Dogs are often stereotyped by their breed. The characteristics and behaviors of certain breeds often determines what dogs people decide to bring home as pets.
This kind of thinking can have a negative impact: it can make people choose breeders instead of adopting dogs from shelters, and negative stereotypes about certain dogs can keep them from being adopted at all: pit bulls, a breed often thought of as being vicious and aggressive, are the most common dog found in shelters.
But as any experienced dog owner will tell you, it’s all about a dog’s upbringing, not their breed, that determines their behavior. Now, one major scientific study has confirmed this, revealing that breed does not play a significant factor in determining a dog’s personality.
The findings of the massive research study were released on Science on Thursday. The study sequenced the genomes of over 2,100 dogs and conducted owner surveys for over 18,000, to “investigate how genetics aligns with breed characteristics.”
Their findings revealed that while a dog’s breed determines physical characteristics, it is “generally a poor predictor of individual behavior and should not be used to inform decisions relating to selection of a pet dog.”
While there are certain characteristics that might be found more in some dog breeds than others, breed “offers little predictive value for individuals” and explains only a 9% variation in behavior.
“When you adopt a dog based on its breed, you’re getting a dog that looks a certain way,” co-author Elinor Karlsson, a computational biologist at the University of Massachusetts in Worcester, told Nature.com. “But as far as behavior goes, it’s kind of luck of the draw.”
Breed can be a predictive factor for certain traits: biddability, or how well a dog responds to human directions, was found to be the most heritable trait: the study found that biddability did align with border collies, a breed known to be easy to train.
But the study didn’t find a connection between things like human sociability and Labrador retriever DNA. It also found that breed was a poor predictor of traits like how frightened or provoked by stimuli a dog might be.
The study also found that personality types varied among dogs of the same breed, which isn’t news to many dog owners.
“Anyone who’s owned eight dogs from the same breed will tell you all about their different personalities,” Karlsson said.
“I’ve known Labradors who’ve howled and Papillons who pointed and greyhounds who retrieved as well as retrievers who didn’t,” Dr. Kathryn Lord, co-author of the paper and evolutionary biologist also of the Broad Institute and the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School, told the New York Times.
“[The study] totally makes sense to me,” added Dr. Cynthia Otto, director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “I think there are some big picture behavioral traits more common in some breeds than others, but the individual variation is so high within a breed.”
Dog breeding as we know it today only began about 200 years ago, so it’s a relatively recent invention — and this study reveals that even selective breeding cannot fully produce dogs with certain definite traits.
“Behavior is complicated,” Dr. Karlsson told NBC News. “It involves dozens if not hundreds of changes in different genes. It involves the environment. The idea that you could create behavior and select it in breeds in just 150 years just didn’t make any sense. We knew it had to be a lot older than that.”
“Genetics matter, but genetics are a nudge in a given direction. They’re not a destiny,” Evan MacLean, the director of the Arizona Canine Cognition Center at the University of Arizona, told NPR. “We’ve known that for a long time in human studies, and this paper really suggests that the same is true for dogs.”
The study means good news for dogs that have been unfairly judged based on their breed. According to Science, the study found that pit bulls were found to not be more aggressive than other dogs.
“The behavior of these animals is shaped by their environment, not their breed,” Karlsson said.
“It’s a major advance in how we think about dog behavior,” says Elaine Ostrander, an expert in canine genetics at the U.S. National Human Genome Research Institute. “No breed owns any particular trait.”
This study confirms what many dog lovers already knew: that it’s not about a dog’s breed, but how they’re treated and raised.
Hopefully, this research will inspire more people to open their hearts to unfairly-maligned dog breeds, and to adopt dogs from shelters rather than buying from breeders.
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