Behavior / Dogs / Welfare

Does breed predict behavior?

Everyone has breed-based suppositions about behavior, it’s only natural. But are they valid?

When we find out someone has a dog, one of the first questions we’re likely to ask is, “What breed is he?”.  It’s a natural thing for a person to want to know.  Most of us use knowledge of a dog’s breed to make predictions about…

  • what he looks like
  • his behavior
  • his personality
It seems a fairly benign idea, but are the assumptions we make based on breed grounded in fact?  I think an incredibly important question to investigate is:
Is a dog’s breed a valid predictor of his behavior?
Breed-based assumptions influence how individuals and societies perceive and interact with different breeds.  They affect people and pets from personal to societal levels.  Just a few examples…
  • Breed bans in cities and countries
  • People buying/adopting a certain breed because they expect a specific trait or personality (e.g. kid-friendly, athletic, good at guarding, etc.)
  • Breed restrictions in rental housing
  • People’s expectations and beliefs about dogs’ behaviors (e.g. If a Labrador mouths a child’s arm, it may be seen as play, but if a Rottweiler does the same, it may be more likely to be seen as aggression.)
  • Homeowners insurance limitations and increases based on client’s dog’s breed
 These assumptions set up situations which affect the welfare of pets and people alike.

Some science and some opinion

I think it would be wise to question the validity of breed as an accurate indicator of what any particular dog’s behavioral tendencies might be.  

Why?

  • Lots of variation between individuals of the same breed
  • Comparable amounts of variation between dogs of different breeds

Dr. Ádám Miklósi, in his book, “Dog Behaviour, Evolution, and Cognition”, discusses several issues in the comparison of breeds in research.  He notes that,  “Many authors have also remarked that there is a large inter-individual variation within a breed, which is comparable to the variation found among breeds. This means that breeds tend to differ only in those features for which they have been specially selected, which is only a small percentage of the whole phenotype (Coppinger and Coppinger, 2001; Overall and Love, 2001).”

(There’s a great deal of studies out there regarding the efficacy and legitimacy of breed-specific legislation, much of it looking at the specific behavior of biting.  I won’t touch on it here, as it’s a huge issue in its own right.  Certainly worth hunting some down and seeing what you think for yourself, of course!)

Considering that behavior is, to an unknown extent, a product of not only genetic, but also environmental, experiential, and situational factors, it’s easy to understand why there may be a great deal of variation in individual behavior of dogs within a breed.

Whether or not breed is significantly predictive of behavior, it will be important to educate the general public so that…
  • People  have more accurate expectations and knowledge when choosing a new dog.
  • People exercise a reasonable amount of caution in their interactions with all dogs.
  • Legislation is justifiably reflective of scientific findings.
Reference
Miklosi, Á. (2007) The comparison of breeds. In:Dog Behaviour, Evolution, and Cognition. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 33.
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