The stereotypes that exist around dog breeds and how they act are being challenged. New genetic analysis reveals that these animals’ greater aggression, obedience or affection is the result of thousands of years of adaptation, not the concept of modern breeds, which differ fundamentally for aesthetic reasons.
Several North American institutions have joined a study to analyze the genes of current dogs and thus be able to deepen knowledge on the relationship between breed and behavior. This question, despite the misconceptions that exist around certain types of dogs, was not yet developed.
The scientists used genome-wide association studies to search for common genetic variations that could predict behavioral traits in 2,155 purebred and mixed breed dogs. They then combined this data with 18,385 surveys of pet owners in the Darwin’s Arkan open-source database of owner-reported canine traits and behaviors.
“For some traits, we find genetic variations significantly associated with behavioral differences. Most notable includes a region of DNA linked to howling frequency. It’s not inside a gene, but with another regulator possibly, and that in the case of humans, if it’s not right, it affects the speech development area in the brain .“, explains Kathleen Morrill, lead author of the work at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Massachusetts (United States).
Until now, behavioral genetics in dogs has focused on modern breeds, isolated subgroups with distinctive physical and, presumably, behavioral characteristics.
In the study, behavioral data was analyzed based on owner-reported breeds and genetically detected breed ancestries.
Race explains only 9% of behavioral variations
The results of these tests, which included data from 78 breeds, identified eleven specific chromosomal locations strongly associated with behavior, although none of them were breed specific. Only 9% of the behavioral variation of individuals was related to it.
The team proposes that behaviors perceived as characteristic of modern races”derive from thousands of years of polygenic adaptation before the formation of the breed, and that modern breeds are distinguished primarily by their aesthetic traits”.
“Most of the behaviors we consider characteristic of modern dog breeds are the result of thousands of years of evolution from wolves, to wild dogs, to domestic dogs, and finally to modern breeds.explains co-author Elinor Karlsson.
Behaviors associated with genetics
One of the behaviors most predicted by genetics was the ability to respond to human cues. However, this varied greatly from dog to dog.
“We are not talking so much about trainability itself as about the motivation to execute commands. Docile dogs are internally motivated, that is, eager to please people. On the contrary, those who are more independent may be more motivated from the outside (by treats or toys), they need you to make it worthwhile for them. Both are trainable traits, but more self-reliant dogs may need more positive reinforcementMorrill said.
As an example, the researcher puts a breed that seems, on average, more independent, like the Great Pyrenees. Its population is made up of working dogs (livestock guard dogs), so it would be wrong for it to say that they are not “trainable” or that they are not intelligent. On the contrary, they are more independent.
“Environment and experience have been shown to be an important element in determining dog behavior. In addition, age was significant for several traits such as toy practices, and gender for only one trait: the command “raise paw to urinate”, but this may be because there is no There aren’t many unneutered or unneutered pet dogs, or specifically in that area. study», continues the author.
They also found differences between pure and mixed breeds. The genomes of mongrel dogs were more complex and their levels of inbreeding lower than those of purebred dogs, although this was an expected finding. “What is surprising is that the two together are useful for genetic mapping of these characteristics. Previously, scientists almost always focused on purebreds, thinking the DNA of mongrels would be too complicated. New statistical methods and genomic technology have made the latter possible in studies“, he underlines.
Modern breeds since the 19th century
Although one of man’s oldest animal companions, almost all modern dog breeds were created only around 200 years ago. Before that date, more than 2,000 years ago, dogs were bred mainly for traits essential to their functions, such as hunting, protecting or herding flocks.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that humans began selecting dogs for their breed-defining physical and aesthetic traits. Today, most modern dog breeds are assigned characteristic temperaments associated with their ancestral function. For this reason, it was assumed that each dog’s racial ancestry predicted its temperament and behavior.
Should the law change?
This has led, among other things, to a series of breed-specific laws, which can include insurance restrictions or outright bans on owning certain breeds of dogs.
“Although in this study we offer no statements about laws directly, it does underscore that general statements about race that assume it is predictive of individual behavior are a flawed approach.Morrill concludes.
Kathleen Morrill et al. “Inclusive canine ancestry genomics challenges popular stereotypes of breeds”. Science