The Washington Post jumps on a new study of the genes and behaviors of thousands of dogs as opening another front in The War on Stereotypes:
Researchers found that breed alone explains very little about dog behavior and personality
By Katie Shepherd
Yesterday at 2:00 p.m. EDT
Americans have as many stereotypes about dogs as there are distinct breeds: Chihuahuas are nervous; border collies are hyperactive; golden retrievers are great with children; and, most infamous, some large breeds — like the American pit bull terrier and Rottweiler — are aggressive.
But a research paper published Thursday by scientists studying the link between genetics and dog behavior suggests that our preconceived notions may be wrong.
Breed means very little in predicting the behavior and personality of an individual dog, the researchers found. That appears to be especially true for traits that are most commonly associated with a dog’s personality, qualities such as cuddliness, friendliness toward strangers and aggression.
… The researchers examined data only on dogs that live primarily as companion animals and did not study how genes influence working dogs bred to perform specific tasks.
Breed accounted for only about 9 percent of behavioral variation in individual dogs and no trait was unique to a single breed of dog, the study found. The researchers speculate that much of the rest of the differences between dogs comes down to individual experiences, training and other environmental factors.
Although some traits appeared to coincide with existing beliefs about breeds, others contradicted deep-seated stereotypes. Labrador and golden retrievers, on average, scored high on “human sociability” — a measure of how receptive a dog is to unfamiliar people. That finding goes hand in hand with those breeds’ reputations as friendly dogs. But American pit bull terriers, a breed that has been outlawed in some cities and is often not allowed to live in apartment complexes because of the belief that it is aggressive and destructive, also scored high on human sociability, the study found.
“We knew what we were finding wasn’t lining up with people’s stereotypes and what they feel is their lived experience with dogs,” Karlsson said.
Actually, pit bulls are famously affectionate. The problem with pit bulls is they have been bred to have certain behaviors, such as when they bite to not let go, along with the muscularity to cause a lot of damage. The vast majority of pit bulls will never rip a child apart, but a large fraction of the most damaging attacks on people are carried out by pit bulls and their close cousin breeds.
Like breed, dog size had almost no effect on differences in behavior among individual dogs, the study found. “You will never have a Great Dane-sized Chihuahua, and you will never have a Chihuahua-sized Great Dane,” Karlsson added, “but you can definitely have a Chihuahua that acts like a Great Dane, and you can have a Great Dane with the same personality as a Chihuahua.”
Some traits were more likely to be associated with certain breeds — but those largely had to do with functional behaviors such as howling, pointing, retrieving, herding and playing with toys. On average, beagles and bloodhounds are more likely to howl. German shorthaired pointers are more likely to point. Herding breeds tended to be more biddable — or easily trained — and played with toys more than other breeds. And, predictably, breeds classified as retrievers had a greater propensity to retrieve than other types of dogs.
Still, many individual beagles rarely howl, and some golden retrievers refuse to fetch; a dog’s breed does not guarantee any specific behavior, the study found.
As Damon Runyon might say, the race is not always to the greyhound, nor the dogfight to the pit bull, but that’s the way to bet.
… The study’s authors said dispelling stereotypes about our dogs may help people make better-informed choices when picking pets and also may affect breed-specific laws and policies that prevent people from owning certain dogs.
“There are some breeds that are both fairly and unfairly judged,” Alonso said.
So, we must cancel bias against pit bulls!
Too bad about the people who will die from the War on Stereotypes. From Dogsbite.org:
I also read the original study in Science, “Ancestry-inclusive dog genomics challenges popular breed stereotypes.”
The most genetically unusual dog breed by far, according to the report, is the Tibetan Mastiff, which is quite a sight. Like human Tibetans, canine Tibetans are genetically adapted for the thin air of the high altitude.
Plus, they look unreal, like giant plush toys. I saw one over the weekend in Riverfront Park in Spokane, and it was attracting a crowd.
Other interesting facts from the study:
Pit Bulls (American Pit Bull Terrier) are now the leading breed in the U.S. genetically, with about 10% of genes in purebreds and mutts combined tracing back to pit bulls, with Labs next at 6%. The public consistently underestimates how prevalent pit bull genes are:
This prevalence of pit bull genes means that pit bulls accounting for almost two-thirds of fatal dog attacks on humans isn’t quite as awful as you’d think because pit bulls are so common these days. But still, 10%-does-66%?
More than 80% of the nearly 1 billion dogs on Earth are free-living, free-breeding, and not under human control (e.g., village dogs). Even in countries with large purebred populations, dogs with ancestry from more than one breed are common [~50% in the United States].
My new dog looks like a large village dog, or what I call a “default dog,” with usually a yellow-brown short coat. The pound named her Bambi because she looks like a muscular deer (but does not act much like one).
Mutts are rarely (17%) mixes of just two breeds. Most (66%) carry >5% ancestry from four or more breeds. We find that 1071 dogs (70%) are highly admixed, carrying under 45% ancestry from any one breed. The most common breed ancestry is American pit bull terrier (9.9%) followed by Labrador retriever (6.0%), Chihuahua (5.1%), beagle (4.1%), and German shepherd dog (4.0%), varying by geographic region. Purebred dogs had higher coefficients of inbreeding, as estimated from the proportion of the genome in runs of homozygosity.
The guy at the animal shelter came up with four possible contributor breeds for Bambi: Korean Jindo, German Shepherd (or as you are now supposed to call it: German Shepherd Dog to, evidently, distinguish it from the German Shepherd Human), Shar-pei (a few wrinkles on her forehead), and one other Asian breed I forgot (Akita?). Hopefully, she’s avoided most of the unfortunate genetic problems associated with those various breeds. She appears to be very healthy and is definitely vigorous.
The researchers got the DNA on over 2000 dogs, half mutts, and had their owners fill out a lengthy survey about their dogs.
One concern I’d have about survey responses about behavior is that, while no doubt many owners are experts on how their dogs compare to other dogs, other owners, such as me, would be pretty clueless about how she compares to other dogs. Bambi is my first dog in several decades, so I’m not a comparative dog expert. So far, to sum up her temperament and behavior as: “extremely dog-like.”
In the owner surveys, breed explains a larger fraction of the variance in behavior phenotypes (110 questions and eight factors) than size, sex, or age, but the effect is relatively small. In an analysis of variance (ANOVA) of confirmed purebred dogs representing 78 breeds, the breed effect, measured as generalized eta squared (ges), averages 0.089 … and is about fivefold higher for the physical traits characteristic of breeds than for behavioral traits. …
Pet dogs these days are primarily bred for looks rather than behavior. (The study excluded working dogs.) Often behavior rides along with looks (pleiotropy), but personality is not what wins the Westminster Kennel Club dog show.
Also, dogs that are bred for behavior are sometimes bred for a limited number of traits rather than a whole suite of behaviors encompassing the eight main behavioral factors the authors found. For instance, a Newfoundland is bred to rescue people from the water. That’s a pretty amazing trait. I presume that breeders of working Newfoundlands will tolerate a range of other behavioral traits as long as it really wants to dive in and save drowning people.
Age explains little of the variation [0.018 ± 0.035 (±SD)] overall, but for a subset of traits it exceeds 0.05, including two factors (arousal level and toy-directed motor patterns) and nine questions, which include five designed to assess aging-related traits.
Sex has little effect (0.009 ± 0.044), except for “lifts leg to urinate” (ges = 0.48).
We are constantly lectured about how gender differences in behavior are socially constructed due to the patriarchy’s need to impose the Gender Binary on everybody. But when it comes to dogs, American society is strikingly lacking in widespread stereotypes about sex differences. Dog experts often have theories about subtle sex differences (not all of them agreeing), but as a definite non-expert, I’ve barely ever of them.
Size has virtually no effect (6.6 × 10−4 ± 8.6 × 10−4; range 2.5 × 10−7 to 0.006).
Do dogs have much sense of their own size and looks? I got to thinking about that yesterday at the park when an off-leash pitbull went dashing 50 yards to bark at another pitbull. The two beasts pulled up about 3 feet apart and unleash furious barks and snarls.
Then two more excited dogs ran up and barked their heads off. One was a little lap dog and the other a very silly looking dog with a fluffy white coat. My impression was that they both should stay far away from angry 75 pound pit bulls. But do they know they look like pit bull appetizers?
Breed is not a reliable predictor of individual behavior
For several factors, score distributions for individual breeds differ from the distribution of all dogs, with at least a few breeds over- or underrepresented in the highest-scoring quartile. These distributions are based on owner survey data that may be influenced by breed stereotypes and other factors, and differences are not necessarily genetic in origin. For example, for human sociability (factor 1), an individual Labrador retriever (1.4-fold), golden retriever (1.6-fold), American pit bull terrier (1.4-fold), or Siberian husky (1.7-fold) was more likely to score in the highest quartile than a randomly selected dog, whereas a German shepherd dog (0.78-fold), Chihuahua (0.72-fold), or dachshund (0.56-fold) was less likely. Even so, in every breed represented by 25 or more dogs, the majority scored within one SD of the Darwin’s Ark cohort mean (67.2 ± 7.5% within one SD and 95.4 ± 3.0% within two SD for confirmed purebred dogs). Behavioral factors show high variability within breeds, suggesting that although breed may affect the likelihood of a particular behavior to occur, breed alone is not, contrary to popular belief, informative enough to predict an individual’s disposition.
So this is basically Lewontin’s Fallacy applied to dogs. From Wikipedia:
In the 1972 study The Apportionment of Human Diversity, Richard Lewontin performed a fixation index (FST) statistical analysis using 17 markers, including blood group proteins, from individuals across classically defined “races” (Caucasian, African, Mongoloid, South Asian Aborigines, Amerinds, Oceanians, and Australian Aborigines). He found that the majority of the total genetic variation between humans (i.e., of the 0.1% of DNA that varies between individuals), 85.4%, is found within populations, 8.3% of the variation is found between populations within a “race”, and only 6.3% was found to account for the racial classification.
Everybody was amazed by what a tiny percentage 14.6% was, but few stopped to compare that number to anything to get a perspective on it. In reality, 15% of diversity explained by racial ancestry is actually quite a lot. It’s comparable in scale to how much the diversity between uncle and nephew relative to the rest of their subrace is explained by their being related.
A. W. F. Edwards argued that while Lewontin’s statements on variability are correct when examining the frequency of different alleles (variants of a particular gene) at an individual locus (the location of a particular gene) between individuals, it is nonetheless possible to classify individuals into different racial groups with an accuracy that approaches 100 percent when one takes into account the frequency of the alleles at several loci at the same time. This happens because differences in the frequency of alleles at different loci are correlated across populations—the alleles that are more frequent in a population at two or more loci are correlated when we consider the two populations simultaneously. Or in other words, the frequency of the alleles tends to cluster differently for different populations.
Say you have two dog breeds. On each of the eight main behavioral factors found in this study, one breed averages half a standard deviation more than the average dog and one a half standard deviation less. While you will definitely have some overlap on any one factor — for example, African-Americans average a one standard deviation lower on IQ tests than white Americans, but that still means one-sixth of blacks have higher IQs than whites — across all eight factors, just about any dog from one breed will be quite different from a dog from the other breed.
That reminds me … my 48 pound puppy is one hungry dog. You can help keep her fed by contributing to my April fundraiser:
Here are nine ways for you to contribute:
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