Genetic Predisposition and Temperament

I am always trying to figure out why my beautiful Welsh springer spaniel has a constant desire to follow me from room to room and not be able to be left alone.   Besides the fact that WSS are known as  “Velcro” dogs, there has to be something deeper seated than that.  One can never truely understand our canine buddies, but I strive to continue to learn and improve my understanding of dogs.  I would like to share with you, a bit about what I learnt today.

Each individual – human or animal – is born with a definite tendency toward varying degrees of emotional reactivity in the direction of behavioral inhibition or excitability. The dog’s general emotional reactivity or threshold to emotionally evocative stimulation is definitely a predisposing factor in the development of many common behavior problems. To a large extent, differences in emotional thresholds are affected by a limbic/autonomic inheritance present at birth.  Some individuals are genetically disposed to being more calm and emotionally balanced under the influence of  limbic modulation and parasympathetic tone (parasympathetic dominant), whereas others (sympathetic dominant) are much more sensitive and reactive to fright-freeze-fight stimulation, are hyperemotional, tend to perseverate in negative emotional states, are subject to neurotic elaborations and disequilibrium, and are prone to develop psychosomatic disease. e.g., avoiding something unpleasant.

Approach withdrawal dynamics are regulated according to various threshold differences – differences that are influenced by a dog’s genetic constitution and early experiences.  As development progresses, primitive approach behavior becomes transformed into “seeking” or  appetitive behavior (modified through the incentives of positive reinforcement), while withdrawal is elaborated into various learned patters of escape and avoidance behavior (modified through the incentives of negative reinforcement).  In domestic dogs, approach behavior is perpetuated so the competing withdrawal tendencies (flight, freeze or fight) are kept in check.  In some dogs, as the result of genetic disorders or adverse experiences,
withdrawal thresholds are lowered and flight-fight reactions amplified, thus making the dogs more fearful or aggressively reactive to social contact.  Test revealed that the young of stressed mothers were significantly more “emotional” than pups born to unstressed mothers.

Separation-distressed dogs are highly motivated to re-establish social contact denied to them by isolation or confinement. I know when my WSS was small his previous owners used his crate for confinement.  Under such conditions, dogs may engage in various distressed behaviors like barking, howling, destructiveness, and loss of eliminatory control.  Some dogs simply fall into a state of depression.  This could manifest in the dog not being able to put on any weight.  I know when we rescued our dog from a very busy family he was severely underweight, he weighed 15kg at the time and he should have been approximately 20kg.

The degree of separation reactivity exhibited by a dog is influenced by both genetic variations (some breeds appear more reactive to separation) and experience, with both factors contributing to the determining threshold and magnitude of separation distress.  The most significant variable in analyzing and modifying adjustment problems is the learned component; however, inherited emotional factors cannot be ignored, especially in cases involving severe emotional disorders and aggression.  Statistical evidence suggests that some breeds are more prone to develop behavior problems than others.  These breed variations with respect to the incidence of behavior problems may be the result of selective breeding for potentially problematic traits.  In other cases, abnormal tendencies may have been inadvertently transmitted without intentional selective pressure (e.g., shyness and various common dysfunctional behavior patterns like fear-biting and low-threshold dominance aggression).  References: Steven R Lindsay, Volume One, Applied Dog Behaviour and Training.


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