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Does Dog Breed Affect Behavior? Studies Say Yes – American Kennel Club

Do dog “families,” or breed lineages, also have links in their behavior in the way that human genealogy does? It has been found in numerous studies over time that human genes influence people’s individual behavioral and psychological characteristics, but is the same true for dog breed lineages? Researchers at the National Institute of Health (NIH) have determined that yes, behavioral tendencies run within breed families, or lineages, of dogs. 
Another study published in Science.org investigated whether a dog’s breed determines their personality, based on community science data sourced from Darwin’s Ark. It’s an age-old question, often analyzed and re-analyzed, but what makes it so complicated?  
Many news outlets will take these studies, pointing in one direction or another, and oversimplify it. Unfortunately, it’s not quite as simple as you might think.  
“I think it’s dangerous to say to someone that it doesn’t matter what breed of dog you get … I’m really anxious about some of the messaging that’s out there about this paper,” says Dr. Jessica Hekman, who co-authored the Science.org study. Dr. Hekman told the American Kennel Club that the study’s original intent was to add to the scientific literature about dogs in regards to behavior, and “not to provide guidance for people buying pets.” 
It’s more than a nature versus nurture question. Dog breeds and genetics definitely do matter, and so does the socialization of any dog, regardless of breed, is key to bringing out the best expression of a dog and their personality.  
Researchers at the NIH found that based on DNA data, dog breeds are grouped into 10 distinct “families:” scenthoundpointerspaniel, terrierretrieversled dog, African and Middle Eastern, Asian spitz, dingo, and sighthound. 
The most noteworthy surprise was the breeds that we group as “sighthounds.” It turns out they’re made up of two genetically unrelated groups of breeds, what these researchers call sighthounds. Largely of European origin, this group includes breeds like the Borzoi, as well as African and Middle Eastern dogs, a distinct genetic group that includes Afghan Hounds and Pharaoh Hounds, among others. 
Based on DNA, some lineages appear to have brought about others. For example, breeds that guard livestock gave rise to mastiffs along one path, and to cattle drovers and heelers on another, resulting in sheepdog breeds. 
Dog breeds originated for the most part by selecting for function, not appearance. However, those original functional differences still exist to this day. 
From more than 40,000 surveys of dog owners, the researchers compared data about the breed and lineage of each dog. They had owners answer the Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire (C-BARQ), which has been used in many dog behavior studies. From that data, they calculated 14 behavior scores for each purebred dog: trainability, attachment and attention-seeking, predatory chasing, dog-directed fear, excitability, owner-directed aggression, separation-related problems, non-social fear, familiar dog aggression, touch sensitivity, dog-directed aggression, stranger-directed aggression, and stranger-directed fear. 
This study revealed a lot about dog breed lineage, and confirmed many ideas about behaviors that dog experts had long thought to be true, as well as shed light on other things. They found that trainability was generally increased in breeds that were of herder, pointer-spaniel, and Retriever lineage. These breeds have to attend to their handler’s cues to herd livestock or to find, flush, or retrieve birds. 
The most significant negative correlation was between the scenthound lineage and trainability. Results indicated that dogs in these lineages can be harder to train. These breeds tend to “follow their noses,” ignoring human cues when they’re tracking. They are known to be independent, and their lineage reflects this. 
On the other hand, it was found that Sheepdogs and Retrievers are both easier to train. These breeds have less of a prey drive and aggression. They attend more to their handler’s directions to herd where they want them to, or where to locate a fallen bird. They also don’t attack livestock or other prey animals, and retrievers are expected to return birds without damaging them.
Terriers were found to have the most predatory behavior and dog-directed aggression. Since terriers’ jobs are to fearlessly find rodents, foxes, and other small mammals, they must be feisty and never back down from a challenge. Terriers and scenthounds were found to have an increased non-social fears, like objects and situations, rather than people, and need to be keenly alert to their surroundings.
While they have increased non-social fear, dogs of the herding lineage had the most. Researchers have theorized that herding dogs are hyper-attentive to environmental cues so that they can herd more effectively. This hyper-attentiveness can, however, also make them more prone to thunderstorm phobias, for example.
Companion and Toy dogs were found to display both increased social and non-social fear. These fears seem natural, especially when everyone and everything around you is so much bigger than you are. 
Because different lineages have different behaviors, it suggests genes help cause these behaviors. So, the next step for the researchers was to find genes that reliably corresponded with the different behavioral tendencies. To do so they identified the top 100 associated chromosome locations for the gene variants or alleles (called “loci”) in each lineage. They found that more than 85% of loci were unique to a single lineage. 
Interestingly, these alleles were also present (but to a lesser degree) in ancestral gray wolves. This suggests that these same alleles (and these same behaviors) already existed in gray wolves before dog breeds were formed. In addition, this denotes that early humans intentionally selected for already existing behavioral tendencies to create dogs with different behaviors. Herders, followed by terrier and Asian spitz lineages, shared the most amount of these behavioral alleles with gray wolves. 
How do genetic differences cause behavioral differences? The researchers searched for differences in the brain and nervous systems that correlated with genetic and behavioral differences. They found that herding dogs had 14 gene variants that are potentially important for neural connections in the brain. These genes were located near genes important for establishing communication between different parts of the brain. If certain brain areas can’t communicate, certain behaviors can’t happen. 
Other gene variants that appear more often in herders are important for developing social cognition (how you process, understand, and also respond to signals related to social groups) and learned fear responses. These gene variants may also be important for developing binocular vision (processes that help the brain integrate information from both eyes) and precise movements. 
“Purebred dog breeds have been developed, some for hundreds of years, for a purpose, whether that be cuddling on laps, hunting birds, herding livestock, or pulling sleds,” says Penny Leigh, the Director of Registration Development at the AKC. “They were selected for traits that would produce the best dogs for their intended job, and those traits still define their personalities today even if they are not being used in their intended roles.” 
Dr. Jerold Bell, Adjunct Professor of Genetics at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University explains that there may be specific behavior differences between similar breeds within a breed group, like the Herding Group or Terrier Group, or within a subgroup, like pointing breeds or setting breeds. However, the differences between these groups are based on hundreds of years of selection for specific behaviors. 
“There is no question that ‘instinct’ is a strong factor in purebred dog behavior when you see a weeks-old puppy frozen on-point, or a herding dog circling the family children, or all other stereotypical breed behaviors,” Dr. Bell says. 
The NIH study found that many of the behaviors linked with certain lineages of dogs also related directly to their purpose. Herding breeds are known for their energy and attentiveness, but they also can be more prone to dealing with issues like noise hypersensitivity. As the brain develops in species, genetic variants associated with herding dogs are often located near genes involved in guiding neural connections. A particular gene is even associated with human attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and anxiety-like behaviors in other mammals. These findings could help us understand both the high energy and hyper-focus, as well as the behavioral challenges that certain breeds may face. 
Every individual dog is just that: an individual. While one dog may rush to the door excited to greet visitors while another dog of the same breed may just lounge on the couch unbothered, the type of dog breed will likely predict common traits, including how energetic or stubborn your pet may be. According to Dr. Jerry Klein, Chief Veterinarian for the American Kennel Club, as soon as humans began to domesticate dogs, they chose dogs that were easiest to manage and handle, as well as those useful for day-to-day activities like huntingguarding, and companionship. 
“Through selective breeding over many, many, many generations, certain qualities and traits were continuously selected, refined, and became more ingrained in some dogs, eventually becoming a certain group of dogs (SportingSighthounds, Scenthounds), and then further still, becoming breeds,” he explains. 
“While the personalities of individual dogs will vary, just as human siblings will have different personalities, a dog’s behavioral tendencies will reflect their breed,” Dr. Bell says. “Prospective owners need to understand the expected behaviors and needs of the individual breeds to determine whether these fit in with their family and lifestyle.” 
A suitable match is key to a happy life for both you and your pet. You don’t want to end up rehoming an energetic Sporting breed because they weren’t a fit for your chilled-out lifestyle of apartment lounging. “Choosing the wrong breed for your lifestyle can lead to frustration for you and your dog,” Leigh says. “If you are a couch potato, then you do not want to be partnered with a high-energy dog who wants a job—and if you love to hike and jog, then you do not want a dog that would rather snooze the day away.” 
So, if different breeds have different temperaments and distinguishing traits, how do you choose the right one for you? As part of the AKC’s mission to promote responsible dog ownership, we’ve always maintained that researching the different dog breeds you’re interested in is critical. This helps a prospective puppy or dog owner narrow the field to pick breeds that are an overall good match for your lifestyle—beyond just breeds that have the physical traits you prefer, or that you find to be the most “cute.” You need to know what that breed needs in terms of space, exercisemental stimulation, and grooming to ensure the dog you bring home fits your lifestyle. 
However, choosing a particular breed does not mean you’ll get a carbon copy of personality with each dog—rather you can understand their breed’s general tendencies, which can help you decide if that breed has the baseline potential to be a good fit for you, and it will also help guide the kind of training the breed will need. 
While there are no guarantees about how your dog will behave, Dr. Klein feels if people make educated, informed decisions they can commit to caring for a dog for the dog’s entire life. “Understanding the breed standard and characteristics will help potential owners determine if a specific dog is likely to mesh well with their home, lifestyle, environment, time commitment, and expectations,” he says. 
When speaking specifically about acquiring a dog from a breeder on the Cog Dog Radio podcast, Dr. Hekman explains, “Your best way to have a dog that fits well into your home—no matter what the breed—is to interact with the breeder who is producing those dogs. You should [buy your puppy] from a breeder who knows their lines well, and you should tell that breeder what your expectations of the dog are: what you want the dog for, what you can provide for the dog, what’s a dealbreaker for you. And you should find the kind of breeder who is willing to say, and who is happy to say, ‘This is not the right dog for you,’ if it’s true, and then you should listen to them. 
“That’s the real message. And at that point, it doesn’t matter what breed, because you’ll go to the [Belgian] Malinois breeder and they’ll be like, ‘I don’t think this is the right dog for you if you don’t have time to walk it, and you have a two-year-old crawling on the floor.’” 
You’ve likely heard of the “nature versus nurture” concept when it comes to dog behavior. A dog’s breed, hard-wired personality, and behavior traits are essentially the “nature,” while socialization and training are “nurture.” Leigh explains that socialization is the most important thing a person can do when they bring a new puppy home. 
“Positive experiences as a young puppy stay with the dog for life and will help it mature into a more confident, well-rounded adult dog,” she says. “Genetics also definitely play a role. Some breeds are naturally more reserved and less trusting of strangers—and some are social butterflies who love everyone from day one. Still, socialization helps all dogs adapt better to people, animals, and situations that they will encounter through life.” 
Another important way to bring out the best in your dog is to train your dog. For example, some breeds are high drive and easily aroused, but teaching impulse control and focus will help channel those qualities in positive ways. In other words, you can’t change the personality a dog is born with, but you can help bring out its best expression. Like a naturally shy person can use tools to build confidence in public speaking, you can give a timid dog the tools to be more confident and self-assured. 
“A dog that is a little skittish and shy might never ever be the life of the party, but through training, socialization, and confidence-building, you can make huge strides to help your dog cope with almost any situation,” Leigh says. 
Choosing the breed with the best personality to fit your lifestyle, then socializing and training that dog, gives you the best opportunity to build a fulfilling, lifelong relationship and bond with your dog. As Dr. Klein says, “Dog breeds have very distinct physical and personality traits, and it is important that people understand and familiarize themselves with those traits. That is the best way to ensure success in your relationship with any dog.” 
Dr. Hekman echos this point, and told the AKC that she agrees that socialization of the dog itself plays a major role in how they express their personality. Not only should you choose a breeder that does a good job at socializing the newborn puppies, but you should also continue that work once you bring your dog home. “But it’s not everything, and you’ll definitely improve your chances of getting the right dog for you if you are also thoughtful about what breed you bring home,” she says. 
It’s important for any dog lover, dog fancier, or especially new puppy seekers to take note that news coverage of the study that was published in Science isn’t the same as the study itself, and that a particular take from a news website isn’t necessarily the point or intent of the study. “I don’t think this paper should be used to help you decide how to get your next puppy, because that’s not what we tested,” Dr. Hekman said on the podcast. 
She cautioned, “Be careful with what you’re reading. You may be reading what a journalist’s take on the paper is rather than the actual paper. If you go to the page that the paper is hosted on, you will find a paragraph at the beginning of that—before what we the authors wrote—which is the take of an editor of the journal. It was not written by the [study] authors. That little paragraph does end with saying that you should not use breed to determine what kind of dog you’re buying as a pet. The [study] authors didn’t write that. I don’t want to speak for anybody else but myself, but I disagree with that statement. And I have no power to have it taken down.” 
AKC is a participant in affiliate advertising programs designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to akc.org. If you purchase a product through this article, we may receive a portion of the sale.


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