We may be unfairly stereotypical dogs, new data show.
Modern breeds are often recognized by physical features. Bat-like chihuahua ears. Curly hair of poodles. Long bodies and short legs of dachshunds. Breeds are often associated with certain behaviors. The American Kennel Club describes border collies as “affectionate, smart, energetic,” for example. Beagles are “friendly, curious, cheerful.”
But new evidence suggests that the breed is a bad predictor of your dog’s behavior. A study gathered genetic information from more than 2,000 dogs. This information was combined with responses to surveys from thousands of dog owners. On average, the breed explains only 9 percent of the behavioral differences between individual dogs, the study shows.
The researchers shared their findings on April 29 science.
Eleanor Carlson is studying dog genetics. He works at the Chan School of Medicine at the University of Massachusetts in Worcester. “Everyone assumed that the breed was predictive of the dogs’ behavior,” she told a briefing on April 26. But “this has never been asked very well.”
A 2019 study linked genetics to some variation between breeds in general. Genes could explain some of the differences between, say, the behavior of poodles and chihuahuas. But Carlson and her colleagues wanted to know about people. How well does a breed predict a dog’s behavior?
Call all dogs
For this, the team needed genetic and behavioral data from many dogs. That’s how they designed Darwin’s coffin. This is a database where pet owners can share information about their animals. More than 18,000 owners took part. They answered more than 100 questions about the dog’s traits and observed behavior. The researchers then grouped these data into eight “behavioral factors.” One of the factors was how comfortable the dog was around people. Another was how well he responded to commands.
The researchers also collected genetic data from 2,155 dogs. These include 1,715 dogs from the Darwin Ark, where owners have sent dog saliva tampons. The team made sure to include both purebred and mixed dogs or mutts. Stereotypes about purebreds can affect how these dogs are treated – and behave that way. Mutters do not come with the same expectations. So murky data can help focus on how genes appear to influence behavior.
Studying mutters also helps with individual traits that are often found together in purebreds, says Kathleen Morrell. She is a geneticist in Carlson’s laboratory. “And that means you’ll have a better chance on an individual basis [identifying] a gene that is actually related to the question you are asking. “
The team then combined genetic and study data for individual dogs. They looked for genes that seemed to be related to certain traits. Comfort around people is emerging as a behavioral factor most strongly associated with genetics. Movement-based behaviors – such as howling and returning – are also passed down through genes more than other traits.
That makes sense, Catherine Lord said at the briefing. She is studying the evolution of dogs with Carlson. Modern breeding has only existed for the last few hundred years. Before that, dogs were chosen for how well they did work, such as hunting or herding. The effects of these elections are still being seen in breed groups today. For example, shepherd dogs tend to respond well to commands and be interested in toys.
It is therefore not surprising that a breed as a whole may be more likely to exhibit certain behaviors. As their name suggests, retrievers are more likely to retrieve than individuals of other breeds.
But in the study, the breed did not always predict how a separate dog would behave. As a group, retrievers are less likely to howl. However, some owners report that their retrievers often howl. And greyhounds rarely bury toys – although some do.
Individual as people
The results support what people observe: Dog breeds differ on average in behavior. However, there are many variations within the breeds, says Adam Boyko. He did not participate in this project. However, he studied canine genetics at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York
Body size had even less of an effect on individual dog behavior. This may come as a surprise, Boyko said. Small dogs are often thought to be more fun than large ones, for example. In fact, size had almost no effect on the fun. If small dogs do behave worse than large ones, Boyko says, it may have little to do with their genetics. “I think we usually tolerate bad behavior more in small dogs than in big dogs,” he said.
Curtis Kelly is a dog trainer at Pet Parent Allies in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. “Dogs are as individual as humans,” he said. Breed gives free guidance on what type of behavior to expect. “But that’s certainly not a hard and fast rule.”
When looking to buy a dog, he says, don’t invest too much in his breed. Even within a litter, dogs can show many different personalities. “A puppy will show you who is eight weeks old,” he says. “It’s just our job to trust them.”