According to a genetic analysis that surveyed over 2,000 purebred and mixed-breed dogs and answers of dog owners, the behavioral traits of dogs are not specific to their breeds. The study published on Thursday revealed that the predictive value in what determines individual dogs’ personality traits is particularly narrow. In short, the stereotypes attributed to dogs based on their breeding is more or less a myth.
More, the study found that while breed ancestry can somewhat inform a dog’s ability to respond to commands and direction, the prospect of predicting a breed’s odds of being frightened or provoked by stimuli is slim.
“Behavior is complicated,” Dr. Elinor Karlsson told NBC News. “It involves dozens if not hundreds of changes in different genes,” Karlson, one of the authors of the study, explained. “It involves the environment. The idea that you could create behavior and select it in breeds in just 150 years just didn’t make any sense. We knew it had to be a lot older than that.”
Karlsson has a Ph.D. in bioinformatics from Boston University and is currently the director of the Vertebrate Genomics Group at the Broad Institute of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard. In addition, she leads a citizen science-driven project called Darwin’s Dogs which encourages all dog owners to participate in research exploring the genetic basis of dog behavior. The project is part of Darwin’s Ark, which provided the study with survey responses from 18,385 dog owners and sequenced saliva samples from 2,155 dogs.
“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,” Karlsson explained in a UMass Chan Medical School Communications press release. “These heritable traits predate our concept of modern dog breeds by thousands of years.”
Overall, the study is a reminder that pet owners (particularly those looking to find a clone-like stand-in for old companions) are better off choosing dogs based on their individuality and behaviors, not their breeding.
Of course, as the saying goes, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and it’s uncertain whether this new study will be enough to convince people not to base how they treat, view, and choose potential companions.
Still, the authors behind the study hope their findings will help them to determine other human behaviors. Speaking to NBC News, Karlsson shared that she hopes to use the results to examine the relationship between compulsive disorders in dogs and such ailments in humans.
“We’ll be applying everything we’ve learned in this study to the research we’re pursuing now on compulsive disorders,” Karlson explained. “We treat dogs with compulsive disorders with the same drugs people use — and they work just as badly. We hope to find a way to develop treatments that work better than what we have right now.”