Your Dog’s Personality Starts With Its Breed’s DNA, Study Says

Your Dog’s Personality Starts With Its Breed’s DNA, Study Says

We all know dog certain dog breeds are associated with certain personality traits. And we often pick our pet based on the personality we assume it will have: Goldens are family dogs because they’re just so darn loving and agreeable. Chihuahuas are sassy. German shepherds are fiercely loyal. 

It all doesn’t seem that crazy unless you give it some real thought. We are more generic and vague with most other animals as it comes to recognizing their individual personalities, not really attributing much to their specific breed with the same depth as we do dogs. 

According to a recent study from researchers at four different American universities, though, our belief that dogs’ personalities are heavily dependent on their breed is actually correct. And their observance of more than 17,000 canines across over 100 different breeds offered a pretty healthy sample size to lean on the claim. 

“Across 14 traits, we found that breed differences in behavior are highly heritable, and that clustering of breeds based on behavior accurately recapitulates genetic relationships,” they wrote. 

Evan MacLean, a comparative psychologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson, led a team of researchers that compiled data on the behavior of different dog breeds taken from Canine Behavioral Assessment & Research Questionnaire (C-BARQ). The Canine Behavioral Assessment & Research Questionnaire is a survey in which people detailed their dog’s behavior, like how well they obey commands or the things that make them anxious, how they display fear, or even when they display fear, and beyond. The responses were then cross-referenced with genetic data of 101 different dog breeds. From there, they broke down 131 locations in a dog's genome that appeared to be linked to at least one of 14 canine behavioral traits, for example, aggression or attachment — common characteristics we associate with dogs by breed. In all, the researchers concluded this accounts for 15 percent of a breed’s behavioral traits. And what are the characteristics of a dog that are most likely to be inherited? The team said it’s trainability, chasing, and a tendency to be aggressive toward strangers that are most likely to be dictated by each dog’s DNA. 

"It's a huge advance," Elaine Ostrander, a mammalian geneticist at the National Human Genome Research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, who was not involved in the study, told Science Magazine. "It's a finite number of genes, and a lot of them do make sense.”

Part of the research was done as a way for scientists to understand the relationship between genetic markers and behavior in humans. But the findings that pointed out parallels between inherited human behavior and inherited dog behaviors were pretty fascinating. For example, the level of aggression found in humans and dogs appear to be associated with a specific set of genes found in both species. The belief in the science community is that discovering and understanding these cross-species similarities could help uncover the relationships between specific genes and disorders like anxiety or depression, allowing experts to discover new and effective ways to treat either species. 

"Our findings suggest that dog breeds also provide a powerful and highly tractable model for questions about the evolution and genetic basis of behavioral traits,” the researchers reported. 

But to play devil’s advocate for a moment — even with a sample size of more than 17,000 individual dogs — we could still assume there’s plenty to be said about the socialization of individual dogs and domestication of the entire species playing a role in their behaviors and personalities, right? Take the survey portion of the study, for example, in which dog owners were required to report on the behavior of their individual dog. Given our own existing bias for individuals to favor certain breeds for their perceived traits, it wouldn’t be unusual to perceive certain behaviors based on those biases, to begin with. That alone could skew results pretty heavily from the onset. 

And consider a 2014 study as another possible argument against this new study, in which a researcher at the University of Bristol’s School of Veterinary Sciences concluded the opposite for at least one major behavioral trait. In that study, researcher Rachel Casey determined it’s actually an owner’s behavior that dictates how aggressive a dog will be and not the dog’s genetics. Casey sent out 15,000 questionnaires and received just 4,000 back. Casey felt the responses said more about the owner than the dog itself. Age of the owner, for example, seemed to have a strong influence on aggression, with the dogs of owners under 25 being twice as likely to be aggressive than dogs whose owners were older than 40. Other socializing factors included going to puppy school, which produced dogs that were half as likely to show aggression toward strangers. Meanwhile, adopted dogs were more likely to be aggressive than dogs that came from breeders. Dogs that were trained with negative reinforcement-style methods and punishments were twice as likely to be aggressive toward strangers and an astonishing three times more likely to actually lunge at a family member. “These data suggest that although general characteristics of dogs and owners may be a factor at a population level, it would be inappropriate to make assumptions about an individual animal's risk of aggression to people based on characteristics such as breed,” the researchers said at the time.

"Aggression is incredibly complex. It's going to be both situation-dependent and dependent on the history of both the people and the dog," Stephen Zawistowski, science adviser to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), told HealthDay. "You can't just pick the breed of the dog and say somehow that will be predictive of whether the dog will be aggressive.” 

So which is it? It’s probably safe to assume the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Aggression, for example, can be a broad term that’s received and interpreted differently based on the person observing it. Is it barking? Is it growling? Is it an aversion to being touched? Or is it outright lunging and snapping? But still, the idea that many of your dog’s personality is at least somewhat rooted in his or her breed doesn’t seem far-fetched at all. 

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