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Personalities and Environment - by Ruth Kellogg

In my previous article, I talked about the three factors that I believe are the foundation of a dog’s personality. In review, these are pack orientation (drive to dominate/need to submit), innate intelligence, and confidence level. I briefly mentioned how important environmental factors are in shaping a personality. The most influential environmental factors will be explored in this article.

Home environment

Dogs, like children, are extremely sensitive to the energies within their environment. Negative and/or tension filled atmospheres adversely affect a dog’s physical and mental health as well as their spirit. Many times, the humans involved in such an environment have unconsciously blocked the negativity. Our canine friends do not have this ability. They generally cope through “behavioral problems” such as self-mutilation, excessive barking, digging, disobedience, and aggression. Some dogs “shut down” spiritually which is seen in a change in their personality. Occasionally, a dog may choose to die than continue in such an environment. This may sound odd, but I have experienced it with one of my girls.

Patricia (Ch. Long Hill’s Sweet Patricia CD CAMO) was a very sweet and gentle lady who, on the outside, seemed to be doing all right when we were living in an extremely difficult situation. In addition, she was kenneled with a male who, like his male owner, was very difficult to live with. Patricia had had enough. In four days, she went from being a perfectly healthy 10 year old to total body shut down and eventual peace.

During the difficult passage of time that my dogs and horses went through, I tried to cope as best as I could. However, it didn’t hit home to me how much stress the negative atmosphere/ environment was creating in all of us until I really looked at the photos of my dogs taken shortly before our escape and compared them to the happy and relaxed faces I now see.

A loving, nurturing, and safe environment is ideal for raising a puppy or a child. While no home is devoid of occasional stressful periods, if the basic atmosphere is positive and safe, the stress periods can actually help to positively shape a personality. The key, of course, is the amount and frequency of the stress.

The safe environment in which a youngster grows particularly affects the intelligence and confidence aspects of a personality. An intelligent dog, in a safe and positively orientated environment, can have the opportunity to learn new activities and skills. The same dog in a negative environment may not have the same learning opportunities and may well use its intelligence to stay safe or deal with the negativity and stress in the best way they can.

But more importantly, the environment affects the dog’s confidence level. In a safe environment even the dog who naturally has little confidence will be nurtured and not feel threatened. A negative/unsafe environment destroys confidence particularly in very gentle individuals with low levels of confidence.


Exposing a puppy to a variety of situations, people, and other experiences has a direct correlation with the level of confidence an adult dog exhibits. As Jean Donaldson emphasizes in her excellent book “The Culture Shock”, a young puppy can never be “over-socialized”. All too frequently, pups (particularly in multi-dog households) tend to be undersocialized.

While it is important to socialize the pup extensively during the critical first six months when the recovery or “bounce back’ time from stress is lessened, the handler must always be aware of the individuality of each pup and proceed at the pup’s level. Pushing a gentle pup with little innate confidence too hard and too quickly to accept a lot of varying stimuli can have the opposite effect desired. Such a pup easily reverts into a panic/reactive state. A pup in a panic/reactive state is not thinking. Successful socialization requires the pup to learn positively from the experiences. This requires the pup to relax and think. In such times, the handler must exude confidence, calmness, and a feeling that everything is safe and you (pup) won’t be harmed. Voice tones must be very matter of fact yet calming. Touch must be calm, firm, and quiet. The handler’s mind must also be calm as dogs react to what isn’t said more frequently than to what the handler is trying to communicate.

In my experience, I’ve found that the Canine Einsteins are the most challenging to socialize. Their high level of awareness to everything in their environment coupled with a high intellect can easily put these individuals into sensory overload. When this happens, they revert to the panic/reactive states. Socialization with these individuals must be as carefully done as with the innately lower confidence pup. While they will learn rapidly and at astonishing speeds, they must be “allowed” to progress at their rate. Pushing a Canine Einstein into accepting a “scary” situation (in their minds) will rapidly backfire and it will be more difficult for the dog to accept that same situation in the future.

With many dogs, the fear periods usually occur at traditionally accepted times such as the three to four month stage. But this isn’t necessarily true for all dogs - particularly the intellectually gifted. Handlers must be aware that without ongoing attention to socialization, the very bright dogs could easily “slip” into another fear period in their adolescent months (generally 12 to 24 months.) If the dog has been abused, traumatized (mentally or physically), fear periods can also continue to appear.

With attention now focused on early socialization and how it can affect personality development, breeders can affect a pup’s confidence level by how a pup and its environment is managed before it leaves.

Handling a pup securely and gently before its eyes and ears have opened will acquaint a pup with different sensations. Different scents (human and environmental) will also acquaint the pup with a variety of sensory experiences at this time.

A very critical time, I feel, is the time span between the pup’s eyes opening and the pup is about four weeks of age. Physically, the pups are becoming aware of their environment as their senses and physical skills develop. Rough handling or over-stimulation at this age imprints fear into pups - even ones who may have been very confident. As the pups develop, different but safe experiences should be incorporated into their environment. Such experiences could be a different locale (eg. taking the pup outside to explore or into a different room with different footing), different dogs (eg. other mature dogs socializing with the pups with an accepting momma), different physical objects (eg. toys, crates, household furniture), and different sounds (eg. music, vacuums and other appliances.)

Helping a pup gain self-confidence does require the owner to have a safe, calm encouraging manner as well as dedication to exposing the pup to a multitude of experiences.


The biggest effect upon personalities I see with educating my dogs is the sparkle that appears in their face and eyes. Their sense of humor and self-confidence blossoms. They become more “alive”. Education also increases the human-canine bond which can only have positive effects upon both.

Such “sparkle producing” education is accomplished through positive reinforcement methods. Clicker training in particular is highly inducive for the dog. This results in a dog who has discovered the joy in learning new things. The handler, of course, must always teach lessons at the dog’s rate of learning to retain their desire and confidence level.

Negative/Punishment teaching methods do not add joy to a dog’s eyes let alone their personality. Malamutes, in particular, do not “learn well” with these methods. Perhaps this is where the Malamutes got the erroneous reputation of being stupid or stubborn as early obedience training methods were negative/punishment based.

While I am a strong believer and proponent of teaching with positive reinforcements, I am also aware that appropriately timed negative reinforcements are also important in the dog’s education. Dogs need to learn the boundaries of what is and what is not acceptable behavior. For example, a strategically placed mousetrap(s) along a counter top gives immediate negative reinforcement to the counter-cruising canine.


While a dog’s basic personality is strongly genetically wired, the environmental factors such as the home environment, socialization, and education can influence how the pup develops. All facets of a pup’s “hard wiring” (pack orientation, intelligence level, confidence level) can be influenced by any/all of the environmental factors discussed.

It is also important for the handler to realize that personalities are dynamic. For instance, if the education isn’t given, a hard wired sweet pup can evolve into a dominating out of control nuisance. In another case, a sweet loving individual who is subjected to multiple stressors can evolve into a fearful highly stressed individual. With a change in education and home environment, both individuals can possibly be salvaged and rehabilitated.

Every dog is an individual. This should be every handler’s mantra. To help each individual dog become their very best with poise, confidence, manners, and sparkle, handlers must continually assess their dog. Various environmental factors that influence their dog’s well-being are dynamic which will necessitate changes in the dog’s education, socialization etc. A handler who does these dynamic evaluations will get the “ideal” and desired dog - a content, confident, sparkling Happy Dog!

Copyright © 2002 Ruth Kellogg. All rights reserved.

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