It’s all in how you train them? Not really.

Celeste nurturing Maximus. He's a dog because of his nature. He's a Border Collie because of his nature.  He herds things, chases things, is highly attentive to humans and stock because of his nature.  What makes him behave like a BC is not different then what makes him look like one.

Celeste nurturing Maximus. He’s a dog because of his nature. He’s a Border Collie because of his nature. He herds things, chases things, is highly attentive to humans and stock because of his nature. What makes him behave like a BC is not different from what makes him look like one.

One of the most pernicious mantras in the dog world is “It’s all in how you train them!”

Let’s pretend for a moment that this statement is true.  What other closely held dog beliefs and behaviors would we have to question?  Pretty much all of dogdom, frankly.

If “it’s all in how you train them” is true, then…

pedigree dog breeding is false.  Parents can not pass down behaviors with all the other traits they pass to their offspring.  Looking at a pedigree can’t tell you anything because only training will make your dog act like a dog, your pointer act like a pointer, puppies act like their parents.

selective dog breeding is false. What distinguishes dog breeds is just aesthetics and the mass delusion that it matters what breeding choices we make.  Despite breed standards that mostly focus on aesthetics and without any established and published guides on how to train a blank slate into a terrier or lurcher or shepherd–not merely shape their instincts and extant behaviors–we’ve all been doing things horribly wrong.  We keep track of ancestry when that doesn’t matter. We issue papers on breed when that doesn’t matter. We get DNA tests done but those can’t matter.

there is no genetic component to dog behavior. Herding dogs have no propensity to herd, guard dogs have no instinct to guard, coursing dogs have no desire to hunt, terriers only dig because they are instructed to, pointers only point through training.  We have to rebuild everything that makes a dog, a dog, every single generation with every single dog.

you have to give up on the entire concept of dogs. If nurture and not nature dominates behavior (and our hypothesis here leaves zero room for nature) then a “dog” should be no different from a “wolf” or a “coyote” or a “jackal” or a “cat” or a “bear” or a “pig.” Or a snake or an ant or tree or a virus. The entire concept of domestication is a fraud.

you have to give up genetics. Train your dog to be a snake.  Not just ACT like a snake, to BE a snake.  That is not only possible, it’s demanded by the statement “It’s all in how they’re trained.”  Why should we limit the scope of this statement to mere behavior and not everything else that makes a dog a dog?  Train your dog to be purple.  Train your dog to fly.  Train your dog to breathe fire.

… you have to give up evolution.  Science has built up an immense body of evidence explaining morphology and behavior through the lens of competitive fitness.  Life looks the way it does and behaves the way it does because those structures and actions are highly heritable and in the right combinations lend competitive advantage to survival and procreation. Our entire understanding of life and its history falls apart if we have to predicate the supremacy of training.

It’s generous to phrase this “it’s all in how they’re trained.”  Many people who broadcast spread this nonsense as profound knowledge phrase it: “It’s all in how they’re raised.”  This is a subtle difference that highlights both the fact that most dogs don’t get much _training_ at all, and the pervasive fur-baby quasi-parental sentiment that exists in dogdom.  It’s precious, paternalistic, and emotionally toxic.  It pushes objectivity even further from the debate in the same way people put their parenting and their children on a pedestal and can’t abide criticism because it’s personal.

As much as there are holy wars in training circles, exemplified currently by the posi-nazis goose stepping to the mantra of “purely positive” (which is a gross misunderstanding of the operant conditioning matrix of positive/negative x reinforcement/punishment), the politics are even worse in the mommy-wars, where there are no accountable authorities just ayatollahs with persecution complexes and a desire for converts or at least a modicum of fame.

But being an actual mother is difficult. It requires almost incalculable time, money, and sacrifice.  At a minimum you need to socially bond with another human, have sex, be pregnant for the better part of a year while your body is destroyed in numerous unpleasant ways, and the anti-climactic squeezing of that melon out just to realize that you’re not going to sleep well ever again and what your child just did to your body they are going to do to your life for at least two decades.  And everyone is going to be all up in your business on how you raise your spawn, not the least of which is the state.

So when you get preachy about woo nonsense like vaccines causing autism, at least you have to pay a hefty entrance fee for that self-righteous denial. And you just might find someone else who will call you on that bullshit.  A school, a camp, a daycare that will tell you no, stupid is genetic, but measles is infectious so take your stupid child with your stupid self out of here.

No such luck with dogs.

You can head down to the shelter right now with a credit card and buy yourself a karma magnet pit bull mix that you can instantly call a “rescue” and get a free “who saved who?” bumper sticker to advertise your pitiful mental state such that paying for a used dog redeemed your self-worth, and proudly do nothing much more than feed it and post about how wonderful you are on Facebook with stories of “was probably a bait dog!” and “must have been abused by men because she’s so reactive and unruly with strangers” and the like.

When your Beverly Hills Chihuahua RESCUE shits on your carpet, you might proclaim that those careless Paris Hilton types who bought and dumped it before you _rescued_ it must not have TRAINED it right.  But of course after a half-assed attempt at house breaking yourself met with only failure you will declare poor Señor Sharkñado too damaged in his previous life of hell to accept your brilliant and dedicated training.

You won’t come to the actual right conclusion that Sharky can’t hold his bladder and bowels because his brain is too large for his cute little skull and that it’s not nurture that failed him, but nature.

And when your second chance Terrier decides it wants to dig up your yard and kill anything that dare invade its domain that resembles a rodent, it will be a folly to conclude that his previous owners must have spent countless hours teaching him to dig and exterminate vermin but failed to teach him much more than his name and sit, otherwise.  It’s not magic or an incredibly diabolical training scheme, it’s nature.  Little Horkheimer wasn’t raised to be a terrier, he was born that way.

Which is just something you’re going to have to deal with when you are sipping your racially conscious soy latte listening to Lady Gaga tell you that the highly complex behavioral complexes that are homosexuality and transsexuality and transgenderism and the like are NATURE but your pit bull mix going pit bull mix and attacking another dog is still NURTURE in your mind. Because reasons.

Really stupid and factually unsupportable reasons.

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About Christopher

Christopher Landauer is a fifth generation Colorado native and second generation Border Collie enthusiast. Border Collies have been the Landauer family dogs since the 1960s and Christopher got his first one as a toddler. He began his own modest breeding program with the purchase of Dublin and Celeste in 2006 and currently shares his home with their children Mercury and Gemma as well. His interest in genetics began in AP Chemistry and AP Biology and was honed at Stanford University.