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Unsure Which Dog Is Right for Your Family? Studies Show That Breed Has Little to Do With a Dog’s Behavior

Nature versus nurture. 


If you commit yourself to life with a dog, you want to make sure the animal in question will fit into your lifestyle and household. Homes with cats or children, or those in a busy urban area, have different limitations than rural households with lots of space to roam. That’s why when people consider getting a pooch, they often investigate and pay close attention to the dog’s breed.

When it comes to a dog’s overall shape and size, this is a reliable yardstick; you know what you are getting with the appearance of a Great Dane or a terrier. Highly controlled breeding even has standardized coat colors. However, a new study published in the journal Science shows that how a given dog reacts to strangers, other dogs, or small children is not necessarily predictable by breed. This means a “friendly” dog is not something you can rely upon by choosing a specific type of dog — instead, it really comes down to happenstance and to parenting. The early environment that a responsible breeder can provide sets the tone for “parenting” your pup. Keep reading to learn more about the relationship between dog breed and behavior.

Understanding the study: Does dog breed matter?

This new study was a large-scale examination of the long-standing question about how individual dogs of specific breeds act and behave. The American Kennel Club, for example, describes particular breeds with keywords such as “intelligent,” “outgoing,” and “affectionate,” presumably capturing that group’s personality. But we all know that individual dogs behave differently. And are bulldogs really more aggressive, or retrievers more friendly, as the general stereotypes would suggest? This study reveals that the answer is no. Those traits vary by individuals, but are not set on a breed level. The researchers sorted through data from more than 18,000 dogs, provided by their respective humans through a citizen science project called Darwin’s Ark. The study also analyzed DNA from some 2,000 of those dogs to probe the degree to which behaviors such as aggression or sociability might be heritable through genetics.

Right away, we can note that the sample sizes here are impressive. While many of us know dogs intimately, we do so only in small numbers. But in the careful and slow science propelling these new results, hundreds of different questions that the pooch owners all responded to were examined across a large pool of pups covering over 70 breeds. This is the main difference between the scientific way of looking at dogs and our everyday way of looking at them: We always live with individual, specific dogs, but scientists study populations and general patterns.

The large sample sizes allowed the authors to conduct fine-tuned statistical analysis across a range of behaviors. These included whether the dogs in question enjoy getting wet or do circles before pooping. Besides the genetics and the breed, the researchers also accounted for other key categories such as age and sex to locate significant associations. While the sex of the dog doesn’t make much of a difference when it comes to the behaviors examined, age does. It turns out old dogs do indeed learn new tricks.

Communication between dogs and humans — not breed — is what’s important.

The team from Darwin’s Ark found another intriguing — if less surprising — pattern among all the breeds of dogs. Across the life span, they like to learn. In scientific approaches to dogs, one of the common variables examined is “biddability” — how well a dog responds to human attempts to direct them (think of the basics such as “down” and “stay”). As we would expect, the scores in biddability for older dogs were higher than for the young ones. Indeed, it is difficult to get a puppy to listen to us or, in essence, to understand us as humans.

This is the more general issue that the broader study rested upon: How well do dogs understand our human communication? After all, for any of us to understand the actual nuances of human communication is a long road. For humans and dogs alike, it takes a while to “get” what it is that our fellow humans are up to and what they might be expecting from us. Part of the challenge is that there are many contradictions between people’s words, tone of voice, and body language. We say one thing, while our actions tell a different story. And dogs, too, have to work with these far-from-perfect processes.

It’s possible that old ideas about the human owner as an “alpha dog” showing dominance has only served to hinder communication, creating confusion on top of everything else. It’s important to take a pause and look at how consistent we ourselves are in what we’re trying to communicate to our pets. Before we get upset by the fact that our dog doesn’t listen or end up blaming their breed for their behavior, take a step back and evaluate how you are communicating.

As with all learning, small steps in dog training make for good progress, especially when both the human and the dog are adapting to each other. This is what we have been doing as a species for tens of thousands of years; the biological potential for us and dogs to work together, to live together and to cooperate is there. A wolf cub won’t work in this setup, but any dog pup has this potential. As many dog trainers like to say, let’s do our part to “set them up for success.”

Are specific dog breeds more aggressive?

When it came to analyzing how easily a dog acts defensively or aggressively toward something unexpected in their environment, the study found that breeds made little difference. Breeds only explained 9 percent of the variation in behavior. So, when it comes down to living with one or two dogs, a pit bull or a golden retriever are both equally likely, or unlikely, to act aggressively. Exactly how the chips fall with a particular dog in a particular situation depends on their own past experiences. And the one key feature in those past experiences are the humans in question: those that the dog lives with and who first guided them as a puppy into the world of human social life (with all its arbitrary rules and regulations).

In many ways, the story here reaches back even further. The scientific findings line up with the overall emergence of dogs as a species. Breeds don’t make that much of a difference in predicting the overall dog personalities because they are relatively new, with most created in the late 1800s. The breeding practices that we are now familiar with only emerged in Victorian-era England. This is when people began to associate social status and prestige with “purebred” dogs. This was all part of the enthusiasm we humans have for controlling nature to even greater extents.

If breed doesn’t matter, can you domesticate a wolf?

The real change occurred when dogs evolved from wolves — earlier in the evolution of canine species. While dogs and wolves today share some 99.96 percent of their genetics, the two species are distinct. With proper guidance and a little bit of training, any dog can learn to live with humans, whether in urban or rural places. Dogs as a species are biologically sculpted for this shared life journey with humans across cultures. But wolves are not. It doesn’t matter if you raise a wolf cub by hand before their eyes are even open. You simply will not end up with a pet that can go to the park with you.

This is the case because of the degree to which humans have been interacting with the lineage of canids that dogs come from for over 30,000 years or even longer. Ancient bones from Europe and Siberia tell a clear story of change over time; in comparison to wolf remains from the same era, the skulls of these early dogs are shorter, the teeth more crowded, and the bodies smaller. Gradually, over time, their actions changed too, and today’s dogs are, first and foremost, still dogs more than representatives of any given breed. The current study shows that the dog’s fundamental nature is shared across breeds and all those happy sweet mixtures we call “mutts.”

A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine Inside Your Dog’s Mind.

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