If you’re committing to living with a dog, you want to make sure that the animal in question will fit into your lifestyle and your home. Homes with cats or children, or those located in a busy urban area, have different boundaries than rural households with plenty of room to roam. This is why when people are considering getting a dog, they often investigate and pay close attention to the breed of the dog.
As for the overall shape and size of a dog, this is a reliable criterion. you know what you get with looking like a great dane or terrier. The 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 young children is not necessarily predictable depending on the race. This means that a “friendly” dog is not something you can count on choosing a specific type of dog – instead, it really comes down to luck and parenthood. The early environment that a responsible breeder can provide sets the tone for “raising” 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 of how dogs of specific breeds act and behave. The American Kennel Club, for example, describes particular breeds with keywords like “intelligent,” “outgoing,” and “loving,” presumably capturing that group’s personality. But we all know that every dog behaves differently. And are bulldogs really more aggressive, or retrievers more friendly, as general stereotypes suggest? This study reveals that the answer is no. These traits vary between individuals, but are not defined at the breed level. The researchers sorted data from more than 18,000 dogs, provided by their respective humans as part of a citizen science project called Darwin’s Ark. The study also analyzed the DNA of some 2,000 of these dogs to determine to what extent behaviors such as aggression or sociability might be inherited through genetics.
From the outset, we see that the sample sizes here are impressive. While many of us know dogs intimately, we only do so in small numbers. But in the careful, slow science that propelled these new findings, hundreds of different questions answered by dog owners were examined across a large number of puppies spanning more than 70 breeds. This is the main difference between the scientific way of looking at dogs and our everyday way of looking at them: we still live with individual, specific dogs, but scientists study general populations and patterns.
The large sample sizes allowed the authors to conduct fine-grained statistical analysis across a range of behaviors. This included whether the dogs in question liked to get wet or circle around before pooping. Besides genetics and race, the researchers also considered other key categories such as age and gender 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 that old dogs do learn new tricks.
The communication between dogs and humans – not the breed – is what’s important.
The Darwin’s Ark team found another intriguing – if less surprising – pattern among all dog breeds. Throughout life, 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 lead them (think basics like “down” and “stay”). As expected, submission scores for older dogs were higher than for younger ones. Indeed, it is difficult to get a puppy to listen to us or, in essence, understand us as humans.
This is the more general question on which the larger study was based: how well do dogs understand our human communication? After all, for each of us, understanding the real nuances of human communication is a long way. For humans and dogs alike, it takes time to “understand” what our fellow human beings are doing and what they can expect 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 less than perfect processes.
It’s possible that the old ideas of the human owner as an “alpha dog” showing dominance only served to hinder communication, creating confusion on top of everything else. It’s important to pause and examine how consistent we ourselves are in what we’re trying to communicate to our pets. Before we get upset that our dog isn’t listening or ends up blaming his breed for his behavior, take a step back and assess how you communicate.
As with all learning, small steps in dog training make great progress, especially when both human and dog are adjusting 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, live together and cooperate is there. A Cub won’t work in this setup, but any puppy has this potential. As many dog trainers like to say, let’s do our part to “set them up for success.”
Are certain dog breeds more aggressive?
When it comes to analyzing how easily a dog acts defensively or aggressively towards something unexpected in its environment, the study found that breeds made little difference. Breeds explained only 9% of behavioral variation. So when it comes to living with one or two dogs, a pit bull or a golden retriever are both likely, if not unlikely, to act aggressively. Exactly how the chips fall with a particular dog in a particular situation depends on its own past experiences. And the key feature of these past experiences are the humans in question: those with whom the dog lives and who first guided him as a puppy into the world of human social life (with all its arbitrary rules and regulations) .
In many ways, the history here goes back even further. Scientific findings align with the overall emergence of dogs as a species. Breeds don’t make much of a difference in predicting overall dog personalities, as they’re relatively new, with most being created in the late 1800s. in Victorian times in England. This is when people began to associate social status and prestige with “purebred” dogs. It was all part of the enthusiasm we humans have for controlling nature even more.
If race doesn’t matter, can you domesticate a wolf?
The real change happened when dogs evolved from wolves – earlier in the evolution of canine species. While dogs and wolves today share approximately 99.96% of their genetics, the two species are distinct. With proper guidance and a little practice, any dog can learn to live with humans, whether in urban or rural settings. Dogs as a species are biologically sculpted for this journey of life shared with humans across cultures. But wolves are not. It doesn’t matter if you hand-raise a cub before its eyes are even opened. You just won’t end up with a pet that can go to the park with you.
This is so because of the extent to which humans interact with the canid lineage from which dogs have descended for over 30,000 years, if not longer. Ancient bones from Europe and Siberia tell a clear story of change over time; compared 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 also changed, and today’s dogs are primarily dogs more than representatives of a particular breed. The current study shows that the fundamental nature of the dog is shared between breeds and all those sweet happy mixtures we call “mutts”.
A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine Inside Your Dog’s Mind.