Dogs were the first animals to be domesticated before the advent of agriculture, more than 14,000 years ago. However, the concept of dog breeds is much more recent, dating back only about 160 years, when people started to selectively breed dogs to have certain physical traits, such as a specific coat texture or color.
Although many dog owners believe that breed plays a fundamental role in determining dogs’ personalities, a new study published in the journal Science has found that breed is actually not a strong predictor of any individual dog’s personality.
The researchers surveyed over 18,000 dog owners and analyzed the genomes of about 2,150 of their dogs to search for patterns. While the results suggest that some behaviors, such as howling, pointing, or being friendly with human strangers, may have some genetic bases, that inheritance does not seem to be strictly passed down along breed lines.
“There is a huge amount of behavioral variation in every breed, and at the end of the day, every dog really is an individual,” said study co-author Elinor Karlsson, a geneticist at the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School (UMass Chan).
While some breeds – such as huskies or beagles for instance – may show a greater tendency to howl, the survey and genetic analyses revelead that many of these dogs don’t howl as much as people expect them to, based on breed stereotypes. Similarly, as study co-author Kathryn Lord (an evolutionary biologist at UMass Chan) stresses, many golden retrievers don’t retrieve, and are not as friendly as people usually consider them to be.
“The majority of behaviors that we think of as characteristics of specific modern dog breeds have most likely come about from thousands of years of evolution from wolf to wild canine to domesticated dog, and finally to modern breeds,” explained Dr. Karlsson.
“These heritable traits predate our concept of modern dog breeds by thousands of years. Each breed inherited the genetic variation carried by those ancient dogs, but not always at exactly the same frequencies. Today, those differences show up as differences in personality and behavior seen in some, but not all, dogs from a breed,” she concluded.