Dogs of various breeds running in a field with trees in the background.
Dogs of various breeds running in the field.

They’re All (Potentially) Good Dogs

Research finds that a dog’s behavior has little to do with its genes.

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Natalia Mesa

Natalia Mesa was previously an intern at The Scientist and now freelances. She has a PhD in neuroscience from the University of Washington and a bachelor’s in biological sciences from Cornell University.

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Apr 29, 2022

ABOVE: © iStock.com, dageldog

Breeders and dog owners often talk about behaviors and personalities that are supposedly specific to various dog breeds. But these popular stereotypes are actually poor predictors of whether a pup is friendly, aloof, or easy to train, according to a new study published yesterday (April 28) in Science

“There is a huge amount of behavioral variation in every breed, and at the end of the day, every dog really is an individual,” study coauthor and University of Massachusetts geneticist Elinor Karlsson tells the Associated Press

Karlsson tells the AP that pet owners’ enthusiasm to talk about their pet's personalities inspired her latest research into dog behavior. She was curious about the extent to which behavioral patterns are inherited, and how much a dog’s breed is associated with distinctive and predictable behaviors. 

The researchers compiled a massive dataset of physical and behavioral descriptions provided by more than 18,000 dog owners and then sequenced the genomes of 2,155 of their dogs to determine whether a dog’s genetics influenced its behavioral patterns. To the researchers’ surprise, they found that breed accounts for only 9 percent of the variations in a dog’s behavior. Also, no behaviors were restricted to only one breed, reports The New York TimesThe research solidifies what dog owners have observed on their own: on average, dog breeds differ in behavior, but there’s a lot of variation within breeds, Adam Boyko, a canine geneticist at Cornell University who was not involved in the study, tells Science News.

This is not to say that the breed can’t predict some things, Karlsson tells the Times. The study suggests that some breeds are more likely to exhibit certain behaviors. For example, border collies are more likely to be interested in toys and will likely be easier to train than other breeds. But this is not without exceptions—within breeds, individual behaviors vary widely. Some breeds, like huskies and beagles, show a greater tendency to howl, but many of the members of both breeds don’t. Study coauthor Kathryn Lord, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Massachusetts, tells the AP that they even found some golden retrievers that don’t retrieve. The researchers also noted that they weren’t able to link aggressive behavior to any particular breed or any specific genetic signature. 

See “The Extinct Species Within

When the researchers looked across dogs in their study, they found that some traits—including behavioral traits, such as sociability—are strongly inherited, even though they’re not breed-specific. The researchers tell the Times that this likely means that a lot of dog behaviors predate modern breeding, which dates back to the 19th century, before breeding became focused primarily on physical characteristics. The researchers suggest that owners may want to look beyond breed when choosing their next pet.