I get phone calls every day asking if I can fix this problem or can I get a person’s dog to quit doing this or that. It kind of reminds of a bumper sticker I saw recently which said “I am a beautician not a magician.” Don’t get me wrong, as a dog trainer it is my job to get people to relate, understand and fix the rapport between them and their dogs; but unfortunately many people just don’t understand the difference between a behavior and a dog’s personality. So I am going to attempt to break down the difference between the two, and hopefully help you understand what each means and how it relates to your dog and their training.

Years ago when I worked in management, in the real world, a very wise man told me that you can fix behaviors, but to try to fix personalities was about as fruitful as squeezing water from a stone. It was his way of helping me understand just what I could fix in my employees and what I could not! The basics here are simple…a behavior is a choice that can be changed and a personality is a mindset that is unchangeable. That might be a tad simplistic, but overall it is a true statement. Take this scenario as an example; Fred is 44 years old and just had a heart attack. He works 65 hours a week, drinks too much, smokes, never exercises and always has to be in control. His personality type would be considered “Type A” by most people. As he is recovering in the hospital, his doctor comes in and gives Fred an ultimatum, “you can keep living life as you have and die soon, or you can start exercising, quit smoking, quit drinking, cut down on the number of hours you work, get regular check-ups, take proper medication and live to be an old man.” Fred does as the doctor directed and lives to be a ripe old age of 94 years old then dies in his sleep. Now for the $64,000 question…was Fred still a Type A? The answer is of course he was, he simply changed his behaviors. But deep down his personality didn’t change – he was still a “Type A”. So whether we are looking at people or dogs, we must realize that yes, you can change behaviors, but trying to change a personality is well like peeing in the wind (sorry, but it is true).

Your first job as a dog owner or trainer is to determine whether the unwanted action of the dog is due to a behavior or a personality trait. Did you know that a dog’s socialization period (the time frame where they learn to accept and like situations vs. being scared and anxious around the situation) is only from about 3 weeks to roughly 18 weeks of age? Considering the fact that most people don’t bring puppies home till they are between 10-12 weeks old, new dog owners only have a very small window to affect their puppy’s personality. How owners do or don’t socialize the pup will have a direct effect on the behaviors the manifest, based on what the dog’s personality ultimately becomes. So as a trainer I will say (AGAIN) that I would be out of a job if folks would only ensure that all puppies get tons of positive associations during those first few weeks; they learn that the world is a fun environment that is not only safe, but in many cases full of rewards. Unfortunately, many dogs, which as puppies are ignored, are in shelters or for many other reasons are not exposed to the world at all. This leads to the dog learning to be anxious, nervous, scared and even aggressive when exposed to anything new, and unfortunately anything new to a dog is in most cases scary.

So what does this have to do with the personality vs. behavior discussion? Simple, the overall emotional make up of a dog is the personality and it can rarely be fixed. In my mind those less than desirable personality traits (being nervous or anxious) must be managed instead of attempting to train them away. Then the actual behaviors that come from those traits (hiding, growling or barking) can, in most cases, be replaced with what are known as replacement behaviors. Put simply, you are making the new behavior more rewarding than the unwanted behavior.

The moral of this story is to look at behaviors as something that can be changed while personality is something that we are born with. (OK, really they are created by our experiences during critical developmental periods!) The only thing we can change with our dogs, kids, wives, employees or bosses are the specific behaviors that we have the ability to create more rewarding replacement behaviors for.

As I have said for many years, and will continue to say…please, please socialize your puppies when you get them, and you will never have to call me or one of my colleagues! If you get an older dog, realize their personalities are what they are. But never fear, you can always work on specific behaviors.

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