Is Aggression Genetic or Learned?

Feb 23, 2023 | Dog Behaviour

Understanding the Complexity of Dog Aggression: Genetic and Environmental Factor

To address the question of whether aggression is genetic or learned, we must understand aggression in dogs is a complex behaviour that can be influenced by a variety of factors, both genetic and environmental. While some studies have suggested that certain breeds may be predisposed to certain types of aggression, such as breeds used for hunting or guarding, it is important to note that aggressive behaviour can occur in any breed of dog.

Factors Influencing Aggression in Dogs: Genetics and Environment

Genetics and environmental factors both contribute to the development of aggression in dogs. Understanding these influences can help dog owners better address and manage aggressive behaviours. The factors include:

  • Genetics: While genetics play a role in a dog’s behaviour, they do not solely determine it. Some breeds may be more predisposed to aggressive behaviour, but individual temperament can vary widely within a breed. There is a condition called Rage Syndrome in Dogs where some evidence suggests there may be a strong genetic component.
  • Environmental factors: A variety of external factors can impact a dog’s behaviour, such as:
    • Socialisation: Proper socialisation with other dogs, animals, and humans is crucial for preventing aggressive behaviour.
    • Training: Consistent, positive reinforcement-based training can help reduce aggression by teaching dogs how to behave appropriately.
    • Past experiences: A dog’s history, including any negative experiences like abuse, neglect, or lack of socialisation, can influence its behaviour.

If you find this article interesting, you might want check out our blog and podcast section, specifically these article’s:

Aggression in Dogs: Exploring the Different Types and Causes

Link to article "aggression in dogs"

Rage Syndrome in Dogs: Causes, Diagnosis, and Management

Photo of a diverse group of concerned dog owners gathered around a veterinarian who is pointing to a clear and legible chart detailing the causes

Understanding Aggression in Dogs: Defining and Analysing Behaviour

Aggression is a complex and nuanced term that can be difficult to define, particularly when discussing animal behaviour. In order to understand and address aggression in dogs, it’s essential to consider the context and specific behaviours being displayed. Key points include:

  • Aggression as a term: Aggression can be interpreted differently due to anthropomorphic reasons, making it crucial to accurately identify the behaviour being exhibited.
  • Behavioural context: Dr. Susan Friedman emphasises the importance of understanding the context of aggressive behaviour, including the specific actions being displayed (Friedman, 2007).
  • Defining aggressive behaviour: According to Encyclopaedia Britannica (2018), aggressive behaviour in animals involves “actual or potential harm to another animal.”
Key TakeawaysKey Points
Complexity of Canine AggressionAggression in dogs arises from both genetic predispositions and environmental factors, not limited to any breed.
Genetic FactorsGenetics may influence the likelihood of aggression, but it is not the sole determinant. Specific conditions, like Rage Syndrome, suggest a genetic basis in some cases.
Environmental InfluencesAggression is shaped by a dog’s experiences, including socialization, training, and past trauma.
Defining AggressionIt’s vital to accurately define aggression, understanding the context in which it occurs and distinguishing it from anthropomorphic interpretations.
Multifaceted NatureAggression in dogs includes aspects like motivation and functions, often being an adaptive trait for social communication within species.
Interplay of Genetics and EnvironmentBoth genetics and environmental factors are crucial in shaping aggressive behaviors, influencing learning and cognition.
Innate versus Learned BehavioursWhile some behaviors are instinctive and have a genetic basis, there is a significant portion that is learned and modifiable.
Role of EpigeneticsEnvironmental factors can affect gene expression, suggesting that aggression can be both a result of genetic predisposition and learned from the environment.
Aggression as a Result of Both Genes and LearningThere is no straightforward answer; aggression in dogs is a product of complex interactions between their genetic makeup and their environmental experiences.

Exploring Aggression in Dogs: Motivation, Expressions, and Functions

Aggression in dogs is a multifaceted phenomenon encompassing various aspects such as origin, motivation, expressions, and functions. To better understand and address aggression in dogs, it’s important to consider these factors:

  • Broad definition: Aggression is generally defined as behaviour that inflicts or threatens harm or injury on another being, who is motivated to avoid such treatment.
  • Ethological perspective: From an ethological standpoint, aggressive or agonistic behaviours are adaptations for situations involving physical conflict or contests between members of the same species.
  • Adaptive trait: Aggression is a highly adaptive trait, playing a crucial role in the development of social communication among animals.
  • Evolutionary ritualised behaviour: Animals have developed ritualized behaviours to communicate intent, reducing the need for physical conflict. This allows them to form social bonds and coexist in relative harmony.

Aggression in Dogs: Definition and Influencing Factors

To better understand aggression in dogs, it is essential to define the behaviour and recognize the interplay of genetics and environment in shaping it.

  • Defining aggression: According to Overall (1997), aggression in animals, including dogs, is a behaviour intended to harm or intimidate another animal. It can manifest physically, verbally, or emotionally and may be driven by anger, fear, frustration, or a desire for control.
  • Genes and environment: Research indicates that both genetics and environmental factors influence animal behaviour. When examining aggression, it is crucial to consider the interaction between these two factors.
  • Genetic influence on learning and cognition: Genes help create the necessary structure for learning, memory, and cognition, which enables animals to acquire and retain information about their environment, subsequently modifying their behaviour (Robinson, Fernald, and Clayton, 2010).

Innate vs. Learned Behaviour in Dogs: Exploring the Role of Genetics

When discussing aggression in dogs, it’s essential to consider the distinction between innate or instinctive behaviours and learned behaviours. This distinction can help clarify the role genetics plays in shaping these behaviours.

  • Innate or instinctive behaviours: These are hard-wired actions that are not subject to learning, often triggered by specific stimuli or occurring within a specific context. Model action patterns are an example of such behaviours, with the biological structure or process behind them called the Innate Releasing Mechanism.
  • Building blocks for modifiable behaviour: Some truly innate behaviours, like model action patterns, have a genetic basis and can serve as foundations for the development of other modifiable behaviours.
  • Genetic influence on specific behaviours: According to Spady and Ostrander (2008), certain behaviours in dogs, such as herding, pointing, tracking, and hunting, are likely controlled at the genetic level, suggesting consistency across members of a species.
  • Modifiability of innate behaviours: The key question is how modifiable these behaviours are on an individual level. While some species exhibit a combination of genetic and learned behaviours, the extent to which innate components can be altered remains a topic of discussion.
  • Genetic influences on aggressive behaviours: Research by Ogawa, Choleris, and Pfaff (2006) indicates that strain differences in aggressive behaviours among various species strongly suggest genetic influences. If you would like to learn more about this subject, then checkout our blog on Model/Fixed Action patterns.

Epigenetics: The Interplay of Environment and Genetics in Shaping Aggression

Epigenetics is a rapidly growing field that explores how environmental factors can influence the expression of genes, thus impacting an animal’s phenotype without altering its genotype.

  • Epigenetic mechanisms: These are responsible for a considerable part of the phenotype of complex organisms and involve the transmission of information beyond genetic encoding in DNA (Felsenfeld, 2014).
  • Impact on animal behaviour: Epigenetic changes can result in behavioural responses that are not encoded in an animal’s genotype, suggesting that learned behaviour may lead to phenotypic adaptations rather than genetic encoding.
  • Role in aggression: Aggression is believed to be a consequence of both genetic coding and environmental influences. When assessing aggressive behaviour, both genetics and environment must be considered.
  • Innate aggression and environmental stimuli: Some aggressive responses are innate and consistent across members of a species, but these responses are often rooted in environmental stimuli. For example, the male stickleback fish exhibits aggressive behaviour based on the presence of red coloration on other fish.
  • Epigenetic influences on learned aggression: Aggressive behaviours resulting from an animal’s learning history are subject to epigenetic changes, which can modify the activation of certain genes without altering the genetic code sequence of DNA.

So is Aggression Genetic or Learned?

The debate on whether aggression is genetic or learned often arises due to the challenges in defining aggression itself. A comprehensive understanding requires examining both innate responses and learned behaviours:

  • Innate aggression: Some aggressive responses have a clear genetic component, such as model action patterns, which are innate to an organism.
  • Learned aggression: Other aggressive behaviours can be independent of genetic influence and develop as a result of an animal’s learning history and interactions with environmental stimuli.

“No behaviour will develop without the appropriate genetic blueprint, and no behaviour will show in the absence of the right environmental stimuli.”

Abrantes (2018)

Thus, aggression is both genetic and learned, with genes providing the foundation and environmental factors shaping the expression of the behaviour.

“Genes load the gun, and the environment pulls the trigger.”

R. Sapolsky

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FAQs on “Is Aggression Genetic or Learned?”

Are certain breeds more predisposed to aggression?

While some breeds may have a genetic predisposition to aggression, it is important to understand that aggressive behaviour can manifest in any dog breed. It is not breed-specific.

What factors influence a dog’s aggression?

A dog’s aggression can be influenced by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. This includes the level of socialisation, the training it receives, its past experiences, and the context in which it finds itself.

How is aggression in dogs defined?

Aggression in dogs is typically defined as any behaviour that is intended to threaten or harm another being, whether it be another animal or a human.

What’s the difference between innate and learned aggression?

Innate aggression is an instinctual response that can be observed even without prior learning or experience, often for survival purposes. Learned aggression, on the other hand, arises through a dog’s interactions with its environment and experiences.

How do genetics and environment interact in shaping aggression?

Genetics and environment interact through a process known as epigenetics, where environmental influences can affect the expression of genes. This interplay can significantly impact a dog’s behaviour, including aggression, without altering the underlying DNA.

Is aggression in dogs solely genetic or learned?

Aggression in dogs is the result of both genetic factors and learned experiences. Genetics may provide the potential for aggression, but the environment will influence whether these behaviours are expressed.

About Me

Jim Gillies, a Certified Dog Behaviourist and Trainer in Glasgow with over 10 years of experience, prioritises canine well-being through modern, science-backed methods. Handling 4000+ cases of 1-to-1 behaviour training, Jim is fully accredited, insured, and recognised for addressing various behavioural issues including aggression, separation anxiety, and more. Jim holds qualifications in level 5 (merit) Advance Diploma Canine Behaviour Management and level 6 Applied Animal Behaviour. Explore his insightful blog and podcast, sharing expert knowledge on dog training and behaviour. Certified by the IAABC, Jim’s expertise makes him a reliable choice for addressing your dog’s needs.

Contact Information

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Genetic mapping of canine fear and aggression

National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI)

NCBI – Genetic mapping of canine fear and aggression​​

Review on Selected Aggression Causes and the Role of Neurocognitive Processes in Dogs

National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI)

NCBI – Review on Selected Aggression Causes and the Role of Neurocognitive Processes in Dogs​​

Canine Behavioral Genetics: Pointing Out the Phenotypes and Herding up the Genes

National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI)

NCBI – Canine Behavioral Genetics: Pointing Out the Phenotypes and Herding up the Genes​

Differential gene expression in brain tissues of aggressive and non-aggressive dogs

National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI)

NCBI – Differential gene expression in brain tissues of aggressive and non-aggressive dogs​​

Aggressiveness, ADHD-like Behavior, and Environment Influence on Canine Behavior


PubMed – Aggressiveness, ADHD-like behavior, and environment influence on canine behavior​​

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