Fetching Labrador Retrievers, herding Border Collies, howling Huskies: It’s a common belief that many dog breeds act a certain way because they were bred that way over many generations.
But one new study appears in the magazine on Friday Science notes that while some dog behaviors are indeed associated with specific breeds, overall breed plays less of a role than is commonly believed.
“We found that things like German Shorthaired Pointers are slightly more likely to show, or golden retrievers are slightly more likely to retrieve, or huskies are more likely to howl than the general canine population,” says Kathryn Lord, a researcher at UMass Chan Medical School and author of the study.
Researchers interviewed the owners of more than 18,000 dogs and analyzed the DNA of about 2,100 animals to see if physical traits and behaviors could be correlated with dog breeds.
Overall, the study found that approximately 9% of the variation in behavior in an individual dog can be explained by its breed.
Border Collies, for example, were more responsive to human direction, a trait known as “bid ability.” Beagle, Bloodhound, Coonhound and Siberian Huskie owners will not be surprised to learn that these breeds were prone to howling.
The same was true for mixed-breed dogs, the researchers found — the higher the percentage of border collies in a mutt, the better it responded to human commands.
“From a genetic perspective, that’s fantastic. It means there are real behavioral differences associated with races that we can study,” says Elinor Karlsson, a professor at UMass Chan Medical School and another author of the study.
Why dogs may not behave like others of the same breed
The researchers found enormous behavioral differences in individual dogs of the same breed.
Although, on the whole, golden retrievers are more likely to fetch than many other dogs, there are plenty of lazy golden retrievers who will sit and watch as their owners unsuccessfully toss tennis balls.
And no behavior is unique to a single breed, the researchers said. German Shorthaired Pointers aren’t the only dogs to show off.
“Genetics are important, but genetics are a nudge in a certain direction. She’s not destiny,” Evan MacLean, the director of the Arizona Canine Cognition Center at the University of Arizona, who was not involved in the research, tells NPR. “We’ve known this from human studies for a long time, and this paper really suggests that the same is true for dogs.”
The most likely explanation for the relatively low correlation between behavior and breed, according to the article’s authors, is that many modern dog breeds are relatively new in the evolutionary framework of things.
Organized dog breeding, with kennel clubs and other groups regulating physical traits and tracking lines, has only existed in its present form since the mid-19th century.
In contrast, humans have helped shape dog behavior thousands of yearsthe researchers said — first by giving helpful dogs food and shelter so they can have puppies more easily, and then later by intentionally breeding.
“The thing about complex traits is that it takes time to select them,” says Karlsson. “And so the idea that they arose in the last 160 years when these breeds came up didn’t make sense.”
Dog owners were a great help in the study
To create their dataset, the researchers set up a website called Darwin’s Ark which allows dog owners to upload data about their dogs and answer questions about both physical characteristics – how big their dog is, how long their coat is – and their dog’s behavior: Do they shake toys? Do you avoid getting wet? are they crying
The study’s reliance on owner surveys is both good and bad, says MacLean of the University of Arizona.
On the one hand, owner surveys allow for enormous sample sizes — in this case, well over 18,000 survey responses — but on the other hand, the information gathered from surveys is almost always less reliable than results from a lab setting, he says.
“We want to put dogs in a situation that we can control, and we can treat each dog the same way and be a little more objective about the behavior that we see,” says MacLean.
Researchers hope the paper can help aspiring dog owners change the way they think about choosing a dog.
“I don’t think we should really decide that breed is the things that tell us if we’re going to be happy with a dog or if a dog is going to be happy with us,” says Marjie Alonso, another author of the study’s Executive Director the IAABC Foundation, an animal training organization.
Instead, she suggests that potential owners make a list of what they would like to do with a dog and then try to find a dog that fits those needs.
“We have to accept that our dogs are individuals. Every dog is a study of one,” she says. “We want to accept our dogs as they are.”
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