Your Labrador is looking at you with his big brown eyes. Your Siberian husky is watching you with her baby blues. You know their physical characteristics are inherited from their parents, and you know they learn from training as you teach them to sit or stay. But what other traits come with their heritage, and what are they learning from you when you're not aware they're watching? Sometimes it's difficult to tell which influences a dog more: nature or nurture.
Learned behaviors in animals
Like their ancestors, dogs instinctively remain pack animals. However, pack dominance and hierarchy theories have been scientifically debunked. Dogs don't try and dominate us. The aren't lobbying for alpha status or pack leadership. Instead, dogs seek to belong to a family, seek to trust their care providers and pack mates. To do this, they must accommodate to our world. Learned behaviors in animals are common, especially among the ones who live with humans.
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Since dogs cannot communicate with words, they read body language and are masters at reading yours. This is why they cuddle close when you're sad or sick, bring you their favorite toy when you're happy and energetic or stay quiet and nearby when they sense you're upset. Domesticated or in the wild, dogs by nature want to please. Like us, they also have the need to feel safe and secure, so they adjust their behavior accordingly.
Dog learned behavior
Although dogs learn their commands through training, dog learned behavior also happens through an amazing powers of observation. People are creatures of habit, and your dog knows you better than you realize. He knows whether it's time for work or play by the clothes you wear. The rattle of a cheese wrapper means you're willing to share a bite. The act of putting on your shoes or reaching for your coat might mean he's going for a walk, or you are leaving.
Dogs learn more by observing behavior and body language than they do from words. Your posture and eye contact are worth a thousand words to him. There's also his inherited sense of direction. A right turn means you're taking him to grandma's house, a left means it's to the vet. Our movements and gestures are important cues about what's about to happen next in their world.
Dog inherited traits
Each breed has some dog inherited traits, which are distinctive to that breed. Some are naturally more outgoing, some more shy. Labradors, for example, tend to instinctively take to water since they were bred by hunters to retrieve fowl from a pond or lake. Border collies and Welsh corgis are natural herders. Scottish terriers, and their cousins, were bred to help keep farms free of badgers and other vermin. Rhodesian ridgebacks are natural lion hunters, though hopefully you don't have too many lions in your backyard.
Some of the things dogs learn from you are not always good for them. If you're anxious when you take your dog to the vet, he will pick up on your anxiety and instinctively think he needs to worry as well. If your dog has a strong personality and learns he can get away with bad behavior, such as nipping, he will instinctively continue the behavior he's rewarded for, especially if it's genetically pre-conditioned.
Dog inherited health concerns
Different breeds also can inherit distinctive health concerns. West Highlands, for example, are prone to skin allergies. Schnauzers are prone to diabetes, especially when older. Boxer's tend to have thyroid issues. Large breeds such as German shepherd's are prone to hip dysplasia, and golden retrievers are susceptible to lymphoma. Research your breed for inherited health traits, and talk to your vet about watching for early warning signs or helpful tips.