Some dogs are quite social. Some will fetch, some bark at strangers, and others make their owners do all the work. For instance, the American Kennel Club described border collies as “smart, energetic, affectionate” and beagles as “merry, curious, friendly.”
While it’s easy to blame dogs’ conduct on their breed, genetic data from over 2,000 dog breeds, combined with self-reported questionnaires on over 18,000 dogs from dog owners, demonstrates that a dog’s breed isn’t a reliable predictor of its behavior. It averagely explains only 9 percent of the behavioral differences between individual dogs.
The six-year study was a massive project involving researchers from all around the United States. It was coordinated by senior author Elinor Karlsson, director of the vertebrate genomics department, and published on April 28 in the journal Science.
Dogs and their actions
The latest study, according to Karlsson, was the result of an investigation into obsessive dog habits. Dogs are a great model for human behavior since they are so tightly entwined with the human culture that they are even treated with human psychiatric medicines for behavioral abnormalities.
“Most people have assumed that dog breed is indicative of their behavior,” she says, “but that question had never been asked especially thoroughly.”
She anticipated that studying the genetics of dog behavior, such as whining, barking, and fetching, would help her understand the genetics of human behavior.
Her earlier research into dog genomes was hampered by a lack of access to canine DNA. Karlsson discovered that when she discussed her research with others, they were proud to show her a picture of their dogs, telling her everything about their dog’s behavior. Karlsson found that owners’ passion was perhaps the best method to learn more about dogs.
In a study published in 2019, researchers looked into whether genetics might analyze collective variance between breeds. They discovered that genes could describe some of these differences between (for example) chihuahuas and poodles. Karlsson and her colleagues, on the other hand, aimed to see the extent to which breed can predict behavior variation in individual dogs.
The team needed genetic and behavioral data from many canines to explore variance at the individual level. As a result, they created Darwin’s Ark, an open-source database in which over 18,000 dog owners completed surveys about their dogs’ behavior and characteristics.
The scientists asked over 100 questions on observable behaviors in the survey. They divided them into eight “behavioral characteristics,” such as how comfortable a dog is with humans and how receptive it is to commands. They also gathered genetic information from 2,155 purebred and mixed-breed dogs, including 1,715 canines from Darwin’s Ark whose owners mailed in saliva samples. Mixed-breed dogs, sometimes known as mutts, were included in the study to shed light on how heritage influences behavior while removing purebred prejudices that could influence how the dog is treated — and thus behaves.
Kathleen Morrill, a geneticist in Karlsson’s lab, says studying mutts also makes it easier to decouple traits from one another plus have a better chance of mapping a gene that is truly connected to the inquiry made on an individual level.
The researchers then merged each dog’s DNA and surveyed data to find genes linked to specific behaviors. According to the new study, human sociability is the strongest genetic behavioral characteristic for dogs. Motor patterns, such as howling and fetching, are also more heritable than other behaviors.
Results show that individual breeds are more likely to exhibit certain motor tendencies within breed groups. For instance, herding dogs are generally good with children and interested in toys. Even though certain behaviors were linked to dog breeds, they were not reliable predictors of individual behavior. Unsurprisingly, retrievers are more likely to retrieve. While retrievers are less prone to howl, some owners explained that their Retrievers frequently howled, and greyhounds hardly bury toys.
According to Adam Boyko, a canine geneticist at Cornell University who was not involved in the study, “while dog breeds differ on average in behavior, there is a lot of variety within breeds.”
Is there an aggressive type?
Although several dog breeds, such as American pit bull terriers, are prohibited or restricted in Australia, no breed in the survey stood out as particularly aggressive.
Professor Karlsson explained, “[Agonistic threshold] was exactly the behavioral aspect for which we detected almost zero indication of any breed variations.”
Rather than being impacted by genetic characteristics, these behaviors appeared to be influenced by environmental factors.
Curtis Kelley of Pet Parent Allies confirms the study
“Dogs are as unique as people,” he claims. “It’s certainly not a hard-and-fast rule,” says breed, who gives a general guideline for what behaviors to expect.
If a person is planning to get a dog, he advises against emphasizing the breed. Dogs can have highly varied personalities even within the same litter. “A dog will show you their true nature at about eight weeks old,” Kelley adds. “But it’s our duty to trust them.”
Best predictors of dog behavior
Sometimes people think of the breeds as sort of like catalog shopping. You can go to dog websites, and they’ll tell you, ‘If you want a dog that will be friendly with your kids, you should get these breeds.’ Professor Karlsson said.
“But you could get a dog from one of those breeds, and it just happens to be a dog that doesn’t like children.” In any breed, you’ve got a pretty good chance of getting a dog that’s not fitting the breed stereotype.”
According to the study, age or gender, rather than a breed, were the best predictors of behavior for some traits like activity level and playing with toys. But there were still subtle differences, with some breeds more likely to display traits that harked to their ancestral roots.
They were once wolves
Dogs evolved from ancestral wolves thousands of years ago and were gradually selected for hunting, guarding, or herding skills. The notion of breeds — selecting for physical and aesthetic traits such as color, size, and type of fur — only goes back around 160 years to the Victorian era.
One fascinating discovery was that dog friendliness toward people was “extremely heritable in dogs,” regardless of breed. The researchers discovered a region in dog DNA that could account for 4% of individual differences in sociability, and that region correlates to a region of the human genome involved in long-term memory formation.