Americans have as many dog stereotypes as there are distinct breeds: Chihuahuas are nervous; border collies are hyperactive; golden retrievers are great with children; and, most infamously, some large breeds – like the American Pit Bull Terrier and the Rottweiler – are aggressive.
But a research paper published Thursday by scientists studying the link between genetics and behavior in dogs suggests that our preconceptions may be wrong.
Breed means very little in predicting an individual dog’s behavior and personality, the researchers found. This seems to be especially true for traits that are most often associated with a dog’s personality, qualities such as gentleness, friendliness to strangers, and aggression.
“The dog’s appearance won’t really tell you what the dog looks like,” said Marjie Alonso, co-author of the study and executive director of the IAABC Foundation, the charitable arm of the International Association for Animal Behavior. Advisors.
More than 2,000 dogs in genetic study
The study, published in Science, looked at the genes of more than 2,000 dogs associated with 200,000 survey responses from dog owners about their pets’ behaviors. The researchers looked at data only on dogs that live primarily as pets and did not investigate how genes influence bred working dogs to perform specific tasks.
Breed only accounted for about 9% of behavioral variation in individual dogs and no trait was unique to any one breed of dog, according to the study. The researchers assume that much of the rest of the differences between dogs comes down to individual experiences, training and other environmental factors.
“We believe that almost all traits are influenced by both genetics and environment,” said Elinor Karlsson, study author and professor at the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School and the Broad Institute.
Although some traits seemed to coincide with existing beliefs about races, others contradicted deeply held stereotypes. Labradors and Golden Retrievers scored high on average in “human sociability” – a measure of a dog’s receptivity to unfamiliar people. This discovery goes hand in hand with the reputation of these breeds as friendly dogs. But American Pit Bull Terriers, a breed that has been banned in some cities and is often not allowed to live in apartment complexes due to the belief that it is aggressive and destructive, have also gotten accolades. high scores in human sociability, according to the study.
“We knew what we were finding didn’t fit people’s stereotypes and what they feel is their lived experience with dogs,” Karlsson said.
Like breed, dog size has almost no effect on behavioral differences between dogs, according to the study. “You’ll never have a Great Dane-sized Chihuahua, and you’ll never have a Chihuahua-sized Great Dane,” Karlsson added, “but you can definitely have a Chihuahua that acts like a Great Dane, and you can have a Great Dane with the same personality as a Chihuahua.”
Certain traits were more likely to be associated with certain breeds – but these were largely related to functional behaviors such as howling, pointing, fetching, herding and playing with toys. On average, beagles and bloodhounds are more likely to howl. German Shorthaired Pointers are more likely to point. Herding breeds tended to be easier to bid – or easily train – and play with toys more than other breeds. And, as you might expect, breeds classified as retrievers had a greater propensity to retrieve than other dog types.
The breed of a dog does not guarantee any behavior
Yet many individual beagles rarely howl, and some golden retrievers refuse to fetch; a dog’s breed does not guarantee any specific behavior, according to the study.
Traits such as howling and herding are classified as “motor patterns” in the study, and these behaviors existed in dogs long before the emergence of modern breeds around 200 years ago in the Victorian era.
“Motor patterns existed before dogs and existed in early dogs that scavenged for human waste,” said Kathryn Lord, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School and another study author.
The first dogs to exist evolved from wolves over 2,000 years ago and developed traits that helped them live alongside humans, where they could survive by eating people’s food scraps rather than while hunting. Humans helped promote desirable traits in early dogs by feeding and caring for them, which helped helpful dogs live longer and produce more puppies. It’s only in the last 200 years that people have begun to select specific physical traits to produce dogs in our modern breed categories.
The researchers also asked thousands of people to identify the breeds closest to 30 mixed-breed dogs, and they found that people couldn’t easily identify the pooch breed. Respondents performed slightly better than chance when choosing the breed closest to mixed-breed dogs.
The study authors said dispelling stereotypes about our dogs can help people make more informed choices when selecting pets and can also affect breed-specific laws and policies that prevent people to own certain dogs.
“Some races are judged both fairly and unfairly,” Alonso said.