- Dogs, like other animals and humans, will imprint on important figures in their early life.
- As a result, they may grow familiar with and gravitate toward dogs who have a certain appearance, odor, etc.
- Size and play style may also play a role in preferences about which dogs to spend more time with.
An essay by Jon Zeller called "Can Dogs Tell the Difference Between Breeds?" has resulted in countless emails flying into my inbox this morning. Many people rephrase this question into something like, "Do dogs know their own breed or mix?" The bottom line, based on interviews with many dog experts, is simply, "No, they don't know their own breed or mix." Sarah Byosiere, director of the Thinking Dog Center at Hunter College, agrees: “Right now, I don’t think we have a ton of actual research that would back most of those claims up... However, that doesn’t mean the phenomenon [of dogs differentiating between breeds] isn’t occurring.”
Dogs can, of course, tell the differences between individual dogs and who's a friend, a newcomer, or a foe. While it appears that these sorts of discriminations are based on breed or mix, other explanations better account for these observations while leaving the door open that dogs might know their own breed and prefer others of the same genetic makeup.
Some pilot data on whether or not dogs know their own breed or mix
I'm a fan of citizen science, so after I talked with Zeller, I asked 100 people if their dog recognized dogs of the same breed or mix. Their answers didn't surprise me at all, based on talking with people at dog parks during the past few decades. Of the 100 people I queried, 84 said they were sure—they knew—their dog recognized and preferred other dogs of their own breed or mix, 13 said their dogs didn't, and 3 said they didn't know. When I asked if their dogs preferred dogs of their own breed or mix, 24 people said they did, while 76 said they didn't think so or didn't know.
Since there's no scientific evidence that dogs recognize dogs of their own breed or prefer to interact with them, but numerous people claim they do, it's interesting to think about what factors might account for why this myth persists. Here are a few:
Imprinting. Imprinting simply refers to the phenomenon of a dog or other animal, including humans, preferring individuals or objects with certain characteristics with whom or with which they had contact early in life. In the natural world, the first individual is typically a harmless friend, such as their mother or other family or group member. Imprinting can aid in species recognition, and imprinting to sounds can occur prenatally. So, it's not surprising that Jason wrote, "I’ll tell you from personal experience that my dog recognizes other Rhodesian Ridgebacks, without a doubt, which only makes sense since she was surrounded by them as a puppy." Whether Jason's dog recognizes "Rhodesian Ridgebacks" as her own breed is another matter.1
Appearance. What a dog looks like might also influence a dog's preferences for others. Byosiere rightly notes, "Dogs can develop preferences for certain appearances in other pups. We can make some inferences like maybe a dog who has a really fun dog friend who is white and fluffy might associate that positive experience with other white, fluffy dogs.”
Sight. Dogs don't know what they look like, or if they do, it's likely a very rough representation of who they are.2 It's unlikely dogs use this information to identify breed or mix.
Sound. Someone once asked me if perhaps dogs recognize breed or mix based on vocalizations. I don't think so.
Smell.A dog might prefer a dog who smells like them. Some people have suggested that each breed might have a unique odor that helps dogs to know that they are members of the same breed, however, dogs carry lots of different odors on them from rolling here and there and from their surroundings, and I don’t see how a breed-specific odor, if there is one, would retain its integrity and be used for breed recognition.
Familiarity. Imprinting equates with familiarity, and dogs can become familiar with dogs of a certain size, look, or odor early or later in life and simply feel more comfortable with them and prefer them over other dogs. These preferences don't necessarily have anything to do with a dog's recognition of their own breed or seeing, hearing, or smelling themselves in another dog.
Play style. Dog breeds don't have distinct personalities. Focussing on social play, Dale McLelland, a certified dog trainer in the UK, wrote to me that play styles have a huge influence on a dog's preference for dogs with similar styles or similar likes being drawn to each other. She wrote, "There are the chasers, the play fighters, and those who like a quieter companion. Mixing those play styles rarely makes for a continued friendship between dogs." I agree.
She also wrote, "At my daycare, we have what we affectionately call the 'Socially Awkward Club.' These are dogs that are quieter and don't want to get involved in boisterous play but will hang about together and randomly have a little burst of play, only ever chasing with them, never rough and tumble... dogs know from first sight what type of play style other dogs have. If they are too excited or boisterous in any way, my little group of quiet dogs will not welcome them in."3
Size. Dogs might prefer dogs of the same or similar size, which would be correlated with breed or mix. I don't think this is a major factor, but it might be related to play style—a small dog might not like to be crushed by a larger dog, even in fun, and a large dog might not like to be nipped at by a more agile, faster dog.
Where to from here?
It's useful to learn why many people think their dog recognizes and prefers dogs of the same breed or mix. While this doesn't seem to be the case, one thing is for sure: While we know a lot about dog behavior, there still are many basic questions for which we know next to nothing. The more I know, the more I say, "I don't know." Perhaps when citizen scientists weigh in, we'll learn more. Clearly, we need systematic research about why and how dogs form preferences for other individuals, and I look forward to seeing what we learn.
1) Imprinting also accounts for the formation of what we call "odd couples"—friendships forming between members of different species, including predators and prey.
2) A study published in the late ‘60s suggested that when birds drink water they might learn what they look like. I don't think dogs do.
3) I agree and while my data are preliminary, I once scored dogs for play style and there was a trend for like to prefer like and it had nothing to do with breed or mix.
Dog Breeds Don't Have Distinct Personalities. (Individual dogs have personalities that can make characterizing a breed dicey.)
Zeller, Jon. Can Dogs Tell the Difference Between Breeds? The Farmer's Dog Digest. January 17, 2023.