The idea that dog breeds are an important component in determining a pet’s “personality” has been a hit thanks to genomics. The largest study ever conducted attempting to link dogs’ temperament to their DNA revealed that only 9% of the behavioral difference between dogs can be attributed to the breed they belong to. This means that animals are, first of all, unique individuals like their owners.
This is true even for characteristics that tend to stigmatize certain races, such as a putative tendency to be aggressive, say the US researchers who coordinated the study. Published in this week’s issue of the specialized journal Science, the work was based on behavioral data obtained from owners of 18,000 dogs (mostly in the US) and on DNA analysis of a subset of this group, with just over 2,000 animals. (both “race” and mestizos and mutts).
“I had never owned a dog in my life when I went to school and began studying the genes behind compulsive behaviors in dogs, with the goal of using them as models for understanding compulsive problems in humans,” said Eleanor Carlson, coordinator of the association. He worked as a researcher at the University of Massachusetts, at an online news conference.
“The problem was that my research started to get stuck, in part because the sample had very few dogs in it. Then I noticed something funny. Every time someone asked me what I was working on and I started explaining, the person would immediately show a picture of her dog and she started telling me It was all about animal behavior. That’s when it became clear: This was the data we needed.”
The surprise led to the creation of Darwin’s Ark, or “Darwin’s Ark,” where the team began submitting detailed questionnaires about canine behavior (it is still possible to share online, and nowadays those who fill out the questions already receive the initial analysis of their animal).
The questions divide animal behavior into eight main axes (see diagram), such as social communication, obedience, seeking communication with the owner, etc. Through the Darwin ship, the team also recruited animals that were included in the genomic assessment, which used essentially the same methods used to look for associations between genes and specific diseases in humans.
The work revealed a relatively small association between behavioral traits and race. For the team’s expert on canine evolution, Catherine Lord, the explanation is simple. What happens is that the clearly defined breeds we know today, following strict criteria for physical appearance and (supposedly) temperament, are a recent invention, originating from the mid-19th century onwards.
Before that, the selection process for animal characteristics was more passive and indirect. “First, some wolves that became ancestral to dogs had to lose their fear of contact with humans and become more docile to live near people,” she says. “For thousands of years, some animals were selected not by continuous breeding, but perhaps by treating them better, giving them more food, etc.”
In short, says Carlson, the most important processes for canine evolution are still by far the oldest and simplest. Specifically choosing behaviors is a matter of time, and the generations that have passed since the origins of the modern races have not been enough to change that much.
However, the conclusion does not completely exclude the association between races and specific behavioral variables. One element that the breed seems to have the most importance is obedience, especially when the animal is formally trained. More specifically, the habit of howling (not just barking) has a clearer genetic link to certain breeds, such as Siberian huskies and beagles (the famous snoopy breed).
The study did not directly assess aggression, but a broader scale called the ‘counter-threshold’. “It refers to the level of alertness that an animal makes to react to something threatening, frightening, or disturbing,” Lord explains. The work showed that this procedure is poorly heritable, that is, the variation between dogs has nothing to do with genetics.