Genetics study upends stereotypes around modern dog breeds and behavior

Genetics study upends stereotypes around modern dog breeds and behavior
A new genetics study has found that stereotyping dog behavior based on their breed could be misguided
A new genetics study has found that stereotyping dog behavior based on their breed could be misguided
View 1 Image
A new genetics study has found that stereotyping dog behavior based on their breed could be misguided
A new genetics study has found that stereotyping dog behavior based on their breed could be misguided

The way we associate certain behavioral traits with certain breeds can be a huge factor in our relationships with dogs, from parents with toddlers and family-friendly labradors to couch potatoes and their sleepy greyhound sidekicks. A fascinating new study has provided compelling evidence that all is not what it seems when it comes to such stereotypes, demonstrating that the genetic reasons for different behavioral traits came thousands of years before the advent of modern-day dog breeds.

While the divergence of dogs from wolves dates back as far as 15,000 years, it was only in the 1800s that humans began selecting their companions based on certain physical and cosmetic traits we associated with modern breeds. These continue to be seen as reliable indicators of a dog's temperament and behavior, with some breeds perceived to be easily trainable, affectionate, or highly active, for example.

Researchers at MIT, Harvard University and UMass Chan Medical School sought to fill what they see as a gap in our understanding of this relationship, pointing to a lack of genetic studies linking behaviors to ancestry. To investigate, they analyzed genome sequences from more than 2,000 dogs and matched the data with 200,000 survey answers from owners on their pet's behaviors and physical traits, covering 78 different breeds.

This revealed that behavioral traits were influenced by a combination of environmental factors and a dog's genetics, but modern breed classification plays only a small part. The team identified 11 unique regions in the dog genome that were strongly tied to behavior, and found that not one of them was specifically associated with any particular modern-day breed. In fact, the team concluded that a breed's contribution to a dog's behavior was negligible, at around nine percent.

"While genetics plays a role in the personality of any individual dog, the specific dog breed is not a good predictor of those traits," said study senior author Elinor Karlsson. "A dog’s personality and behavior are shaped by many genes as well as their life experiences. This makes them difficult traits to select for through breeding."

Certain behaviors were more strongly associated with other factors than breed. For example, age was found to be a better predictor of how likely a dog was to play with its toys, while a dog's sex was found to be a better predictor of whether they lifted their leg to urinate. The scientists were also unable to find behaviors that were exclusive to any one breed. Labradors, for example, have the lowest tendency to howl but eight percent of owners still reported the behavior.

"The majority of behaviors that we think of as characteristics of specific modern dog breeds have most likely come about from thousands of years of evolution from wolf to wild canine to domesticated dog, and finally to modern breeds," said Karlsson. "These heritable traits predate our concept of modern dog breeds by thousands of years. Each breed inherited the genetic variation carried by those ancient dogs, but not always at exactly the same frequencies. Today, those differences show up as differences in personality and behavior seen in some, but not all, dogs from a breed."

Interestingly, the study also suggests there is little difference in certain behaviors between mixed-breed and pure-breed dogs. While biddability, or the way they respond to human direction, was more likely to correlate with breed, when it came to things like human sociability and how likely they were to be frightened, breed was almost irrelevant.

"For the most part, pure breeds are only subtly different from other dogs," Karlsson said. "Although friendliness is the trait we commonly associate with golden retrievers, what we found is that the defining criteria of a golden retriever – what makes a golden retriever a golden retriever – are its physical characteristics, the shape of its ears, the color and quality of its fur, its size; not whether it is friendly. A golden retriever is only marginally more likely to be more friendly than a mixed-breed or another purebred dog, such as a Dachshund."

The research was published in the journal Science

Source: Broad Institute

Ralf Biernacki
"a dog's sex was found to be a better predictor of whether they lifted they leg to urinate" Thank you, Captain Obvious!

On a more serious note, there are some signs in the article that the interpretation of results was less than inspired. Golden retrievers are marginally more friendly than dachshunds; what needs to be compared is not retrievers to dachshunds, but whether retrievers are more friendly than the mean. Also, soft traits like "friendliness", especially measured on the basis of owner opinions, are so subjective as to be meaningless. What ought to have been investigated are objectively observable traits such as, for instance, pointing behavior, which is known to have been bred for. Or herding behavior in sheepdogs, ditto. Biddability or friendliness are, first, subjective as heck, and second, likely to be influenced by upbringing to such an extent as to completely swamp genetic predispositions.

And I call bullwaste on the claim that breeds were only differentiated in the 1800s. There were identifiable breeds (the saluki) in the ME 3000 years ago; the mexican hairless dog was bred by the Mayans, and is attested in archeological data; hunting breeds are differentiated (sight hounds, scent hounds, fowling dogs) in medieval texts, and regional sheepdog breeds are likely just as old. Even lapdog breeds, such as the maltese, are identifiable in Renaissance paintings, and there is similar evidence for the pekingese in China. I could keep going, but I think I made my point.
Nice article Nick, but it isn't close to a final analysis.
Sure this is an excellent attempt at quantifying genomic indicators of doggie traits. And then subjectivity and scientific 'fuzzy' analysis appear. One line in particular that renders this a study that raises more questions about the lack of findings than it raises about the findings: "We found no evidence that the behavioral tendencies in breeds reflect intentional selection by breeders (Fig. 6I) but cannot exclude the possibility."
I don't like to base science on anecdotal evidence, my forte is evidence based practice methodology - but all the livestock I've encountered in domesticated situations exhibit highly selected physical traits. To a lessor extent, moderately exhibited behavioral traits. Human breeders of livestock (outside of 'puppy mills or the like) have no interest in perpetuating problems in breeds that they can breed out of their stock in several generations.
NIck, you should have noted that this was practically "Junk Science". They would have done better if they picked several segments of the genome that they had tied to either behavioral or physical characteristics and then investigated if those segments bred true in all the recognized breeds. There is almost no correlation between their highly specialized analysis data and the experience hunting dog owners, herding dog owners, and terrier owners can subjectively attest to.
A good Ig Nobel Prize candidate - was it published on April 1?
Realize that any giving time countless pets all over the world are suffering because of mistreatment/neglect & it will always continue as long as humanity keeps using animals as pets!
What gives humanity right to enslave any animals for entertainment as toys?
Also consider countless diseases/parasites keep jumping between humans & their pets!
Also consider massive amounts of money/labor/food/medicine keep getting wasted for pets!
Also consider countless people illegally running "farms" to produce pets to sell!
Also consider invasive species problems & harms of international pet (wild animal) trade!
People should/must avoid using ANY animals as pets!!
People who are addicted to pets (because of growing up w/ pets and/or living w/ pets for many years) should/must switch to robopets!
my corgis beg to differ. they are spot on herders even though neither of them has ever seen a cow or sheep. watching them in the dog park interacting with other dogs shows them to be different in their style of "play". when a run breaks out, the corgis will attempt to cut off the lead dog and herd it where they want it to go.
i would venture many pet owners don't even know what a given breed was originally bred for and don't recognize the traits their dogs have. that and many pets are "mutts" whose ancestry is not known.
To everything Ralf said I'll ad my suspicion that the people who ran the study have never interacted with dogs.
Ralf Biernacki
"The scientists were also unable to find behaviors that were exclusive to any one breed." May I suggest baying? It is a behavior exclusive to scent hound breeds. Granted, there are several related breeds that bay on the trail, not "one"---but they all presumably split off from a single lineage. Was that one of the investigated behaviors? I'm willing to bet it wasn't.

And there is little point including "mixed" breed mutts, unless you have a pedigree showing which breeds were mixed into the mutt, which you obviously can't have, as mutt breed records are by definition not kept. Say you have a "mixed" breed dog that points; is that behavior independent, or is there a pointer somewhere in the ancestry? You can't demonstrate it one way or the other, so this is a garbage data point, and only serves to muddle the results.