Genetic study challenges dog breed stereotypes

The American Kennel Club website outlines the ideal shape and temperament of 204 dog breeds, from the Affenpinscher (“loyal, inquisitive, and famously playful”) to the Yorkshire Terrier (“responsive, courageous, and sometimes stubborn”). The idea that certain breeds reliably display different behaviors is found in dog shows, obedience training, and canine DNA testing, not to mention laws targeting breeds thought to be prone to aggression.

However, a detailed new study of canine behavior and genetics shows that breed actually has little value in predicting behavior or behavior in a single animal.

After collecting extensive data from the owners of more than 18,000 dogs and sequencing the DNA of more than 2,100 of these pets, the researchers found surprisingly few associations between breed and most behavioral traits. .

Yes, Labrador and Golden Retriever owners were slightly more likely to place their dogs in the top 25% for “humane sociability” than random dog owners. And yes, dogs were more likely to score higher on “command ability” or ease in responding to human commands. But associations like these were neither strong nor permanent.

In fact, breed explains no more than 9% of behavioral variation among the dogs in the study, said co-author Elinor Karlsson, a geneticist at Chan University in Massachusetts. A dog’s age and sex were often much better predictors of its behavior, and for some traits — especially aggression — breed made no difference.

The results were published Thursday in the journal Science.

Of the nearly one billion dogs currently roaming the planet, each belongs to the same species – familiar dog. They separated from wolves around 10,000 years ago, which was not long enough to accumulate much genetic diversity. (Mammals typically evolve over hundreds of thousands of years.)

The modern concept of a dog breed was invented about 160 years ago, in what the authors call “a snap in evolutionary history.” Several genetic differences are responsible for the striking differences in the shape and appearance of dogs.

Physical traits are highly heritable; behavioral traits, less. They are determined by a complex mix of genetic and environmental factors, in which the species plays only a minor, often insignificant role.

“A dog’s appearance doesn’t really tell you how a dog behaves,” said Marjie Alonso, executive director of International Assn. Animal behavior consultants and co-author of the study.

The team created an open database called Darwin’s Ark to collect information about individual dogs. Owners were asked to answer over 100 questions about their dog’s appearance, behavior and personality.

Jack, a quarter American pit bull terrier, participated in research on dog breeds and behavior.

(Jane O’Donnell)

The result was a dataset that well reflected the pet population in the United States. Almost half (49.2%) of respondents described their dogs as purebred, and the proportion of breeds represented roughly matched dog ownership in the United States.

The authors wrote that purebred dog owners tend to describe their pet’s behavior in accordance with breed stereotypes. This makes it more likely that owner ratings – consciously or unconsciously – are influenced by dog ​​breed reputations.

Fortunately, the remaining dogs in the study were dogs whose ambiguous parents left their owners relatively free of preconceptions about their past or behavior. They served as a sort of control group.

Researchers have found that Golden Retriever owners tend to say their pets aren’t afraid of strangers, a claim that matches the breed’s outgoing reputation. However, owners of dogs with Golden Retriever ancestry did not describe their pets as more fearless towards strangers than owners of dogs without Golden Retriever DNA.

Likewise, Labrador Retriever owners tend to say their pets are social with humans, fitting the breed’s stereotype as being friendly and outgoing. But dog owners with a Labrador Retriever in their ancestry were no more likely to call their dogs social toward humans than dog owners without that heritage.

If breed was a strong predictor of behavior, it makes sense that traits of those breeds emerged to some degree in dogs with those breeds’ DNA.

Even in purebred dogs, genetics was a much more reliable predictor of a dog’s appearance than behavior.

Karlsson, “Physical traits are super hereditary.” Mentioned. But when it comes to behavior, “race is a very poor predictor. It’s not an accurate way to predict the behavior of any particular dog.”

But he added that there are patterns in certain traits, such as docility and a dog’s tendency to grab and bite at toys.

Border Collies, for example, tend to be more docile than the average dog. Choosing a border collie as a pet can increase your chances of acquiring a docile pet, but it doesn’t guarantee that the dog you bring home will be naturally inclined to follow your commands.

Ellie, an avid hiker and rescue dog, stands on a cliff on a shore.

An avid walker and rescue dog, Ellie was one of the dogs included in the dog breeds and behavior study.

(@wanderswild / Instagram)

Thousands of years before the Victorian obsession with dog breeding began, people ranked dogs primarily by what they did best. Some puppies were good for herding, others were good for hunting or guarding. Katherine Grier, a retired history professor at the University of Delaware and author of Pets, said the now-extinct species known as the “rotisserie” or kitchen dog was bred to function on a type of dog-sized hamster wheel that spun skewers above the flames. In America: a story”.

In their book The Invention of the Modern Dog: Breed and Blood in Victorian Britain, authors Michael Worboys, Julie-Marie Strange and Neil Pemberton compared the difference between pre- and post-breed dogs with the colors of a rainbow. sky and a coloring book, Puces. . Initially, there were several large dog breeds with a lot of overlap between them. The culture took this barking rainbow and broke it up into isolated, well-defined entities.

The American Kennel Club maintains the largest registry of purebred dogs in the United States and detailed descriptions for each breed standard, including personality traits. (Chow Chow “honourable, brilliant, earnest”; Chihuahua “charming, graceful, sassy.”)

The club said it believed the data from the study was strong, but the authors disagreed with their conclusions.

“Racial behavior was not created with the formation of the race 100 years ago. It was created based on selected working behaviors over centuries and before individual races were separated,” said Chief Veterinarian Dr. Jerry Klein said in a statement, “Therefore, trying to separate individual breeds based on their behavior makes them ancestral herding dogs, hunting dogs, etc. It will not succeed without dividing it into selected populations such as

Historians of dog breeding argue that breeders’ preference for certain physical traits over the years often comes at the expense of original behavior. Dog breed is largely defined by an animal’s appearance, and “when you breed for looks, you can lose your behavior,” Grier said.

When it comes to dog behavior, genes “have an effect, but less than genes on physical traits,” said Danika Bannasch, an animal geneticist at UC Davis who was not involved in the study. “This is the most comprehensive study of genes and behavior of its kind and will make many people think about dogs a little differently.”

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