Nature versus nurture in animal behavior

“Why does Samson hide when guests come over?” “Why does Rita get so agitated when she meets another dog?”

While we accept that physical traits are hereditary, the debate over behavior — nature vs. nurture — rages on. Does Lola lower her head when someone tries to pat her because she was abused, or because she is genetically predisposed to shy away when something, even a loving hand, is coming at her?

Many of us meet our pets for the first time when they are adults, so often we cannot know their experiences or their genetic makeup with any certainty. In our efforts to understand their behavior, it’s tempting to make assumptions and most often we tend to focus on environmental factors. One thing we do know; a kitten or puppy born of shy, aloof, playful or vocal parents is likely to exhibit these same characteristics.

Young animals undergo the most intensive learning period of their life in their first weeks. Both mom and siblings respond to rough play with a growl, a swat, or in some cases, simply by leaving. These earliest lessons teach young cats and dogs to behave in socially acceptable ways. If they are removed from their litter before eight weeks of age, they miss out on this critical training and are more likely to exhibit inappropriately rough behaviors with other animals and sometimes with people.

Socialization with humans also has a short window so it’s important to handle, caress and play with puppies and kittens from a very early age, as it will define their relationship with humans for the rest of their life.

Some behaviors are so innate that we should not attempt to stop them completely. Dogs bark and they crave the security of a pack; cats scratch and are driven to stalk small prey. We can redirect them into acceptable channels. Training, exercise and social activities work wonders for dogs. Providing a scratching post and interactive toys often meets the needs of cats. Exposure to a variety of people, places, and things helps dogs succeed in our human world.

While it is certainly possible to overcome genetic predispositions and early experiences, it is a bit like swimming upstream — it takes more work. For some people, winning the trust of a shy animal or transforming a challenging pet into a model companion, can be a very rewarding experience. But for others, finding a pet that already is a natural fit for their personality and lifestyle is more appealing.

Whether the cause is nature or nurture, animals come with such varied personalities that it’s easy to find a furry companion at your local animal shelter that will be a great fit for you.

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