Nature vs. Nurture: What role does pack culture play in long-term behaviour?

A somewhat philosophical post this morning.  Gentle reader, brace yourself for more of these as I shift from the new and exciting world of young puppies into the deeper levels of raising a confident new family member and training a performance dog to maturity!

This morning I am pondering the intergenerational impact of adult-puppy interactions, as well as the overall culture in a household.

Specifically, I am wondering if some of the behaviour patterns I see between my dogs are not simply their nature, but rather learned and passed along from one generation to the next.  And if this is the case, can anything be done to change that culture to one that is more tolerant and loving?

Snap & Solo_first day home
Snap, bonding with his new big brother Solo, through the safety of an exercise pen.  Note that Solo is making physical contact but keeping his back to the puppy.  

The puppy rearing information I have come across places a strong emphasis on protecting pups from adults and only letting them socialize with those who are appropriate with puppies. Why is it so hard to find such dogs?  Have we created an epidemic of puppy abusing adults?  Given how young we pull pups, I would say yes, this may indeed be exactly what we have done.

As I watch their interactions, I am concluding that supporting, protecting, and teaching my adults is just as important as protecting the puppies.  Indeed, just taking a few pictures for this post has captured a number of interactions and behaviours I had not previously paid attention to, and has taught me in the process!

Desirée, showing confident body language in the puppy room, but still staying up off the floor even though puppies are in crates (note that half my living room is also piled well up off the floor, oh my!)

I’ll explain my thinking in a minute.  First, a little context…

Puppies have had a good morning romp, breakfast, and are now all conked out in their crates.  This week (Week 9) I am moving towards a lot of individual time for the pups, and much less access to each other for play and social interaction.  Each pup now spends time alone in a crate after breakfast, for their afternoon nap, and two are now sleeping in crates overnight as well (I’ll be trying all four tonight).  I’m working individually with each, for a few minutes several times a day, on tugging, impulse control, value for being in a crate, and leash walking.  And I am taking them on individual car rides to the bank or other dog-friendly stores as I am able.

Yes, I am getting pretty tired and looking forward to having fewer puppies, soon!  Puppies are 9.5 weeks old now and I feel that by 10 weeks they will definitely be ready to be launched into the real world.  While it would have been much easier to place them sooner, the difference I have seen in them over the past 10 days has once again convinced me that keeping them just this little longer is important.  Each pup is now much more confident and ready to interact with the world !

One of the exercises I am doing is taking each pup out on a leash for a walk with several of the big dogs.  This is good for getting them used to interacting with new dogs and also paying attention to me, rather than their siblings.  The process is going well, and pups seem to enjoy being part of the pack!

Clayton, choosing to leave the room after pups come towards him in the pen.  The potential for food spillage in puppy crates is not sufficient enticement for him to come any closer.

I have to watch the interactions carefully because most of my pack is unhappy about having puppies in the house, and they can be a bit cranky.  A bit too cranky, actually.  In particular, I am finding Hannah to be unpredictable with the pups.  So far she has only met them through the gate, and will be all sweetness and curiosity until the pup crosses some invisible (to me) boundary, and then she growls and snaps.

As the pups grow, she has become much more tolerant of them, but still has this tendency.  Her son, Clayton, is much more tolerant but also has snapped and been a bit over the top in his corrections when pups have jumped up on him.  Desirée does nothing but growl and bare her teeth if they so much as look at her from across the room (and therefore has never been in direct contact with them).  Ross similarly gives puppies plenty of warning (through his deep grumbly growl) not to come within ten feet of him.

Des, still up high, showing clear discomfort as I put pull pups from their crates and put them in the play pen (which needs vacuuming, again!)

As a result, I have my house separated in two, with pups in one half, and adult dogs in the other.  Everyone can meet through a gate or the pen wire. Kes and Holly go on either side.  Clayton is safe to join pups on walks, but gets stressed around them in the house so stays on the big dog side.

Studies show that mice & rats raised by loving mothers grow up to be more loving and confident.  There is a whole field of epigenetic exploding around this topic, but it is still very new and what conclusion we can draw are still quite uncertain.  Nevertheless, fascinating stuff and I’ve read enough to get my brain crunching away on my observations.

Hannah, being relatively relaxed (slowly waging tail) and curious with pups, but happy they are on the other side of the barrier.

Yesterday, while walking Raven with Hannah, Ross, and Holly, Raven started to take an interest in Hannah. Hannah’s body language appeared inviting, and Ravey went in closer to check out the toy Hannah was trying to get me to throw.  Hannah stood patiently while Rave sniffed the toy, then suddenly went stiff and almost immediately thereafter lashed out with a growl and a snap that made contact.

Poor Raven!  She was very upset.  That correction had definitely been over the top and came without enough warning for Rave to back off in compliance.  Naturally I was upset with both Hannah and myself for having this happen.

After I checked the puppy over, and found her to be intact and merely shaken (and getting over it quickly and back to sniffing and exploring), I started to rehash what I just witnessed.  Inviting behaviour, sudden stiffening followed by swiftly lashing out with a snap that will sometimes pull a little fur.  That is typical of Hannah when male dogs come a sniffing, but is a first for her with puppies.  She gives mixed messages and other dogs don’t know how to read her.

Des, not ready to leave the room but now showing full avoidance as pups stare at her.


Is this inability to clearly communicate with other dogs an inherent trait in her, or did she simply not have a strong enough role model to teach her when she was young?  She came to live with me at 7 weeks, but had been largely separated from her dam for at least a week or two prior to that.  My only other dog at the time was Ross, who is notorious for over-the-top explosions of violence towards other dogs around things that matter to him (food, his personal space – he had learned to survive in the back alleys of of NY city as puppy prior to coming into rescue).  All my dogs have grown up walking on egg shells around Ross.

Could Ross’s traumatic start to life and ensuring life-long struggle to overcome PTSD have set a cultural pattern in my household?  I am starting to wonder… You could blame it on genetics, as both Clay and Des display varying degrees of Hannah’s behaviour.  But could it not also be learned?  Holly lived with her own dam and littermates until they were 9 months old.  She is by far the most appropriate with the puppies.  Kes is wonderful with pups, and also grew up in another household.

The question that comes to mind is: could my Hannah line of dogs be dog-inappropriate because of the culture in which they grew up, that is, under they constant fear of punishment from unpredictable Ross? And if yes, what can I do to break the behaviour pattern and establish a new one?  How can I help all my dogs be happier and more relaxed and welcoming to newcomers?

Tossing a toy for puppies (to redirect their focus elsewhere) and one for Des (her favourite, yay!) helps make the experience positive for miss Desirée: Puppies = not being harassed + fun play with toy!  (note that Lark is Manding, wanting attention from me more than the toy or her littermates!)

This is something I am going to research and experiment with.  Certainly I am going to work hard to protect my new puppies from negative interactions, and work to find appropriate adult dogs with which to socialize.  This will mean they will continue to have have little interaction with my pack (other than Holly and Kes) until they go to their new homes, and the one that I keep may be raised separately for some time.

I am also going to work at protecting, supporting, and shaping my adults.  Just as it is important to let pups have a place to hide and move away from things that frighten them, I also need to give the adults the option to move away from pups, to leave the room, to not be jumped on or swarmed by a mass of milk-seeking missiles.  Fortunately pups no longer try to nurse, so their interaction with adults dogs is becoming social as opposed to food-seeking.

Snap & Solo
Snap and Solo, learning to be respectful friends

If you, gentle reader, have any insight into the cultural shaping of dog packs, or know of good sources of information on the topic, I am all ears!  Please feel free to share in the comments, on my Facebook Page, or send me an email.  Pack culture and long-term behaviour: one more layer of understanding to build and explore!

2 thoughts on “Nature vs. Nurture: What role does pack culture play in long-term behaviour?

  1. The dogs in your household definitely affect the way your pups develop. Unfortunately, my two adults were far too tolerant, and all the other adult dogs I introduced my pup to (who usually give very appropriate corrections) also ended up tolerating whatever he decided to do, so despite *my* best efforts to interrupt him and to socialize him with appropriate dogs, my 1.5 year old thinks it is appropriate to tackle every dog he sees, and jump and mouth them if they won’t play. 😦

    Sue Sternberg has a DVD of her seminar on Multidog Households that discusses much of what you are talking about. I LOVE Sue and she has a lot of REALLY important information, but I will warn you that she tends to have a bit of a “doom and gloom” way of presenting information, so be prepared. Take notes, and then watch something upbeat afterwards. 🙂

    1. Thanks Kate! I’ll see if I can find that video and watch it. Your comment makes me feel a little better about my adults being rather firm with the puppies. As a result, the pups definitely approach new dogs with a hint of caution and a handful of polite! Surprisingly, when I finally let them interact with Ross The Boss, aka Darth Ross, he has been ridiculously tolerant and allows them to jump all over him! He would disembowel one of my other dogs if they tried to do that (ok, not really, but he would pin them down and make enough noise to have you think he was disemboweling them). I am still cautious with them around Hannah, but otherwise they are largely running with the pack outside. Inside I keep them separated by a gate, as I find that indoor dynamics are more intense.

      Thanks again for your thoughts and for sharing the video suggestion. I look forward to watching it!

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