Friday, February 3, 2012

Nerdy Fearful Dog Post


Something I've thought a lot about is the root of Marge's fears: whether they can be accounted for mainly by nature (biochemical imbalances, genetics) or nuture (bad early-life experiences or simply a lack of good ones).

Now, I know that neither of these are mutually exclusive, and that there is an awful lot of overlap.  But, it is well-known that there are dogs who aren't "wired right," no matter how uncommon extreme circumstances of this mis-wiring may be, and that there are dogs whose outward temperament is a product of their very bad life experiences and, should they have been raised correctly, they would not be fearful.

We can also throw a curveball in to this by saying that the reaction each dog has to its "nuture" is, in part, dictated by "nature:" that two dogs, of different genetic background, reared in the same negative environment, wouldn't necessarily both turn out to be fearful. Similarly, dogs of the same genetic background, reared in different environments, both won't necessarily turn out to be fearful.

In fact, that's where I really think the answer lies.

Have you ever heard of the diathesis-stress model?  No?

Okay.  Imagine a cup.. an ordinary plastic cup.  The cup is labeled "FEAR."  (Don't mind my crappy drawings.)


The cup is filled part of the way with the dog's genetic endowment.  In the case of fearfulness, a dog with a low genetic predisposition for being fearful would have only a tiny bit of their cup filled.  A dog with a high genetic predisposition for being fearful would have a LOT of their cup filled.

Now, for each environmental scenario that might push the dog more towards an over all fearful disposition, the cup gets more full.  Each "stress" added pushes the dog towards the top of the cup, towards the threshold (spilling over the cup = threshold = fearful dog).

Obviously, in a dog with a lot of genetic predisposition towards a fearful personality, it would not take a lot of different stressors to reach that point.  In a dog with a very small genetic predisposition towards fear, it would take an awful lot of those stressors - but, it is still possible, if the dog encounters very bad life experiences.

 The combinations are endless - for example, there will be dogs who, despite a large genetic predisposition towards fear,  never wind up with the fearful phenotype because they are raised in a relatively good environment.
I don't know how much of the theoretical "cup" is filled with each component - genetics and environment - in Marge's case.  Since I only know bits and pieces about her puppyhood and know zilch about her genetic background, aside from what her mom and siblings looked like, I don't know if her fears came more from a genetic predisposition or a shoddy upbringing.

Whatever the cause, there is something about Marge that has lead to a lot of her fears being reversible or at least partially reversible.  She is extremely responsive to classical conditioning, whereas a lot of other fearful dogs aren't.  That leads me to believe that it was her upbringing that caused her to be fearful, rather than a biological reason (which may have required medication to reverse).  But I might just be pulling that out of thin air.

What do you think?  How do you think a dog's outward behavior comes to be - from genetic endowment or environmental stimulation?

9 comments:

Sugar the Golden Retriever February 3, 2012 at 8:19 AM  

Woof! Woof! I have fears too ... as I get older my fear reaction depends on WHO I m with. Lots of Golden Woofs, Sugar

Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart February 3, 2012 at 10:20 AM  

Thanks for the well wishes. We don't have any news from the hospital yet today.

KB February 3, 2012 at 8:04 PM  

I think that your analysis is right on. I think that I've read a similar analysis but they called it "threshold", and the level of the threshold bar for fear depends on genetics.

In K's case, I have no doubt that her fears are mostly genetically based. Her cup is fairly full due to her genes (or possibly due to lack of socialization in the first 8 wks before we met her)... but we managed to offset that to a large extent by flooding her with good experiences when she was young. Classical conditioning worked for some of her fears (e.g., people) but not others (e.g., tight spaces).

Now, as she's sick, we're finding that she's closer to her fear threshold when she doesn't feel good than normally. It doesn't take much to make her afraid when she's feeling bad physically.

In any case, I really like your analysis, and I am so glad that many of Marge's fears were reversible!

Amy / Layla the Malamute February 3, 2012 at 10:48 PM  

I love your drawings!! Haha. I really liked your explanation, too.

Anyway, in Marge's case, I think it was more life experiences than genetics. I think if it was a genetic predisposition, she not only wouldn't have progressed as far as she has toward being her current Marge, but she'd also be developing new fears/reactions.

Shai February 3, 2012 at 11:18 PM  

Yeah I've always assumed K must have pretty solid genetics. She, what, spent several weeks of her early socialization period isolated in a ditch watching her littermates get picked off one by one, then was scooped into a foster home then quickly on to a home with a rookie owner. She was jumpy, movement-sensitive, sound-sensitive, mistrustful of humans. And a few years later she's comfortably snoozing in busy trial environments, winning big agility classes in crowded chaotic environments, sauntering through packed city streets, playing enthusiastically on large plastic dropclothes in yet another new house...

Yeah. Had to be good underlying genetics.

True Dog February 4, 2012 at 10:18 AM  

I've read many articles discussing how if a pup's mother holds the "fearful" gene it will always be passed to her pups as it is a dominant gene. Genetics and life experiences certainly play a role in our dogs fear "threshold." I know for my dog, his life experiences have lowered his tolerance to things he views as threat. I know nothing of his genetics. I always admire dogs that have suffered the same fate as mine for their resilience in life. For dogs who are genetically fearful, it seems that many owners are less tolerant of their fearfulness. Although, the dog doesn't chose this, it's no different than us picking the color of our eyes. As a owner of a fearful dog, I feel it's my job to help my dog be successful in life, no matter what role genetics or prior life experiences played in his development.

Marianne Pysh February 4, 2012 at 5:44 PM  

I absolutely love your theory, and have had many discussions about fears in dogs with other people who work with rescue dogs! I have to believe that fear or other behaviors are both environmental and genetic, although sometimes I think the genetic might be easier to overcome!

An English Shepherd February 4, 2012 at 8:32 PM  

Fear doesnt help :-(

Kathy February 6, 2012 at 2:45 PM  

I think it is all a big mix, and I have seen dogs that owners have taught to be fearful and dogs that have never had a good reason to be fearful-none of the other dogs around them are fearful but they are the scardiest dogs around you gotta figure that is wiring, and then there are those that I know have just had some bad experiences or training and you know if someone helped them out a little they would be fine.
what ever the reason Marge USED to be fearful and is doing so good now is a huge tribute to you and to her, and one of the coolest things I have been following, watching her bloom has just been such a cool thing and I am so honored you have shared the journey with us. It is a good reminder of all tht is possible,
YOU AND MARGE ROCK!!! I cant tell you that enough!!!

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