I must admit that I am not a pet. I didn’t grow up with pets, I don’t have a pet now, and honestly, I find the very idea of a pet very unfamiliar.
The very idea of different breeds of pets is also unfamiliar. It is therefore this ignorance that led me to take an interest in a study published a few months ago.
The study, published in the journal Science, studied around 20,000 dogs. The objective was to see how the breed of dog is related to the physical and temperamental properties of the dog. I feel like the results of this study come as a surprise to many dog owners: different breeds have little or no effect on a dog’s temperament.
Although the title of this study may seem aimed at dog owners, there is another purpose.
Companion dogs are common in our culture, often share a living environment with people, and can sometimes receive advanced medical care. Behavioral disorders in dogs, for example, are sometimes treated with psychiatric drugs developed for humans. Additionally, dogs sometimes have similar response rates to these drugs.
Simply put, dogs provide an excellent natural system for seeing the link between genetics, neurological and mental disorders, and, potentially, drug development.
Back to the study of the dog. The scientists run a website, Darwin’s Ark, where owners can register their pets. Owners typically fill out 12 different surveys about their pet’s behavior and physical characteristics. The scientists also performed DNA analysis on around 2,000 dogs.
Common dog breeds in the survey were Labrador Retriever, German Shepherd and Golden Retriever. Mixed breeds, called pooches, were also included.
A little tangent on dog breeds. Dogs, unlike their wolf ancestors, have been around for over 10,000 years. Humans have been unwittingly and intentionally breeding dogs for useful behaviors, such as hunting, guarding, or herding, for a few thousand years.
Modern dog breeds are around 160 years old. They started in Victorian Britain. This represents approximately 50 to 80 generations. Thus, different dog breeds represent a small change from the much longer development of the canine species, officially called Canis familiaris. The typical objective of this modern breeding was to obtain specific physical characteristics.
So the question: do different modern breeds have reliable and different temperaments? The scientists used the survey questions to determine each dog’s temperament for seven different qualities. For example, how sociable is the dog with unfamiliar people? How much does the dog play with toys? How much does the dog seek human contact? How do dogs respond to human commands?
Scientists have also used DNA analysis to determine race. Owners could almost always correctly identify the breed. Unfortunately, breed stereotypes are well known and likely affect many owners’ perceptions of their dogs. To avoid this problem, scientists analyzed pooches.
That is, they connected the DNA of dogs with a mix of different breeds with the behavior of the dog. So the question now becomes: do dogs with more, say, golden retriever DNA always behave differently?
For almost all behavioral properties, the answer is no. For example, it’s common for owners to think golden retrievers are friendly with strangers. Scientists have confirmed this in their investigations. However, pooches with DNA related to golden retrievers weren’t exceptionally friendly.
So, it seems that the DNA associated with golden retrievers does not make a dog friendlier. This means that if golden retrievers really are friendlier than other dogs, it’s not because of their DNA.
A similar result was true for Labrador retrievers. Simply put, owners of Labrador retrievers describe their dogs as friendly, but pooches with this DNA aren’t exceptionally friendly.
Border collies are generally highly regarded for wanting to play, but pooches with border collie DNA aren’t any more playful.
The only dramatic exception to this is the DNA bidding ability of the border collie. That is to say, pooches with border collie DNA tend to be sensitive to human instructions. All other temperament and breed DNA combinations were basically unrelated.
Genetics, of course, is not a complete description of a dog. I hear that training is also important. But then again, I’ve never owned a dog.
Christer Watson, of Fort Wayne, is a visiting assistant professor of physics at Purdue University in Fort Wayne. The opinions expressed are his own. He wrote it for The Journal Gazette, where his columns normally appear the first and third Tuesday of each month.