jayellebee's Blog

February 16, 2012

Nature vs Nurture

Filed under: Musings — Joanne @ 3:27 pm
Tags: , ,

Identical twins, separated at birth and reunited as adults, make psychologists giddy.  How are they alike?  How do they differ?  Can the triggers for any divergence be pin-pointed?  Which has more influence on human development, nature or nurture?

Recent news stories of a convicted serial murderer directing officials where to look for his victims’ remains makes sane people wonder….  What possible cause could result in one person taking pleasure from killing others?  Was he genetically programmed to mayhem?  Did his mother potty train him too early?  Was his father too strict?

My three sons have three distinct personalities.  One is introverted, content to have one or two close friends, talented but adverse to drawing attention to himself.  Another enjoys being a team player, maintains close friendships with former classmates living in different states, and pushes himself to excell.  As a child, the third was the “peer” about whose pressure other parents warned their kids, doesn’t much care what the world thinks of him, and has the kindest heart I’ve ever known.

Considering all my guys have the same parents and  grew up in the same house with the same rules, I tend to think Nature has more impact than Nurture.  I offer my dog, Shadow, as Exhibit  A.

Shadow came to live with Ken and me when she was six months old.  She is the poster girl for obedient canines.  She  doesn’t bark other than to alert us when someone approaches the front door.  She doesn’t lick.  She doesn’t jump up on people.  She doesn’t chew on furniture or shoes.  Gentle, calm Shadow rests at our feet, radiating affection.

Well, most of the time.  She does have this one … “thing.”  The sweet girl thinks she’s a bird dog.

Keep in mind my hubby isn’t a hunter.  The dog has not been trained to flush birds or fetch downed prey.  But let a covey of quail cross our path, Canada geese honk from above, or the neighbor’s hens forage in their own front yard, and Shadow becomes transformedTransfixed.  Transfigured into a transgressor.

In these instances my faithful companion no longer hears my voice.   I believe a veterinary ophthalmologist (if there is such a person) would confirm she cannot see me, or anything else for that matter, because her entire world shrinks down to the feathered fowls in her sights.  Her brain ceases to process all extraneous input.  Nothing matters but the chase.

And so it was a few days ago.

In our rural neighborhood with little traffic, Shadow takes most of her walks off-leash.  However, due to an embarrassing event a few months ago, there is one short stretch of road where the leash is required.  Our neighbors occasionally allow their flock of Rhode Island Reds and Plymouth Rocks to hunt and peck outside their fenced-in coop.   One such day, Shadow discovered chickens will run around like, well, “like chickens with their heads cut off” when she chases them.  Ever since, I have not trusted her to pass the property in question unleashed.

Saturday I hitched her up some 50 yards before passing the Hen House.  We walked in the company of friends that day, and Shadow hardly gave a sideways glance as we passed her new favorite sprint site.  We walked another 50 yards without suspicious whining, pulling or any other indication the dog was plotting.  But the instant I un-clipped the woven tether from the tagged collar, she reversed course and ran faster than I would have believed possible.  Straight back to harass the egg-layers.

I am sad to report a beautiful black-and-white chicken lay motionless at my dog’s feet by the time I arrived at the scene of the crime.   Downy feathers clung to Shadow’s muzzle and front paws.  She plucked away, crazed by the thrill of the kill.  I needed all my strength to separate her from the lifeless body

No one was home to witness the murder.  For a moment, I fantasized about escaping undetected.  But then my conscience spoke up, reminding me of the distinction between right and wrong.  I marched Shadow up the hill in record time, holding her leash mere inches above her head, forcing her to keep pace, making sure she knew I was not pleased by her actions.  Once home, I wrote a note pleading shame and horror over what had happened.  The signed note, taped to a large bag, went onto the backseat and I drove back downhill.  As I lowered the still-warm bird’s body into the bag, the homeowner arrived.

“I’m Joanne,” I greeted him as he stepped from his car, the shopping bag heavy in my hands.  “We met last fall.  You might remember I have a Black Lab.”

He nodded, reaching back into the vehicle to unbuckle a toddler’s seat belt.

“Maybe you’d rather take your son inside first?”  I held the bag out, letting him consider what might be inside.

“No,” he answered.  “It’s all right.”  A second little boy leapt out of the car.

The two-year-old climbed from bumper to hood with ease, then scaled the sedan’s roof.  The young father’s demeanor told me this was common behavior, of no concern.  I had Dad’s full attention.

“I’m so sorry,” I began.  “I’ve tried to protect your flock from my dog, but she doubled back on me.”  I raised the bag, letting the evidence finish my apology.

My neighbor is a class act.  He put my discomfort aside, assuring me he understood the dog was following instinct.  We parted without harsh words or warnings regarding future encounters.  My head spun with relief.

Nature or nurture?  And, more to the point, do humans act out of instinct, too?  Yes, of course.  We protect our young.  We physically react to loud, unexpected noises.  But we also think on a higher level than Labrador Retrievers.  At least, most of us do.

Sad to say, there are some very real, very scary dogs among us.



  1. All so very true, which is why people are told to study the breed before they buy a pup. I have seen this often among adopted kids too, they carry the traits of their birth parents wherever they are brought up. Maybe they are better than their environment. All vey interesting.

    Comment by Jil Plummer — February 16, 2012 @ 3:44 pm | Reply

  2. OMG Joanne, what a story. I think dogs are God’s way of keeping us humble and giving us opportunities to do the right thing. You and your neighbor passed admirably.

    Comment by Chris Pedersen — February 16, 2012 @ 5:40 pm | Reply

  3. Whew! A real zinger, totally unexpected. Such solid work, Joanne, in setting the scene, letting us walk the walk with you and Shadow; in setting up the idea of nature or nurture with clear thumbnails of your sons’ distinctions; and then in gently pulling the thread to come full circle. Great read.

    Comment by Jean G — February 17, 2012 @ 12:04 pm | Reply

  4. Great article, as usual. Instinct (or nature) clearly is inbred in animals. Shadow just couldn’t help herself. It is in her DNA. I’m glad the neighbor was so understanding. Alas, poor Shadow is now in the dog house! Go easy on her. Nature will out.

    Comment by Bee Hylinski - Author and Baseball Fan — February 18, 2012 @ 12:50 pm | Reply

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