Debunking the myth that dog behavior follows breed

Suppose the original dog was a multi-purpose animal. Over time, humans began to require their dogs to perform specific tasks and select certain abilities. Thus was born the “specialized” dog. The Romans, for example, had companion dogs, draft dogs, sight dogs, etc.

In the 17th century, English dogs were divided into groups based on their function. The first volume devoted to this subject, English Doggespublished in 1576 by Johannes Caius in London, identified several types of dogs, including “tinkerers’ dogs” that traveled with street vendors and “lurchers” that worked with poachers.

Lurchers were listed by Caius as a recognizable type of dog.

Source: Illustration of the Sportsman’s Cabinet by William Taplin, 1803

Until the 1800s, dogs in most countries of the world are thought to have been bred for certain purposes, such as “screwdrivers” that ran on treadmills to turn baking spits; the “grinder dogs” that powered belt-driven devices to produce pigment for paint; “scent hounds” to stalk humans and game.

At the end of the 19th century, as historian Harriet Ritvo pointed out in The animal domainmembers of the merchant class, mainly in England, began to breed dogs and other animals and to hold competitions as an emulation of nobility.

Thus was formed the Kennel Club in Great Britain in 1873, followed by the American Kennel Club in 1884. Those involved in the so-called “sport” created breeds by choosing very few representatives of the type of dog that they desired, say, a bloodhound or a setter, and the inbreeding of those dogs over several generations to produce animals that met carefully defined standards of behavior and appearance. Members of the race were said to have all the intelligence, talents, and traits that made their ancestors so special.

Almost from the start, questions arose about the validity of such claims. At the beginning of the 20th century, for example, Harry Trimble and Clyde Keeler studied the propensity of Dalmatian dogs to run between the carriage and the horses. They found that such behavior was not inherited but rather a reflection of a temperament toward boldness that could be trained or directed.

In 1965, JP Scott and John L. Fuller, in Genetics and Social Behavior of Dogs, now recognized as a classic, concluded that there are greater differences in behavior between dogs of the same breed than between breeds of dogs. That is, not all Labradors swim and fetch ducks from the water; not all border collies stare at sheep into submission; and not all pointers point to birds.

In a 1990 Atlantic Monthly article [unavailable online] and dog’s best friend, I have pointed out the error of making such assumptions. I said that this kind of attribution of race-specific behaviors is, in some ways, a form of racism and deeply misguided.

But old habits persist, and as the number of dogs in American households has increased over the past few decades, so have the number of articles identifying the ten best breeds for those who have children or want an active creature, or what whatever else, also increased.

Last month in the April 29 issue of Science, a team of researchers from the University of Massachusetts Medical School working with a large dataset generated by a community science project called Darwin’s Ark has definitively debunked the myth of race-specific behaviors. The researchers, led by Elinor Karlsson, conducted a two-part study: they collected 18,385 surveys of dog owners asking them about the behavior of their animals; they also sequenced 2,155 genomes from purebred and mixed breed dogs and attempted to isolate areas that may contain genes responsible for stereotypical behaviors.

Significantly, researchers have found that a dog’s breed does not predict its behavior. Although they found 11 gene regions associated with behavior, including howling frequency and sociability with humans, even here the effect was not large enough to predict.

The popular media reporting on this research was curious, motivated, it seems, by an unwillingness to accept the team’s findings at face value, perhaps because so much of the he dog industry invests in perpetuating these myths of breed difference. Even some vets will refer to these stereotypes without a second thought.

The central message of the article is that the behaviors currently attributed to specific breeds actually belong to a greater or lesser degree to all dogs, unless some physical or mental defect impairs them.

The researchers wrote:

By embracing the full diversity of dogs, including purebred dogs, mixed breed dogs, purebred working dogs and village dogs, we can fully realize the long-recognized potential of dogs as a natural role model. of genetic discovery.

I further hope that over time the article will help change the way people think and talk so that they see their dog primarily for himself, not his breed.