How Much of Dog Behavior Is Linked to Breed Genetics?

Data show that many dog behaviors are strongly inherited.

Posted Oct 11, 2019

carterse (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Source: carterse (CC BY-SA 2.0)

An ongoing question of concern to researchers interested in dog behavior is just how much of it is coded in their DNA. According to the findings of a research team headed by Evan McLean of the University of Arizona, it seems that the answer is quite a lot.

People have tinkered with the genetics of dogs for close to 300 years, which was when we first began to see the emergence of defined dog breeds. A dog breed is a particular strain or canine type that was purposefully bred by humans to create or enhance certain traits. Although today many people only think of dog breeds as separating dogs on the basis of their looks, the sort of thing that is judged in conformation shows like the Westminster Kennel Club spectacular or at Crufts, the original goals had to do with canine behavior. Thus the idea was to generate lines of dogs which would excel in the performance of specific tasks, such as herding, hunting, and guarding. According to the American Kennel Club, the rule of thumb is that any given breed of dog "always breeds true." That means to say that all members of a given breed will share a defined set of physical and behavioral traits.

I have always been astonished when I see the emergence of inherited behaviors in dogs. For example, I have seen an eight-week-old Border Collie pup demonstrating herding behavior around sheep. Similarly, I have seen a five-week-old German Short Haired Pointer puppy displaying a perfect point at a bunch of feathers dangled in front of him, a six-week-old Golden Retriever retrieving a duck-shaped toy, and a nine-week-old Cairn Terrier pup pouncing on a mouse and killing it in the traditional terrier fashion. However, dog experts who look at these breed specific behaviors often come to the conclusion that these are inherited patterns of specific skills, while at the same time they are more hesitant to assume that basic psychological characteristics such as intelligence, aggression or fearfulness are also inherited.

I remember the skepticism which I met with from some scientists when I published my book The Intelligence of Dogs, which ranked dog breeds in terms of intelligence (one aspect of which was trainability). The idea that intelligence and trainability were inherited breed-related characteristics seemed farfetched to them. Yet every year, if you look at the top-10 dog obedience competitors listed by the American Kennel Club, Canadian Kennel Club, and British Kennel Club, you will see that my conclusions are confirmed by the overwhelming preponderance of Golden Retrievers, Border Collies, Poodles, and Labrador Retrievers heading the lists of best dogs in both standard obedience competitions and rally obedience competitions. All of these breeds were at the top of my intelligence rankings.

This new research took advantage of three large, specialized databases. Two of these map the genetic codes of dogs, while the third contains information about behavior propensities in a large sample of dogs. All of these databases also contain information which allows the researchers to identify purebred dogs by breed.

The information about dog behavior came from the C-BARQ database, which includes information from over 14,000 dogs. C-BARQ is a long, highly validated questionnaire through which dog owners describe typical behaviors they observe in their dogs. The results break down to 14 different behavior dimensions including trainability, several varieties of aggression, several types of fearfulness, attachment (actually attention seeking and affection seeking), energy, and chasing behaviors. From this data collection a score could be computed for each of 101 dog breeds for all 14 of the C-BARQ behavior dimensions. With this in hand, the researchers then searched the genotype databases for overall similarities in the DNA for breeds that had comparable behavior scores. Despite thousands of genetic variants, 131 stuck out as significantly associated with the measured breeds’ behavior. Not surprisingly, most of these were associated with brain function and development.

The results indicate that for some behavior traits genes seem to account for 60 to 70 percent of the behavioral variation among breeds. Included in these highly heritable behavior dimensions was trainability, at which Golden Retrievers, Border Collies, and Poodles were found to excel while Basset Hounds and Beagles seem to be genetically programmed to be less trainable.

Another highly heritable trait was aggression towards strangers, with German Shepherds and Chow Chows genetically disposed toward high aggression, while Greyhounds and Labrador Retrievers appear to inherit a much more placid temperament.

Attachment and attention seeking also appears encoded in canine DNA with breeds like the Cocker Spaniel and the Flat Coated Retriever being extremely affectionate, while Great Pyrenees and Akitas inherit a much more aloof and antisocial propensity.

Chasing behaviors also are strongly inherited with Siberian Huskies and Airedales having the highest likelihood to show these behaviors while Newfoundlands and Chihuahuas was are the least likely to do so.

Looking at the remaining 10 behavior dimensions (including energy level and various forms of fearfulness) the researchers found that the genetic contribution hovered around 50 percent. While some scientists will be quick to point out that this means that differences in environment, individual history, and training play are equally important to the genetic contribution in shaping these behaviors, having 50 percent of a behavior coming from a dog's DNA will provide a significant aid or detriment in our ability to control any specific behavior. Fighting an inherited impediment is difficult, while taking advantage of an inherited predisposition can make life easy.

To give an example of this on the trainability dimension, my Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever, Ranger, was able to earn four obedience degrees by the time he was 18 months of age while my beloved Beagle, Darby, was four years old before he earned his first obedience title. Both were trained similarly, by me, but in one case I was dealing with a genetic disposition toward high trainability while in the other the DNA was not so cooperative.

According to this new data set we can conclude that the original goal behind the creation of genetically selected dog breeds, which was to produce lines of dogs which had particular inherited skills and psychological characteristics, has been highly successful.

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References

MacLean EL, Snyder-Mackler N, vonHoldt BM, Serpell JA. (2019), Highly heritable and functionally relevant breed differences in dog behaviour. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 286: 20190716. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2019.0716

Coren, S. (2006). The Intelligence of Dogs (revised edition). New York: Free Press.