Pit Bulls are aggressive. Pugs are lazy. Greyhounds need tons of exercise. Rottweilers are vicious. Chihuahuas are yappy. Jack Russel Terriers are hyperactive.
No, they’re not. These myths about dog behavior based on breed are just that — myths. In fact, greyhounds are one of the laziest breeds around. They are sprinters, not marathon runners.
Much of public opinion about specific dog breeds is based on the media. But even if you do your research and unearth the breed’s facts, genetic behavior based on breed is only one factor of an individual dog’s temperament.
“I’m never going to assume what a given animal is going to do based on their breed,” says Dr. Christopher Pachel, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, lecturer on animal behavior and owner of the Animal Behavior Clinic in Portland, Oregon.
However, he does agree there are certain behaviors, like herding, that particular breeds demonstrate more than other breeds. A Border Collie that has never set paw on a sheep farm will attempt to herd the dogs playing at the dog run. Hunting dog engage in certain patterns, whether that’s pointing in some of the settlers or whether it’s a retrieving instinct, says Dr. Pachel.
“We know that Labrador Retrievers are more likely to pick up things and put them in their mouth,” he says. “Does that mean that every Labrador does that, or that all Labradors are equal and have the same predisposition towards that behavior? Absolutely not.”
Related: The Myth of the Big Bad Pit Bull
When looking at behavior, we’re looking at multiple levels, explains Dr. Pachel. “We have canine, we have breed, and then eventually, we’ve got the individual,” he says. “And that’s where learning has a significant role.” Learning refers to that change in behavior resulting from past experiences such as abuse, neglect or a dog that has been trained to engage in a particular behavior. “All of those things are influencers of behavior,” he says.
It’s not enough to try to predict behavior based on the breed alone. Breed is only one of the factors that may influence the actual behavior in a given circumstance of an individual dog. Though it may be helpful to research what a breed was originally bred to do (nature), nurture will impact that breed’s instinctual behavior.
Public attitude toward a particular breed can also affect the way that breed is viewed, and that perception may be mistaken for actual genetic behavioral characteristics. For example, for over a century, Pit Bulls were considered friendly family dogs. In fact, the United Kennel Club states that the breed “is not the best choice for a guard dog since they are extremely friendly, even with strangers.” What changed? The media’s perception and the criminals who use Pit Bulls in dogfighting. The breed, however, is still the same: “eager to please and brimming over with enthusiasm,” notes the UKC. (They also score higher on the American Temperament Test than golden retrievers.)
“Every animal is their own subject,” says Dr. Pachel. “It’s not enough to try to understand behavior based on the breed alone. That’s only one of the factors that may influence the actual behavior in a given circumstance and of an individual dog.”