A Poodle’s not a Doberman, a Doberman’s not a Schnauzer and a Schnauzer’s not a Bassett but Poodles are extremely similar to one another, just as Dobermans, Schnauzers and Bassets are quite similar to other Dobermans, Schnauzers, and Bassets. This may at first seem like a complete no-brainer but as was mentioned in chapter two, people can’t seem to stop themselves from believing that how a dog behaves is a consequence of how that dog is raised. If that were the case, a Poodle could simply be raised or trained to behave like a Bassett or a Doberman but, as we know, these breeds are completely distinct from one another as a result of the differences in their DNA (most specifically, their temperaments.)
By definition, temperament is the combination of inherited mental, physical and emotional traits that comprise an individual’s natural disposition.
An amazing study done from 1956 to 1988 by Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess (an adorable married couple) identified the components of human temperament. The study, known as the New York Longitudinal Study, not only delineated the areas of behavior that constitute temperament but demonstrated that these traits persist throughout an individual’s life. By studying one hundred and thirty-three children from infancy until adulthood, Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess identified nine temperamental categories:
1. Activity level: Activity levels can be high, medium or low and refer to both physical and mental activity. Certain individuals are born with such high activity levels that they’re constantly busy (almost to the point of being frantic) in their pursuit of both mental and physical stimulation. At the other end of the spectrum are the individuals who appear so calm and relaxed that they can seem indifferent or detached. The degree of activity that each of us exhibits from birth has a dramatic impact on how we’re perceived and it also greatly influences the paths that we select for ourselves in life.
2. Regularity or rhythmicity of bodily functions: This refers to whether an individual has predictable times of sleep, appetite and bowel movement or is someone completely random and unpredictable in these areas. This is actually more significant than it might at first appear. For example, if someone doesn’t need long or regular hours of sleep, that individual will naturally be better suited for certain tasks or professions that don’t require a consistent eight hours of sleep each night.
3. Initial reaction to new people or situations: This involves an individual’s willingness to approach and explore in new situations or to instead be hesitant or reluctant with an inclination to withdraw. This trait clearly identifies an individual’s ability to take risks and to interact and socialize with others.
4. Adaptability: This has to do with the ease or difficulty with which an individual adjusts to new situations. This ability or lack thereof definitely affects an individual’s capacity to handle or cope with life’s challenging scenarios.
5. Intensity: This concerns an individual’s degree of response in both positive and negative situations: is the response calm and controlled or is it exaggerated and extreme?
6. Mood: This refers to the inherited tendency of an individual to embody a positive outlook and to be generally content and happy or to instead have a negative perspective that predisposes the individual to be primarily sad or discontented. As hard as this may be to accept, it appears that we’re programmed by our DNA to be either happy or sad.
7. Distractibility: This has to do with an individual’s ability to either stay focused on a task in spite of distractions or to get side-tracked any time a distraction occurs.
8. Persistence and attention span: This involves the capacity of an individual to be able to stay focused on a task for extended periods of time or to instead have the tendency to lose interest easily and to easily become bored and frustrated.
9. Sensitivity: This identifies an individual’s response to changes in the environment. Does a person have an extreme reaction or a mild or moderate reaction to various stimuli in the environment such as loud noises, bright lights, crowded rooms, unusual textures or smells?
It’s fascinating to think that whether we have a positive or negative outlook is a consequence of our genetics. Most of us have been repeatedly told that we should have the capacity to control whether we’re happy or sad such that we habitually blame ourselves if we aren’t able to be happy most of the time. We also blame ourselves for any other shortcomings we perceive about ourselves: if we happen to lose focus easily or if we have a tendency to overreact to changes or extreme stimuli in our environment.
Yet, all of these characteristics are inherited: they’re completely hardwired and not something that we can control with the snap of our fingers. It doesn’t mean that we can’t strive to become a happier person or a more focused and relaxed person. But, for those of us who weren’t born to be particularly happy, focused or relaxed, it’s not going to be easy for us to change because that’s simply not in our genetic make-up.
This is also true when it comes to our dogs. The various breeds of dogs in the world are vastly different from one another precisely because of their different genetic temperaments. One of these difference (as was discussed in chapter two) concerns an individual dog’s inclination to bite. Certain dogs are extremely quick to bite while others are not. Other temperamental differences include certain dogs tendency to be outrageously hyper while certain other dogs are more inclined to want to lounge around the house all day; certain dogs are able to focus intently on a task (such as digging a hole or chasing a ball) without ever being distracted while other dogs are more scatterbrained; certain dogs get upset over the least little change in their environment (noise, etc) while other dogs remain cool, calm and collected.
Since temperament is inherited, it’s a part of the “nature” aspect of behavior. Environment, or the external arena of life, constitutes the “nurture” aspect of behavior. External variables include socialization, socioeconomic status, training and education, family, and of course, the countless and varied stressors that tend to pop up on a daily basis like whack-a-moles.
An analogy that might help to illustrate the interplay of temperament (nature) and external forces (nurture) involves imagining temperament to be a landscape. The nature aspect of a landscape would include the type of soil present, the vegetation that grows naturally, whether the terrain is flat or mountainous, if water is available (lakes or streams) and the kind of climate that typically prevails (desert versus forest versus plains.) All these intrinsic characteristics are going to mostly remain constant.
Whenever external influences (nurture) are brought to bear, some of these influence are going to be benign or beneficial. In the land analogy, external forces might involve that the land be irrigated and fertilized for crop cultivation or that it’s designated to be a park or preserve.At the other extreme, external forces can be disastrous. If, for example, the land is to be razed for strip-mining or slathered with concrete in preparation of a new shopping mall, that’s going to have a negative impact on the land. Clearly, nurture (or the environment) can impact nature for better or for worse.
The landscape described above is the perfect metaphor for temperament because, just as with the landscape, environmental factors can both enhance or wreak havoc on our individual temperaments. It’s been said that “nature is the canvas upon which nurture paints.” This statement, though, is only partially true when it comes to temperament. Though temperament is an unchangeable aspect of ourselves that’s bestowed upon us at birth and as such, is a canvas of sorts upon which the external events of our lives play out, temperament isn’t as placid and passive as a canvas. As a matter of fact, temperament can be so powerful that it often exerts its own influence on the environment.
If we go back to the landscape analogy, we can find a clear-cut example of how there are times when the land (or our temperament) won’t idly sit by and allow itself to be molded by external forces. One example of this is the desert. The desert, quite uncooperative and stubborn by nature, isn’t ever going to allow itself to be easily subdued. Intense challenges are going to arise if any attempt is made to transform the desert into something other than a desert: there’s the constant uphill battle of trying to grow anything that’s not native and there’s the doomed-to-failure effort to control the heat and the sand which perpetually finds it’s way into food, mouths, beds, and shoes.
It’s a mistake to ever discount nature (our DNA) and as we’ll see, temperament can be just as stubborn and unrelenting as a desert: simply watch a parent or teacher try to get a hyperactive child to sit still or watch someone who’s terrified of crowds and loud noises try to enjoy a rock concert. Temperament invariably impacts our reality because it’s simply part of who we are.
It’s been demonstrated (though, at first glance, it’s an extremely hard statement to believe) that when it comes to rearing children, what we do as parents has very little impact on how our children eventually turn out. It’s a difficult concept to wrap one’s mind around (especially for those of us who are parents) but, as was demonstrated in the Minnesota Twin Family Study in the last chapter, the temperament, attitude and interests of identical twins raised apart were no different from those of identical twins raised together. In other words, temperament, attitude and interests (which together comprise a major part of our personality) are dictated by DNA and that’s why identical twins share those in common even if they’re separated at birth.
In the January 2014 issue of Parents Magazine, Dr. Bryan Caplan, Ph.D. went so far as to state that, based on the studies of identical twins, “the long-term effect of parenting on children is, in fact, close to zero.” That’s a bizarre and unpleasant concept to embrace! It simply goes against everything we hold dear: that we, as humans, should possess the power and capacity to positively mold, or at least positively influence, our children.
Though I’m obviously an advocate for the importance of genetics in our lives, I could never imagine discounting the influence of environment to the point of saying that parents have zero influence on their children. In a January 2015 National Geographic article titled “The First Year,” several different studies were sited as evidence for how absolutely vital it is that infants receive an abundance of human interaction in order to develop normally. The article referenced the infamous Romanian orphanages where, from the 1960s to the 1980s, thousands of infants and children experienced outrageous neglect, receiving almost no attention other than to be fed and bathed. These children were horribly stunted in every aspect of their development, including their language, emotional, social and behavioral skills.
Other studies in the article illustrated that even how often children are spoken to and the number of different words used to communicate make a notable difference in a child’s IQ and performance in school.
Human development is a complex interplay of nurture and nature and neither should be discounted. As was mentioned before, it’ll always be harder to appreciate the influence of genetics as compared to that of environment simply because DNA is so difficult to visualize and quantify. Yet, even though our environment definitely has an impact on us, I still believe that DNA (especially our temperament, attitude and interests) has the greater influence on our behavior.
One place where that influence can be seen every single day is at St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, a place where children of all ages deal with the challenges of cancer and its treatment. My heart will always hold an abiding reverence for the miracle of St. Jude’s and in honor of what they do, I’ve been a monthly donor for more than twenty years. As a donor, I receive monthly mailers detailing the stories of individual children but what gave me the greatest insight into the lives of these children was the many in-depth television specials sponsored by St. Jude’s. In these specials, viewers are permitted an intimate look at some of the individual children undergoing treatment. I’ve been alternately inspired and devastated as I watched temperament be an amazing source of strength for one child and a horrible source of distress for another.
The children of St. Jude’s are simply beyond brave in their struggle to survive. They must endure repetitive blood tests, x-rays, MRI’s, spinal taps, surgery, months in a hospital bed, mouth sores, hair loss and vomiting due to toxic but life-saving medications, blood transfusions, bone marrow transplants, weakness, fatigue. It simply goes on and on and on and I honestly don’t know how they do it.
What intensifies that challenge (beyond what it is to begin with) is that some of these children have extremely sensitive and fragile temperaments. An overly sensitive temperament can make it extremely difficult for a child to cope with all the unfamiliar people and procedures, to handle months away from home, and to be able to tolerate the constant extremes in external stimulation. Due their sensitive temperaments, these children unavoidably suffer more cruelly and it’s heartbreaking not only for those who care for them but for those who love them because there’s very little that can be done to control, much less stop, the response dictated by temperament. Temperament colors each and every experience that we have and the hue of that color can vary from being light and cheery to being something that’s quite dark and depressing.
Fragility of temperament is also quite common in dogs. Some dogs are so distressed by even a routine visit to the veterinarian’s office that they tremble and cower the entire time that they’re there. These dogs are simply terrified and there’s nothing that anyone can do (not even their owners) to make those fears completely dissipate.
Certain dogs are so fragile that they experience extreme separation anxiety anytime they’re left alone, even in the comfort of their own home. These dogs simply panic once they’re left alone and they’ll systematically destroy everything in their path in a desperate attempt to escape their aloneness.
In contrast, some dogs take life completely in stride (just as certain people do.) Blessed with a happy-go-lucky temperament, these dogs simply roll over and yawn as a troop of kids crawls all over them. They merely sigh as rubber bands and barrettes are affixed to their fur and they’re stylishly outfitted with various articles of clothing. Other dogs simply wouldn’t be able to tolerate this kind of intrusive interaction and would instead have a tendency to run and hide or to growl and snap.
Since temperament dictates experience, one particular set of circumstances can be devastating for one individual (human or dog), while it’s handled with ease by another. Temperament is as unchanging and inescapable as the desert is dry or the rainforest is wet. That’s why it’s fruitless to blame ourselves for the content of our temperament. It’d be no different than blaming ourselves for the color of our eyes. Neither is of our doing.
It’s important to remember, though, that blessings exist in every temperament. There’s a natural tendency for each of us to become obsessed with the areas of our temperament that we don’t like. It never fails that what we don’t like about ourselves is what grabs our attention. But, if we can take a moment to identify the positive aspects of our temperament, we’ll find that not only do we feel better about ourselves but it’ll give us the confidence to acknowledge and deal with the shortcomings that are an inevitable part of every temperament.
The path to personal power involves accepting and being at peace with who we are as genetic beings. There’s simply no escaping the fact all of us are born with our own unique temperament and our own distinct attitudes and interests that were dictated by our DNA.
In the next chapter, we’ll discover how variation is to be expected in life as we look at the concept of a bell-shaped curve. We’ll also explore the incredible process of genetic recombination, which assures that each of us (except identical twins) is as unique and distinct as individual snowflakes. Woof!