Between you and me: Want a dog? Find out the parents first

By Leah S. Dunaief

Lea Dunaief

Recent and impressive research tells us something we already knew: not all golden retrievers always recover. We’ve been blessed with three golden retrievers in a row for four decades, and for the first two, when we threw a tennis ball, it was enthusiastically returned and dropped at our feet. Then there was Teddy.

Teddy came to us at eight weeks old, a golden ball of fur with two eyes, two ears, a pink nose and a tail. He died 12 years later, and during that time we were convinced he was the most beautiful, smartest and funniest dog in the world. But there was a quirk about Teddy the Golden Retriever. When we took him out onto the lawn and threw a tennis ball, he politely sat down and watched his trajectory. Then he would look at us as if to say, “Yeah? So?”

However, if we took it to a beach and threw a boulder that landed among thousands of other rocks, it would bring that exact boulder back and drop it at our feet, kicking back, wagging its tail, and waiting for the next throw. It had a terrible effect on his front teeth. Over the years, it wore them down, but he never seemed to care and didn’t seem to mind.

The other object he picked up on the beach was seaweed. He would dive into the water, stick his nose below the surface, then come up with a mouthful of seaweed and bring it about 10 feet to shore, where he would deposit it. From his many trips to the beach, there remained a line of seaweed that marked his hunting spot.

Although the current researchers have never interviewed Teddy, they surveyed 18,385 dogs and sequenced the genomes of 2,155 dogs for their research paper published in the journal. Science. They looked for predictors of canine behavior and concluded that breed was essentially useless. This might surprise you, and so do we, except for the recovery aspect we just talked about.

But apparently stereotypes like aggressive pit bulls weren’t validated. In fact, they scored high on human sociability, with videos showing lap-loving pit bulls. According to an article reporting on this study in Tthe New York Times last Tuesday, written by James Gorman, “Labrador Retriever ancestry [most popular breed in America]in contrast, did not seem to correlate significantly with human sociability.

However, research allows, there are a few predictable traits. “If you adopt a Border Collie…the likelihood of them being easier to train and interested in toys will be higher than if you adopt a Great Pyrenees.”

Go figure.

Breed accounts for only 9% of the variation in a given dog’s behavior. On the contrary, behavior patterns were strongly inherited, up to 25%, again according to the research, within a given breed. In the study of genomes, “several genes [were discovered] that clearly influence behavior, including one for dog friendliness. So, if you are about to buy a dog, check its parents first.

The researchers found 11 specific DNA regions associated with behavior, and an interesting comparison can be made with these same regions of human genomics. One region that affects the likelihood of a dog howling corresponds in humans to language development, and another that marks dogs enjoying being with humans is found in human DNA with long-term memory.

So I’m going to tell you a little more about Terrific Teddy. When the company came to us, he approached each newcomer, fidgeted and, I insist, smiled, until the person gave him a pat on the head. He then moved on to the next person and waited for the greeting ritual to be repeated. After that, he would retreat to a corner and watch socializing quietly unless called.

He was a bit of a terror under the table when we were at dinner. He furtively snatched the napkins from the knees of the guests. One day I will write a children’s book about Teddy the towel-stealing dog.