The Labrador retriever has reigned supreme for 31 years as the most popular dog in the United States, according to the American Kennel Club, which describes the breed as friendly, active and outgoing.
But new research suggests it’s unwise to assume dogs will display specific personalities just because they’re the same breed, or to assume behaviors are exclusive to a specific breed.
In a study published Thursday in the journal Science, researchers said they found that dog breeds are not particularly useful for predicting the behavior of an individual dog. Breed type explains just 9% of behavioral variation, according to a combination of survey responses and DNA sequencing, they added.
Scientists collected 18,385 survey responses from dog owners as part of a citizen science project called Darwin’s Ark. They also received saliva samples from 2,155 of these dogs, which allowed the researchers to sequence the dog’s DNA.
The combination of genetic and survey data also revealed that 11 regions of the dog’s genome are significantly associated with behavior, including how often a dog howls and how comfortable a dog is around people. However, none of these genetic sites are breed specific. This suggests that the majority of behaviors thought to be characteristics of a certain type of dog actually predate the origin of breeds.
Dogs first appeared about 10,000 years ago, and humans began intentionally breeding dogs just 2,000 years ago. In the years leading up to the 1800s, dogs were bred for their ability to do jobs like hunting and herding. But a change in mentality happened about 150 years ago during the Victorian era: people started to select dogs for their aesthetic characteristics and breeds were invented.
The idea that specific behaviors might emerge in the short time after races emerged suggested to the study team that something was wrong with humanity’s assumptions about race-specific personalities. race.
“Behaviour is complicated,” said Elinor Karlsson, director of the Vertebrate Genomics Group at the Broad Institute of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, and professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
“It involves dozens, if not hundreds, of changes in different genes,” said Karlson, the study’s lead author. “It goes through the environment. The idea that you could create a behavior and select it into breeds in just 150 years just didn’t make sense. We knew it must have been much older than that.
This intuition that certain behaviors began before dog breeds helps explain why the study team found that traits like fetching, pointing and howling — behaviors described as motor schemas — are more heritable. The working hypothesis is that these behaviors would have helped early dogs and their handlers, and the selective breeding of dogs that did their job well allowed these behaviors to continue.
While no behavior is exclusive to any particular dog, there are some nuances. For example, a genetic link has been found between border collies and submission, or the ease with which a dog is taught and controlled. Meanwhile, genetics did not play a significant role in the perception of Labrador retrievers as particularly comfortable around people.
“Breed can definitely play a role in terms of a dog’s predisposition to certain types of behaviors,” said Emma Grigg, an animal behaviorist and researcher at the University of California, Davis, who was not part of this study.
“However, whether or not you see these behaviors in the adult dog depends on many factors, with the environment playing a huge role,” she said. “Many of the breed behavioral stereotypes put forward by breeding clubs are simply not supported by data.”
This study also challenges another stereotype: the aggressiveness of a dog because of its breed. The research team could not find evidence that genetics influence a dog’s agnostic threshold, or how easily they are elicited by a frightening or uncomfortable stimulus.
However, breed-specific legislation, such as banning pit bulls in some cities, assumes that certain dog breeds are particularly dangerous. These laws are not based on science, said Mia Cobb, who studies animal welfare at the University of Melbourne in Australia. Cobb was not a member of the research team for this study, but his pooch Rudy had his DNA sequenced by Project Darwin’s Ark.
“We now have numerous studies from different parts of the world that demonstrate breed-specific legislation is ineffective in protecting the public or reducing dog attacks,” Cobb said. “Any dog has the potential to be dangerous, regardless of size or breed. For this reason, dogs should not be declared dangerous based on their appearance. Instead, they should be assessed as individuals based on their behavior.
Viewing each dog as an individual can improve our overall relationship with dogs, Cobb said. This is especially true when selecting a pet, a time when owners often assume that a dog of the same breed will be the same as their previous companion.
“Choose the individual, not the race,” she said. “It is important to remember that all dogs, regardless of breed or mixed ancestry, are individuals. They will likely have their own strengths and weaknesses, just like humans. They will have their own likes and dislikes; may not look like your last dog at all.
Although this study offers no advice to pet owners, its authors are particularly interested in how the results can contribute to human health research. Overall, the article is unique in that it includes mixed-breed dogs alongside purebreds, according to first author Kathleen Morrill, who holds a Ph.D. candidate for medical school at the University of Massachusetts. These pooches “added a lot of power” to the study, Morrill said, because a diverse cohort allows scientists to better understand genetic influences.
This is important because scientists want to use canine genetics as a way to better study and treat human disease. Morrill and Karlsson are particularly interested in the relationship between compulsive disorder in dogs and obsessive-compulsive disorder in humans. Examining how changes in the dog’s DNA are associated with behavioral changes is a step forward and could eventually lead to the development of improved treatments. at people’s Place.
“We’re going to apply everything we learned in this study to the research we’re currently pursuing on compulsive disorders,” Karlson said. “We treat dogs with compulsive disorders with the same drugs that people use – and they work just as badly. We hope to find a way to develop treatments that work better than what we have now.