The nature of the dog

Love and intuition, although essential, are not sufficient to influence a dog’s behaviour in the desired direction. It also takes knowledge and consciously adopted strategies, which can open up many promising new opportunities. A certain amount of firmness and self-discipline are also required, particularly when selecting breeding animals. The possibilities of dog breeding have not yet been sufficiently explored. This assessment of the situation should not be taken as a criticism. It simply means that we should be able to breed and rear even better dogs than we have done in the past, which should act as an incentive for us to make our activity as fulfilling as possible.

Each of the following factors has a significant influence on a dog’s nature, and in particular that of the St Bernard:




The history of the domestication of the dog is the subject of much speculation. New conclusions have been drawn by studying cultures in which dogs continue to be kept in the original way. Today, it is generally accepted that dogs separated from wolves a long time ago (perhaps even as long as 140,000 years ago) and voluntarily came to live close to human settlements, surviving on any rubbish they could find. The tamer, less anxious dogs were at an advantage because they were keener to approach people and moved closer to human settlements than the shyer dogs. As a result, they were quite unconsciously selected for their tameness.

A similar selection for tameness occurred in Russia with foxes. It is interesting to note that as the selection for tameness progressed, physical signs of domestication such as drooping ears, ring tails and spots appeared in the animals. What is more – and this is the key to understanding the nature of the dog – the behaviour of the tame foxes remained puppy-like even amongst the adults. Unlike their wolf relatives, the dogs we have selected for their tameness remain puppy-like throughout their lives. Even fully grown dogs enjoy games and physical contact, frequently behave in a submissive manner and bark, to give but a few examples. In addition, most breeds (with the possible exception of the terrier) only show rudimentary prey-catching behaviour. Thank goodness, for an adult wolf would not make a very good playmate for a child!

St Bernards are amongst the most puppy-like dog breeds, although there are substantial variations within the breed itself. This is what makes the St Bernard one of the most friendly dog breeds of all. When breeding and rearing St Bernards, particular attention should therefore be paid to their friendliness, lack of aggressiveness and absence of hunting behaviour.

Incidentally, not only have people had an effect on the domestication of the dog, but the dog has also had an effect on the development of the human race. Homo sapiens was originally a much more aggressive, intolerant species than modern man! People who were less aggressive and more tolerant towards dogs had an advantage. They could use a dog as an early warning system to alert them of approaching danger (unlike wolves, dogs continue to bark frequently, even as adults). It is therefore true to say that dogs selected people for their tolerance and tameness. Dogs and people developed alongside each other in this way for a long time, each having a mutual effect on and depending on the other. Any politicians who are hostile to dogs should be reminded of this fact as often as possible.

Another important step towards the integration of dogs into human society took place approximately 12,000 to14,000 years ago, when the dog became accepted as a close companion for people and children. A grave was even discovered with a puppy buried in the arms of its deceased owner.

Today, the dog is a man’s best friend. In our culture, the dog has become a member of the family. People feel a need to share their food with their dog, to let their dog sleep on their bed at night, to hold conversations with their dog and so on. Their relationship with their dog covers many of the social and emotional needs that are often lacking in our society. Dogs react well to human gestures, take a person’s emotional state into account and behave accordingly. When breeding dogs, the emphasis should always be placed on this primary role of the dog.


Genetics and selection


Genetic influences on the nature of the dog were documented a long time ago by Scott and Fuller, and more recently by other researchers, and Swedish scientists in particular. It has been shown that different types of behaviour are affected by individual genes or groups of genes, that some of the major behavioural differences between breeds are determined by genes, and that major individual genetic differences can exist even within individual breeds.

We have already highlighted the fact that in comparison with the wolf, certain breeds such as the St Bernard behave in a more puppy-like fashion than others (e.g. the terrier), and are therefore more suitable as family pets in terms of behaviour. They are generally also more amicable towards each other and love social and physical contact.

After observing many different types of behaviour in dogs, Swedish researchers noticed that variations in behaviour can be grouped together (to give a very simple example, when dogs pull in their tails, it is usually a sign that they are avoiding something). They defined four main characteristics: playfulness/curiosity, fearlessness, retrieval behaviour (an aspect of prey-catching), and social aggressiveness. Variations in the first three are not as interdependent and can therefore be combined into a primary dimension of a dog’s nature “Courage↔Timidity”. Aggressiveness varies separately from the other characteristics.

From our point of view, the key points to note are that genes contribute a great deal to the strength of these characteristics, and that characteristics can vary enormously, even within the same breed. Consequently, it is worth carrying out genetic selection on the basis of behaviour - breeding progress can be achieved relatively quickly by applying consistent selection.

Unfortunately, dogs currently tend to be selected almost exclusively according to the image of their breed. It has been found that although the dogs produced by conformation breeding are less aggressive, they are also more afraid of objects, people and other dogs, as well as being less playful and less curious. And yet sociability and playfulness are two essential characteristics for a family pet. When it comes to the “courage↔timidity” dimension of a dog’s nature, we are a long way from the desired characteristics of a household animal.

Unfortunately, dogs currently tend to be selected almost exclusively according to the image of their breed. It has been found that although the dogs produced by conformation breeding are less aggressive, they are also more afraid of objects, people and other dogs, as well as being less playful and less curious. And yet sociability and playfulness are two essential characteristics for a family pet. When it comes to the “courage↔timidity” dimension of a dog’s nature, we are a long way from the desired characteristics of a household animal.


Influence of gender and castration


The male foetus produces testosterone for a short time just before a dog is born. This sex hormone has a significant influence on brain development: the brain is defeminised (this can be seen for instance from the fact that the sexual behaviour of a male dog does not follow a cycle, unlike that of a bitch), and the brain is masculinised. Testosterone predestines the male dog for male behaviour such as acting aggressively towards other male dogs, lifting their legs to urinate, marking their territory, roaming around and adopting male sexual behaviour. Castration cannot fully reverse this process, and in some cases has no noticeable impact on a dog’s behaviour. Nor can castration before puberty completely prevent the development of this type of behaviour, which still appears to a certain extent at the normal age of puberty.


Environmental influences on the development of puppies


In order to evaluate the extent of environmental influences on the behavioural development of puppies, it is important to realise that the nervous system, including sensorial organs such as the eyes and ears, only develop as a reaction to environmental influences. Without stimulation, parts of the nervous system do not develop, and are unable to do so after a specific sensitive period has elapsed, i.e. after the age of about 4 months in the case of dogs, even if the animal subsequently finds itself in an appropriate environment.

Environmental influences are at work even before a puppy is born. Foetal diet and oxygen supply play a key role in its development, and depend on the health, diet and mental state of the mother. Puppies can even develop a preference for the taste of the bitch’s food whilst they are still in the womb.

New-born puppies react to warmth, smell and touch immediately after birth, and should therefore be handled on a regular basis as soon as possible. They also react in a positive manner to the slight (!) stress caused by being picked up. They develop faster, become mentally more well-balanced adult dogs, and find it easier to socialise with people.

As the other senses develop, and the ears and eyes in particular, appropriate stimulation is required. It has been established that dogs who have already been exposed to traffic by the dog-breeder (and who have not only heard the noise of traffic, but also seen cars driving past), are less likely to develop noise phobia later on (e.g. a fear of thunder or of the sound of shots being fired) than dogs who have not had the same experience for instance. Of course, the stimulus must always be dosed in such a way that a puppy does not become scared or stressed.

Socialising with different categories of people (a variety of races and ages, people with disabilities) as well as with other dogs (a mixture of breeds) and other animals (cats!), is of course very important, particularly between the 4th and 14th weeks of life. It is also imperative to desensitise puppies against things such as touching their feet, having somebody’s hand put into their mouth, etc. A detailed section about the prevention of behavioural problems will be published shortly on the Barry Foundation website.

Dogs that are not given this type of experience will develop sensorial deficits and/or behavioural abnormalities, particularly fear and aggression.

It is extremely likely that traumatic experiences early on in a dog’s life will lead to lasting, negative consequences that cannot be reversed. Such experiences should be avoided as much as possible, without preventing puppies from discovering their environment.


Learning process and training


Firstly, dogs always learn to connect a particular situation with their experience of it, whatever the situation might be. It is particularly important to bear this in mind as far as the use of punishment is concerned. When punished, a dog will perceive the entire situation in a negative way, and will show fear and conflictual behaviour if put in the same situation again. The dog will attempt to avoid the same situation as much as possible in the future (e.g. the training ground!). Adopting a technique involving rewards makes the working situation a pleasant one. The dog will continue to participate willingly and will be more receptive to training. Using a mixture of punishment and rewards will probably mean that the dog will never know whether to be happy or frightened when it finds itself in a particular situation. The dog’s behaviour will no doubt become conflictual. Tests have shown that dogs react in an extremely negative manner to attempts to use such mixed training methods!

The second point is that behaviour learnt later on in life is usually reversible (i.e. it is possible to teach a dog to behave in a different way in the same situation), whereas behaviour learnt early on in life (within the first 14 weeks or so) is generally irreversible and very difficult to change, even with the help of medication. This explains why the first few weeks of life are so incredibly important. However, the success of training or changes in behaviour always depends on the temperament of the dog (particularly with regard to anxiety).

Thirdly, we must be consistent in our training methods. In other words, we must always react to a dog’s behaviour immediately and predictably. If we fail to do so, the dog loses control over its environment and social interactions, and becomes insecure and frustrated (which is exactly how we would react if our computer did not react to our commands in a predictable way!) This is particularly true of trainable breeds (such as the Malinois or the Border Collie), who tend to become aggressive out of frustration. They may even develop psychopathy. Fortunately, St Bernards are extremely tolerant. We should nonetheless bear this in mind and not stress dogs unnecessarily or push them to the limits of their tolerance.




As dogs get older, their sensorial and cognitive abilities decline. Old dogs are unable to hear as well as younger dogs, and their sight also weakens. These two facts must always be taken into consideration if a dog’s behaviour changes with age, if a dog stops obeying commands or if a dog becomes anxious or easily frightened or even aggressive. Pain caused by arthritis amongst other things can also modify a dog’s behaviour and trigger aggressiveness. Administering medicaments (pain killers!) and adopting an understanding attitude towards the dog can help.

Many old dogs also develop an illness that is very similar to Alzheimer’s disease in humans. They may feel disorientated, cease to be house-trained, no longer recognise their owners, stop obeying commands, not sleep at night, seem constantly restless or anxious, run off, etc.  It becomes very difficult to live with a dog affected by these symptoms. The illness clearly causes great suffering to the dog, who often cuts itself off from the world and its family. There is no cure for the illness although the symptoms can be treated with medication, sometimes enabling a dog to continue to live a normal life for years.

Our veteran dogs deserve to be treated with extra respect. Predictability, respect and routine are especially important for older dogs. We should continue to include them in our daily lives as much as possible. Many training centres have started offering classes that are specially adapted for older dogs to encourage them to use the capacities they still have, taking into account their age and their health.