Dog Breeds Don't Have Distinct Personalities

Individual dogs have personalities that can make characterizing a breed dicey.

Posted Jan 09, 2019

"Breedism" doesn't work

"One of the most exciting aspects of studying dogs centers on their marked differences in behavior, personalities, and how they adjust to living in a human-dominated world." 

A few hours ago I learned about an essay by Elizabeth Pennisi that is available for free online titled "Dog breeds really do have distinct personalities—and they’re rooted in DNA." In this piece, Ms. Pennisi offers a discussion of a preprint of an essay by University of Arizona researcher Dr. Evan MacLean and his colleagues called "Highly Heritable and Functionally Relevant Breed Differences in Dog Behavior," also available for free online. In this study, more than 17,000 dogs representing 101 breeds were studied. The researchers did not look at genetic and behavioral data for individual dogs. Ms. Pennisi writes, "In all, the team identified 131 places in a dog’s DNA that may help shape 14 key personality traits. Together, these DNA regions explain about 15 percent of a dog breed’s personality, with each exerting only a small effect. Trainability, chasing, and a tendency to be aggressive toward strangers were the most highly heritable traits, the scientists report in a paper posted this month on the preprint server bioRxiv." While the data from this study are very interesting, experts in dog genetics caution that because "this study finds a much bigger role for genetics in shaping behavior than previous studies...more work needs to be done to verify the findings." Furthermore, a correlation of some traits with a breed/breed mix doesn't mean there is a causal—cause-and-effect—relationship between or among them. Simply put, correlation does not imply or prove causation, and popular press and other media often don't draw this distinction, but rather present simplistic and misleading discussions about the nature of the relationship between or among different variables. 

Dog breeds do not have personalities, individuals do

Just as I was getting ready to write this brief essay calling attention to the fact that breeds do not have personalities, but individuals do, I received an email from dog expert Dr. Ádám Miklósi, a co-founder of the Family Dog Project at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, about the title of Ms. Pennisi's essay. He wrote, "Dog breeds do not have personalities... this link will cause more harm than gains." This sort of category error is rather common when people discuss traits that supposedly can be found at the species level, for example, and calling attention to this mistake is important because it misrepresents who dogs are as individuals and ignores within-breed/within-species variations that can be observed even among littermates and siblings. 

One of the best discussions about dog personalities to which I go regularly is chapter 15, "The organization of individual behavior," of Dr. Miklósi's book called Dog Behaviour, Evolution, and Cognition. On page 335 he writes, "Although breeds by definition have no personality, personality
trait values obtained from individual dogs (belonging to a specific breed) can be used to characterize a dog breed or breed group." In this chapter Dr. Miklósi also critically evaluates studies of personalities that focus on breed differences and notes that one has to be careful about how they're interpreted because they're often based on correlations between only two variables out of many possibilities, traits are judged by experts, and only a small number of breeds are studied. He also notes that personality is not a stable trait and can vary over time. I can't cover all of the valuable material Dr. Miklósi summarizes in detail, and I highly recommend chapter 15 to anyone interested in the study of dog personalities. 

The importance of paying close attention to individual differences among dogs

Anyone who's spent even a little time around dogs knows there are large individual differences, among members of the same breed, same mixed breeds, and even among littermates and siblings. When I watch dogs, I focus on individual differences among them, because no two dogs are the same. I love when people tell me that they live with two dogs from the same litter and they're as different as night and day. The bottom line is that there is no "the dog." Each dog is a unique individual and it's good for them and for us when we come to realize that we must appreciate and understand each and every dog as the individual they are. (See Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do and Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible.

While I find Dr. MacLean and his colleagues' study to be very interesting, I'm leery of breed-wide and simplified stereotypes about the personality and behavior of members of these groups. They often gloss over wide-ranging individual differences among dogs who are placed in this or that group, and I know I'm not alone in hearing stories about people who choose to live with a dog of a specific breed or breed-mix because they were told something like, "This is how they'll behave in this or that situation" or "They're petty laid back," only to find out this isn't so. A few people I know, and I'm sure they're not alone, wound up returning dogs they'd rescued or bought from breeders because they didn't behave in the way they were told individuals of their particular breed "typically" behave. It's good to keep in mind that correlation does not imply or prove causation. 

What's so exciting about studying the cognitive and emotional lives of dogs and other animals is how much individual variation there is among members of the same breed/species. The interesting challenges are to understand each and every individual for who they are, to come to appreciate why there are these differences in cognitive skills, emotional capacities, and personality, and to understand how these differences influence the sorts of social bonds a dog can form with other dogs and with humans. It's not only important to become fluent in dog—dog literate—but also to come to know and respect each dog as a unique being—what they want and need and how they react to different social and other situations. (See "How Well Do You Know What Dogs Do, Think, and Feel?", "Should Shelters and Breeders Require Literacy in Behavior?", "iSpeakDog: A Website Devoted to Becoming Dog Literate," and links therein.)

Dogs don't care how they're labeled and shouldn't suffer because of how we choose to categorize them. Often it's more about people rather than the dogs. All too frequently "breedism"—convenient, oversimplified, and misleading stereotyping—doesn't serve them or their (and other) humans well. 

References

Bekoff, Marc. Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2018. 

Bekoff, Marc and Pierce, Jessica. Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible. New World Library, Novato, California, 2019. 

Bekoff, Marc. Why Dogs Matter. Psychology Today, January 1, 2019. 

Bekoff, Marc. Pit Bulls: The Psychology of Breedism, Fear, and PrejudicePsychology Today, June 2, 2016.

Bekoff, Marc. A Matter of Breeding: How We've Greatly Harmed BFF Dogs. Psychology Today, June 20, 2015. (A review of the following reference.)

Brandon, Michael. A Matter of Breeding: A Biting History of Pedigree Dogs and How the Quest for Status Has Harmed Man's Best Friend. Beacon Press, Boston, 2015. 

Brophey, Kim. Meet Your Dog: The Game-Changing Guide to Understanding Your Dog's Behavior. Chronicle Books, 2018.

 Worboys, Michael, Julie-Marie Strange, and Neil Pemberton. The Invention of the Modern Dog: Breed and Blood in Victorian Britain. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland, 2018. 

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