The domestication of dogs saw humans tinker with their appearances by selecting for specific cosmetic traits, but with time we began to allocate personalities to specific breeds. Now, new research is challenging this long-held idea in saying that breed really only strongly influences a dog’s appearance and has less to do with their personality compared to their environment.
Canines and humans first joined forces on tasks such as hunting, guarding, and herding but over time dogs took on a less functional role in our lives. As institutions such as Crufts saw modern humans go nuts for purebred chihuahuas performing Swan Lake, breeders and dog fanatics alike began ascribing certain breeds particular personality types, but do these hold true for all individuals within a breed?
Understanding the temperament of an animal can inform whether they are a suitable pet or working animal for a home or farm, so there are some benefits to trying to predict the nature of an animal based on its heritage. However, if assumptions about breed are false then animals could end up with unsuitable homes and legislation such as the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, UK, would be ineffective.
To assess if or how breed influences a dog’s traits, researchers on a paper published in Dog Genomics sequenced the DNA of over 2,000 dogs that were enrolled via the community science project Darwin’s Ark. Those included in the study were a mixture of purebred and mixed-breed dogs, and their sequences were matched to owner surveys regarding their behavior to look for correlations between their genotype (DNA) and phenotype (their appearance and behavior).
Their results revealed that there were many physical characteristics of dogs associated with specific breeds, but behavior was less consistent. Of behaviors that did appear to be associated with certain breeds, biddability – the capacity for a dog to follow instructions from a human – was the most genetically linked.
Borders collies, such as those who took part in the Genius Dog Challenge, were among those with the highest biddability and this behavior type was found to be significantly linked to the breed though individual differences still existed. Conversely, “human sociability” – a trait often associated with retrievers – was not found to be significantly linked to the breed’s genotype.
The minimal influence breed was found to have over their behavior in this study renders it “a poor predictor of individual behavior and should not be used to inform decisions relating to selection of a pet dog,” the researchers say. Instead, it’s more likely that environmental factors play a bigger role in influencing dogs’ personalities.
The takeaway? “You shouldn’t shop out of a catalog," Elinor Karlsson, director of vertebrate genomics at the Broad Institute who oversaw the study, told Science. "Each dog is an individual.”