New Study Says Breed Isn't Responsible For Your Dog's Behavior

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dog breed personality study

Ever wonder why your golden retriever refuses to retrieve a ball? Or why your shar-pei, known for being a quiet breed, barks incessantly? Has your dog ever exhibited any traits that he isn’t “supposed to” based on what you know about his breed?

A new study by University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School actually challenges the idea that a dog’s behavior is based on his breed.

After surveying nearly 20,000 dogs of diverse backgrounds, researchers found that “dog breed is generally a poor predictor of individual behavior and should not be used to inform decisions relating to selection of a pet dog.”

We spoke to Jessica Schulte, the director of behavior and training at Instinct Dog Behavior & Training, and Sarah Fraser, certified dog behavior consultant and cofounder of Instinct Dog Behavior & Training, for more insight on the study’s results.

Your dog’s breed and his behavior aren't as linked as once thought

It’s easy to assume that just because a dog breed is known to exhibit certain characteristics, all dogs of that breed must act the same way. Yes, some traits are more common in certain breeds. But based on the study, breed type explains just 9 percent of behavioral variation in individual dogs, while age or a dog’s sex was the best predictor of behavior.

Perhaps it’s time to redirect our thinking when it comes to dog breeds and behavior traits?

“Every dog is an individual, and a dog's behavior is influenced by many different factors: environment, life experiences — and genetics,” Schulte told The Dodo. “While some breeds may tend toward certain tendencies, there are a lot of pieces to the puzzle when thinking about how to set up a dog for success and making sure needs are met.”

What pet parents need to know

In short, assuming a dog’s actions are based on his breed alone can actually do a disservice to the dog.

“Breed can sometimes be a factor in behavioral outcomes, especially when it comes to modal action patterns and behaviors tied to original breed group functions, like herding, retrieving and so on. But it’s one of many, many factors,” Fraser told The Dodo. “And it is critically important that we help dog owners understand that fact. Because an overemphasis on breed traits makes it easy to lose sight of the individual dog in front of us.”

Our fascination with different dog breeds is understandable (dating back to when the concept was first introduced in Victorian England, just 160 years ago). And it’s probably not going anywhere, regardless of this study. But what we can do is try not to put as much emphasis on breed when it comes to training, socializing and cohabitating with our furry friends.

“It’s so tempting to want to attribute certain behaviors or issues to a dog’s breed, because that makes things simple and clear cut. But nature is messy,” Fraser said. “That wonderful messiness is what results in every dog being an amazing, one-of-a-kind individual with a unique nature that is the product of their biology, individual traits and past life experiences."

It’s doubtful we ever thought the term “don’t judge a book by its cover” would apply to dog breeds and behavior, but life — and pet parenthood — is full of twists and turns. And assumptions are never guaranteed.

Sarah Fraser and Brian Burton (fellow Instinct cofounder) were a part of the early brainstorming sessions that shaped the study questions; they are listed in the acknowledgments section of the paper.