When people decide to own a dog, choosing a four-legged friend means more than just looks. People who want a playful and intelligent dog often go for a Border Collie. The Labrador is often chosen as a family dog and when people want a true monitor, they quickly choose a Rottweiler. Dog breeds have been defined by certain behaviors and temperaments for years, but now a new genetic study suggests that breed alone is a poor predictor of canine behavior.
In the new study published in Science, US researchers from Harvard and Massachusetts examined the DNA of 2,155 dogs, including 78 pure breeds, and found very few genetic variants that could explain the common behavior of dogs. The authors identified 11 parts of a dog’s DNA that are closely related to behavioral traits, such as how well a dog follows directions or how much it howls. But none of these parts was specific to the dog breed. Behavioral characteristics were determined from more than 18,000 responses from purebred dog owners to the survey.
In fact, breed can only explain 9 percent of the behavioral difference between individual dogs, and no behavioral trait is exclusive to just one breed of dog. In fact, the dog’s age and gender were some of the strongest predictors of its behavior.
said Elinor Carlson, who contributed to the study. “These genetic traits are thousands of years older than our understanding of modern dog breeds.”
subtle genetic differences
Most of the dog breeds you encounter today have been recognized as breeds only, selected for aesthetic or physical ideals, over the past two centuries. Before that, the pups were chosen based on predictions about how well they would hunt, be seen, or herd. The shape and color of his ears, the quality and size of his coat. “But breed doesn’t determine if he’s friendly and affectionate or not,” says Carlson.
Complex traits such as behaviour, which results from the interaction of many small genes with each other and the environment, can certainly be inherited from one dog generation to the next. But the modern owners of our four-legged friends may not have had time to make a real impact on the breeds we know today. At least, not compared to the contributions of our ancestors.
Carlson and her colleagues were able to find only subtle genetic differences in dogs’ behavior from breed to breed. When you consider that more than half of “purebred” dogs in the United States have ancestry from more than one breed, the differences become even more subtle.
Ban baseless aggressive dog breeds?
The dog’s personality, environment and upbringing, as well as the dog’s age and gender play a much larger role in behavior. For example, within the same lineage, one Labrador is sociable, while the other is solitary. But it also shows that aggressive behavior has nothing to do with the dog’s breed, something that has often been thought until now.
If the authors are right, and our assumptions about breed behavior are exaggerated, national policies banning certain “aggressive” dog breeds may have no basis. The same goes for insurance policies that refuse to cover breeds such as bulls. “The behavior of these dogs is primarily shaped by their environment, not their breed,” Carlson says.
Exceptions for each breed
Carlson’s research is among the first to explore the genes behind breed-based behavior in dogs, but previous studies have also shown that differences in dog behavior within a breed are almost equal to those between breeds. Beagles, for example, howl more, while pit bulls and golden retrievers are more social with people. Border Collie is more obedient. But no breed is without exceptions.
Although nearly 80 percent of Labradors never cry, eight percent of Labrador owners report that their Labradors do. 90 percent of games never bury toys, while 3 percent do so regularly. The researchers concluded, “This shows that canine personality is a very complex issue.”
More work is needed to unravel the genes behind dog behavior, but the new findings suggest that modern breeders haven’t had as much of an impact on our dogs as we thought.
Unlimited free access to Showbytes? And that can!
Sign in or create an account and never miss a thing from the stars.
“Creator. Award-winning problem solver. Music evangelist. Incurable introvert.”