It’s Best Not to Judge Dogs by Their Covers
Understanding a dog requires nature and nurture to be considered.
Posted May 2, 2022 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- Researchers examined how dog genetics aligned with breed characteristics in a new study.
- The study's results showed that a dog's breed explained only 9 percent of the variation in behavior.
- A dog's breed is generally a poor predictor of individual behavior and should not be used to inform decisions about selecting a pet dog.
Many people often decide to get a specific breed of dog, expecting it to be an exact representation of the breed's standard descriptors, only to discover that there's a great deal more to the story of the dog they brought home. This essay was written with Kim Brophey.1
The dog they choose is an individual composed of many interacting parts, who may or may not fit those given standards to a “T” They might become frustrated that their dog isn’t a textbook representation of who they expected and experience frustration and confusion when they wonder something like, "Why doesn’t my Golden Retriever like my kids if they're all so great with children?"
It can also facilitate extreme bias and stereotypes about certain dog breeds, leading to serious challenges for dogs and their families. Judging a book by its cover very well might end in a bad read. Likewise, judging a dog by their "cover"—what they look like—can have bad outcomes.
A comprehensive new study titled "Ancestry-Inclusive Dog Genomics Challenges Popular Breed Stereotypes" (2022) has attracted enormous global attention on popular and social media. But some of its details have escaped many of these summaries.
The international team of 24 researchers concluded, “...dog breed is generally a poor predictor of individual behavior and should not be used to inform decisions relating to selecting a pet dog.”
Their results showed that a dog's breed explained only 9 percent of the variation in behavior. Unfortunately, this study can also perpetuate a problematic popular myth about dogs—that they're a blank slate and “It’s all about how you raise them.”2
When people acquire a dog and completely ignore the breed's potential contributions of the breed(s) in the dog’s heritage that arose from generations of deliberate breeding for specific behaviors, they can be in for a big surprise when they experience those traits without any preparation and warning.
It’s these experiences—the “What do you mean my terrier was actually bred to kill small mammals?” or “I didn’t know that a herding dog was genetically prone to chase, bark, and nip at all fast-moving objects like my kids!”—that generally result in the most calls to behavior centers with frustrated people beating their heads against the wall because they've been told training can “fix” those genetics, but it’s just not working.
The Importance of Nature and Nurture
Another flavor of the “nature vs. nurture” argument is sparked again. As science has consistently demonstrated, it is the interaction between nature and nurture and the individual that results in the behaviors we observe. An individual's genetics set them up for certain propensities but do not guarantee them.
These details were acknowledged in the above study but minimized in popular and social media. However, these details are exactly what people need to think about and understand when considering the implications of this research about dog genetics and behavior. If we are to believe media headlines, dogs are now officially the exception to all-natural law because genetics don’t really apply to them as they do to all other species. Specifically, their behavior does not vary meaningfully by breed. But which behaviors are we looking at here?
The kinds of behaviors we would expect to see differ among dog breeds are those that humans have deliberately bred to be breed-specific. Those are almost exclusively not the kinds of behaviors asked about in the study—important behavior patterns that humans have artificially selected dogs to exhibit (and still do), including herding, protecting, defending, hunting, and retrieving (with all the associated physical traits, perceptions, and instinctual repertoires necessary to perform them)—that have been carefully bred into dogs.3
If a study were to design questions comparing the prevalence of these kinds of specific behaviors among breeds, they would surely find strong differences. Genetic variations and the contributions of an individual dog’s experiences and environment assure there will be no guarantees. However, the chances of observing certain kinds of behavior will indeed change depending on a dog’s breed. This is how we got all these different-looking dogs in the first place, and their different forms followed selection for their different functions or breed characteristics.
That’s why this study found meaningful distinctions between the prevalence of those behaviors asked about in the study, which were associated with the dog’s historical working functions or purpose.
Most of the questions in this study were not asking about differences in these kinds of behaviors that humans have selectively bred to be different. If we ask questions about behaviors in various breeds of dogs that never had any selective pressure on them, we would not expect to observe any real differences in the answers between the owners of the various breeds of dogs.
No one ever bred a dog to lick their bowl after dinner, cross their paws, or circle before they poop. So, when these kinds of questions are asked and a dog’s “behavior” is then summarized to be 91 percent uninfluenced by genetics, the results (and implications) can be misleading.
Had the study asked many more questions and included extensive questions about the kinds of functional traits humans have so carefully selected dogs to exhibit over the millennia we have shared with them, we would surely find that the prevalence of those kinds of behaviors differed greatly among breeds of dogs. This matters to the public.
Getting a dog deliberately designed to be wary of and protective toward strangers only to find that those instincts resist all attempts at training and “how you raise them” can and does have serious consequences. Thousands of professional dog behavior consultants and trainers have far too many terrible stories about what happens for the dogs and the people when square pegs are put in round holes. There is a lot of friction, and the dogs invariably pay the price for their human's choices.
Of course, a dog’s genetics are not predictive of a behavior actually being expressed or of them being a “good” dog. There are simply too many variables contributing to the results, including the hands and hearts of the families where dogs end up.
All in all, the study results should not be interpreted as carte blanche for anyone to get any dog. Breeds can offer a reasonable starting point for setting expectations and hints at what our experiences might be. However, we need the whole story to really understand a dog—nature, and nurture—once again and always.4
1) Kim is an applied ethologist, Family Dog Mediator, and author of Meet Your Dog: The Game-Changing Guide to Understanding Your Dog's Behavior and the forthcoming The Dog’s Truth. For an interview with Kim called "When We Go to the Dogs, There’s Much More Than Meets the Eye" click here.
2) In our experience—Kim as an applied ethologist and a career dog behavior consultant and trainer working first-hand with the kinds of “behavior problems” inspiring frantic calls for help—and Marc as an ethologist who has studied dogs in many different contexts as well wild canids— this “blank slate” myth is far more common than many believe and deleterious to dogs and people.
3) Dog expert Michael W. Fox told Marc, "Specific traits like herding and retrieving, in my opinion, are more closely linked to nature—genetics—than to nurture. Nurture can reinforce such behaviors as Konrad Lorenz proposed and called instinct-training-interlocking. Much as I have tried with our Australian heeler-Boxer cross, she will not retrieve but tries to round up people on our walks!"
4) This is precisely what Jessica Pierce and I concluded in A Dog's World: Imagining the Lives of Dogs in a World Without Humans.
Bekoff, Marc. Dog Training: Blending Science With Individual Personalities.
_____. Dog Training Requires Respecting the Deep Emotional Lives of Dogs.
_____. Does a Human's Personality Rub Off on Their Dog? (A new study shows some dogs reflect their human's personality during training.)
_____. Dog Breeds Don't Have Distinct Personalities. (Individual dogs have personalities that can make characterizing a breed dicey.)