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Your dog is a good boy, but that's not necessarily because of its breed

A border collie in northern England chases after a flock of sheep to herd them. A new study finds that only about 9% of the variation in an individual dog's behavior can be explained by its breed.
Edwin Remsberg
Getty Images
A border collie in northern England chases after a flock of sheep to herd them. A new study finds that only about 9% of the variation in an individual dog's behavior can be explained by its breed.

Labrador retrievers fetch, border collies herd, huskies howl: It's conventional wisdom that many dog breeds act in certain ways because they've been bred to do so over the course of many generations.

But a new study to be published Friday in the journal Science finds that though some dog behaviors are indeed associated with particular breeds, breed plays less of a role overall than that conventional wisdom holds.

"We found things like German shorthaired pointers were slightly more likely to point, or golden retrievers were slightly more likely to retrieve, or huskies more likely to howl, than the general dog population," says Kathryn Lord, a researcher at the UMass Chan Medical School and an author of the study.

Researchers surveyed the owners of more than 18,000 dogs and analyzed the DNA of about 2,100 animals to see if physical traits and behaviors can be correlated with dog breeds.

Overall, the study found that about 9% of the variation in an individual dog's behavior can be explained by its breed.

Border collies, for instance, were more likely to be responsive to human direction, a trait called "biddability." Owners of beagles, bloodhounds, coonhounds and Siberian huskies will not be surprised to learn that those breeds had a tendency to howl.

The same was true of mixed-breed dogs, the researchers found — the higher the percentage of border collie in a mutt, the more responsive it was to human commands.

"From a genetic standpoint, that's fantastic. That means there are real behavioral differences that are connected to breeds that we can go and study," says Elinor Karlsson, a professor at UMass Chan Medical School and another author of the study.

Why dogs may not behave like others of the same breed

Across individual dogs of the same breed, the researchers found huge variations in behavior.

For instance, although golden retrievers are, on the whole, more likely to fetch than many other dogs, there are plenty of lazy goldens that sit and watch as their owners fruitlessly toss tennis balls.

And no behavior is unique to any single breed, the researchers said. German shorthaired pointers are not the only dogs that point.

"Genetics matter, but genetics are a nudge in a given direction. They're not a destiny," Evan MacLean, the director of the Arizona Canine Cognition Center at the University of Arizona, who was not involved in the research, tells NPR. "We've known that for a long time in human studies, and this paper really suggests that the same is true for dogs."

The most likely explanation for the relatively low correlation between behavior and breed, the authors of the paper said, is that many modern dog breeds are relatively new, in the evolutionary scope of things.

Organized dog breeding, with kennel clubs and other groups that regulate physical traits and track lineage, has existed in its current form only since the mid-19th century.

By contrast, humans have been helping to shape dog behaviors for thousands of years, the researchers said — first by giving helpful dogs food and shelter, thus allowing them to more easily have puppies, and then later by intentionally breeding.

"The thing about complex traits is that selecting on them takes time," Karlsson says. "And so the idea that they've been created in the last 160 years when these breeds came up didn't make any sense."

Dog owners were a big help in the study

To create their data set, the researchers set up a website called Darwin's Ark that allows dog owners to upload data about their dogs and answer questions, both about physical traits — how tall their dog is, how long its fur is — and about their dogs' behavior: Do they shake toys? Do they avoid getting wet? Do they howl?

The study's reliance on owner surveys is both good and bad, says MacLean of the University of Arizona.

On the one hand, owner surveys allow for massive sample sizes — well over 18,000 survey responses in this case — but on the other, the information gathered from surveys is almost always less reliable than results from a laboratory environment, he says.

"We like to put dogs in a situation that we can control and we can administer in the same way to every dog, and be a little bit more objective about the behavior that we see," MacLean says.

The researchers say they hope the paper can help aspiring dog owners shift their mindsets about how to choose a dog.

"I don't think that we should really be deciding that breeds are the things that will tell us whether we will be happy with a dog or whether a dog will be happy with us," says Marjie Alonso, another of the study's authors and executive director of the IAABC Foundation, an animal training organization.

Instead, she suggests that potential owners make a list of what they'd like to do with a dog and then try to find a dog that meets those needs.

"We do have to accept that our dogs are individuals. Each dog is a study of one," she says. "We want to accept our dogs for who they are."

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Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.