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Breed Alone is Not Enough to Determine How Awesome Your Dog Is

Dogs hold a special place in the hearts of Americans. While many people are happy finding their best friend among the unwanted mutts at shelters, there are also those that prefer specific breeds. Often, that preference is based on assumptions about the breed’s underlying behavioral quirks. However, new research suggests that a dog’s breed might not have as big an influence on its personality or temperament as we think.

Elinor Karlsson, a computational biologist at the University of Massachusetts in Worcester, wanted to look into how much personality patterns are inherited and how much a specific breed is associated with distinctive and predictable behaviors. Karlsson and her team studied 18,000 dogs, asking owners more than 100 questions relating to everything from their canine’s physical size and color to its sociability and lifestyle. The researchers then sequenced the DNA of some of the dogs to see whether ancestry could be linked to behavior.

While the researchers found that some behavior may be influenced by ancestry, individual variation is extremely high within any one breed. In fact, genetics corresponded with only around 9% of the variation in how a dog behaved. Also, no behaviors were restricted to only one breed and even the traits that seemed to be breed-specific were found to vary significantly among individual animals of the same breed. The researchers conclude that while some dog breeds do show tendencies towards certain traits, breed is not a good predictor of overall personality or behavior – meaning every dog is very unique.

Karlsson clarifies that breed can predict certain things. For instance, border collies are more likely to be interested in toys and will likely be easier to train than other breeds. But this is not without exceptions—within breeds, individual behaviors vary widely. Some breeds, like huskies and beagles, show a greater tendency to howl, but many individual dogs of both breeds don’t engage in the behavior at all. Study coauthor Kathryn Lord, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Massachusetts, said they even found some golden retrievers that don’t retrieve. The researchers also noted that they weren’t able to link aggressive behavior to any particular breed or any specific genetic signature.  

Karlsson and her colleagues identified 11 specific DNA regions associated with behavior which, interestingly enough, could assist in the study of human genomics. A region that affected the likelihood of a dog howling, for example, is associated in humans with language development. And a region connected to enjoying being around humans is also present in human DNA, where it is associated with long-term memory.

The research is ongoing and Karlsson says they still need more dogs! The team created a project called Darwin’s Ark where any dog owner can add to the research. Participating means answering survey questions about your pet, and, if you choose, receiving a DNA Kit. The team is also planning to launch a similar study into cats. Learn more HERE. (Sources: New York Times, Scientific American, NPR)

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