over nurture, probably though, nurture can have a huge impact over nature...
    Good luck Susan, and lucky Louise!!!

  21. Some long overdue replies to you all...

    Liz, can your animal communicator help me find Louise a new home?

    Cafe, the good news is Louise is still very young, so I *can* teach her new tricks. Lots of them!

    Chieftess, a crapshoot, yep. Just like life in general.

    PI, and what about those poor dogs that looked like Louise? Lawdogs musta been looking for drama.