A dog’s personality may have little to do with its breed

As it turns out, breed is not a strong predictor of any individual dog’s personality

Research confirms what dog lovers know — every pup is truly an individual.

Many of the popular stereotypes about the behaviour of golden retrievers, poodles or schnauzers, for example, aren’t supported by science, a study has shown.

“There is a huge amount of behavioural variation in every breed and at the end of the day, every dog really is an individual,” said study co-author and University of Massachusetts geneticist Elinor Karlsson.

She said pet owners love to talk about their dog’s personality, as illustrated by some owners at a New York dog park.

Elizabeth Kelly said her English springer spaniel was “friendly, but she’s also kind of the queen bee”.

Suly Ortiz described her yellow Lab as “really calm, lazy and shy".

And Rachel Kim’s mixed-breed dog is “a lot of different dogs, personality wise — super independent, really affectionate with me and my husband, but pretty, pretty suspicious of other people, other dogs".

That kind of enthusiasm from pet owners inspired Ms Karlsson’s latest scientific inquiry. She wanted to know to what extent are behavioural patterns inherited — and how much are dog breeds associated with distinctive and predictable behaviours?

The answer: while physical traits such as a greyhound’s long legs or a Dalmatian’s spots are clearly inherited, breed is not a strong predictor of any individual dog’s personality.

The researchers’ work, published on Thursday in the journal Science, marshals a large data set to reach these conclusions — the most ever compiled, said Adam Boyko, a geneticist at Cornell University, who was not involved in the study.

Dogs became humanity’s best friend more than 14,000 years ago, as the only animal domesticated before the advent of agriculture.

But the concept of dog breeds is much more recent. About 160 years ago, people began to selectively breed dogs to have certain consistent physical traits, such as coat texture and colour and ear shape.

The researchers surveyed more than 18,000 dog owners and analysed the genomes of about 2,150 of their dogs to look for patterns.

They found that some behaviours — such as howling, pointing and showing friendliness to human strangers — do have at least some genetic basis. But that inheritance isn’t strictly passed down along breed lines.

For example, they found golden retrievers that don’t retrieve, said co-author Kathryn Lord, who studies animal behaviour with Ms Karlsson.

Some breeds, such as huskies and beagles, may show a greater tendency to howl. But many of these dogs don’t, as both the owner survey and genetic data showed.

The researchers could find no genetic basis for aggressive behaviours nor a link to specific breeds.

“The correlation between dog behaviour and dog breed is much lower than most expected,” said Jeff Kidd, a geneticist at the University of Michigan, who had no role in the research.

Updated: April 29, 2022, 5:58 PM
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