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Debunking the Myth That Dog Behavior Follows Breed

Researchers examined if there's a link between breed and dog behavior.

Key points

  • A new study examined if genes were responsible for stereotypical dog behaviors.
  • Specific behavior belongs, to a greater or lesser degree to all dogs, short of a physical or mental defect that impairs them.
  • The researchers found that based on genetic evidence, breed stereotypes are unfounded.

Let’s assume that the original dog was an animal of many purposes. In time, humans began to demand that their dogs perform specific tasks and select for certain capabilities. Thus arose the “purpose-bred” dog. The Romans, for example, had companion dogs, hauling dogs, sight dogs, and so forth.

By the 17th century, English dogs were divided into groups based on their function. The earliest volume devoted to this subject, Of Englishe Dogges, published in 1576 by Johannes Caius in London, identified multiple types of dogs, including “tinkers’ dogs” who traveled with itinerant salespeople and “lurchers” who worked with poachers.

Illustration from The Sportsman's Cabinet by William Taplin, 1803
Lurchers were listed by Caius as a recognizable type of dog.
Source: Illustration from The Sportsman's Cabinet by William Taplin, 1803

Until the 1800s, it is believed that dogs in most of the world were selected for certain purposes, such as “turnspits” that ran on treadmills to turn cooking spits; “grinders’ dogs” who powered belt-driven devices to produce pigment for paint; “scent hounds” for tracking humans and game.

In the late 19th century, as the historian, Harriet Ritvo pointed out in The Animal Estate, members of the mercantile class, largely in England, began breeding dogs and other animals and staging competitions as an emulation of the gentry.

Thus was, formed The Kennel Club in Britain in 1873, followed by The American Kennel Club in 1884. People involved in the so-called “sport” created breeds by choosing very few representatives of the type of dog they desired, say a bloodhound or a setter, and inbreeding those dogs for multiple generations to produce animals that conformed to carefully defined standards of behavior and appearance. Members of the breed were said to have all the intelligence, talents, and traits that had made their forebears so special.

Almost from the beginning, questions arose about the validity of such claims. In the early 20th century, for example, Harry Trimble and Clyde Keeler studied the propensity of Dalmation coach dogs to run between the carriage and horses. They found that such behavior was not inherited but rather a reflection of a temperament toward boldness that could be trained or directed.

In 1965, J.P. Scott and John L. Fuller, in Genetics and the Social Behavior of Dogs, now recognized as a classic, concluded that there are more significant differences in behavior between dogs of a given breed than among breeds of dogs. That is to say that all Labradors do not swim or fetch ducks from water; all border collies do not stare sheep into submission; nor do all pointers point at birds.

In a 1990 Atlantic Monthly article [unavailable online] and Dog’s Best Friend, I pointed out the error in making such assumptions. I said that this kind of attribution of specific behaviors to a breed is, in some ways, a form of racism and deeply misdirected.

But old habits persist and as the number of dogs in American households increased over the last few decades, so too did the number of articles identifying the ten best breeds for those with children or who wanted an active creature, or what have you.

Last month in the April 29 issue of Science, a team of researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical School working with a large dataset generated by a community science project called Darwin’s Ark definitively debunked the myth of breed-specific behaviors. The researchers, led by Elinor Karlsson, carried out a two-part study: they gathered 18,385 surveys from dog owners asking them about their animals’ behavior; they also sequenced 2,155 genomes from purebred and mixed breed dogs and attempted to isolate areas that might contain genes responsible for stereotypical behaviors.

Significantly, the researchers found that a dog's breed does not predict its behavior. Although they found 11 regions of genes associated with behavior, including howling frequency and sociability with humans, even here, the effect was not great enough to be predicted.

The popular media reporting on this research has been curious, driven, it seems, by a reluctance to accept the team’s findings at face value, perhaps because so much of the dog industry is invested in perpetuating these myths of breed difference. Even some veterinarians will refer to these stereotypes without a second thought.

The paper’s central message is that the behaviors currently ascribed to specific breeds actually belong to a greater or lesser degree to all dogs, short of a physical or mental defect that impairs them.

The researchers wrote:

By embracing the full diversity of dogs—including purebred dogs, mixed-breed dogs, purpose-bred working dogs, and village dogs—we can fully realize dogs’ long-recognized potential as a natural model for genetic discovery.

I further hope that, over time, the paper will help change the way people think and talk altogether so that they see their dog primarily for its unique self, not for its breed.