Pet Care: Understanding What Drives a Dog’s Behavior


Scavengers can scavenge tennis balls until they run out. An Australian Shepherd might guard you until you hide in a closet. At the Western Veterinary Conference last month, I attended presentations on neurology, nutrition, and behavioral medicine. Almost everything influences behavior. Environment and personal encounters are important, but it all starts with genetic coding.

Dr. Leanne Lilly is chief of behavioral medicine at The Ohio State University Veterinary Medical Center. She explained that beyond an individual’s inherited tendencies, events surrounding their birth, called epigenetics, can alter how DNA determines behavior. It’s complicated but often the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Working breeds are more excitable and energetic, but interested in learning and playing with their people. Many are aggressive towards other dogs. Jack Russel Terriers, Chihuahuas, Rhodesian Ridgebacks, American Staffordshire Terriers and Bernese Mountain Dogs can be more difficult to train, but as Dr. Lilly pointed out, the statistical differences are small. Race only accounts for 9% of behavioral variations.

Understanding the heritability of certain behaviors, such as compulsive flank sucking in Dobermans, can aid in diagnosis and treatment. The DNA of some English bull terriers causes them to twirl around, stick their heads under furniture and then freeze in place. Rotation is also common in Malinois and Staffordshire terriers. Tail chasing is a genetic trait of German Shepherds and Australian Cattle Dogs, but the abnormal brain pathways responsible for repetitive behaviors can also occur in unrelated breeds.

Behavioral genetics can be confusing. Dog breeds that share physical appearances, but are not closely related, may still exhibit similar behaviors. For example, small dogs of different breeds are prone to danger from strangers and have a greater tendency for separation anxiety.


There are more variations between individuals of the same race than there are genetic differences between races. And it’s not just the dogs. Compulsive sucking of wool or fabric is seen almost exclusively in Siamese and Burmese cats and their crosses. We all want choosing the right pet to be simple, but it just isn’t. We do our best but it’s still a bit of a shitty shoot.

⋄ For help with behavioral issues, you can sign up for a Zoom group conference on my website,

Dr. Jeff Nichol is a residency-trained veterinary behaviorist. He offers in-person and group consultations via Zoom (505-792-5131). Each week he shares a blog and video to help bring out the best in pets and their people. Sign up for free at Ask your pet questions at or by mail at 4000 Montgomery NE, Albuquerque, NM, 87109.

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