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Don’t Judge a Book By Its Cover: Research Casts Doubt on Stereotypes About Dog Breeds

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Your Labrador doesn’t love kids, your Maltese terrorizes the neighborhood, your Rottweiler jumps at his shadow. It doesn’t mean you have a lemon of a dog; it just shows what we all should realize: a dog’s breed does not guarantee a personality type.

The Atlantic took a deep dive into the role breeds actually plays into a dog’s personality, and it is not as black and white as appears.

“Any good dog trainer will tell you those stereotypes are a disaster,” Marc Bekoff, a dog-behavior expert at the University of Colorado at Boulder, told the outlet. “Breeds don’t have personalities. Individuals do.”

The article was based on a huge study from Darwin’s Ark, the “world’s largest pet citizen science project,” in which 20,000 owners were surveyed (49% have purebreds) along with sequencing the DNA of more than 2,000 purebred and mixed-breed dogs.

The team looked at traits that could be attributed to breeds and ancestry, like responsiveness to command, and compared that to traits that are considered less heritable, such as how easily a dog is provoked or frightened.

They found that while certain characteristics can be attributed to genetics, many personality traits can’t be. Indeed, after looking at data from 78 breeds, the team found “that while breed explained some minor variation in behavior, its contributions were relatively small (9%).” 

Related: Jobs to Give Your Dog At Home

“A dog’s personality and behavior are shaped by many genes as well as their life experiences. This makes them difficult traits to select for through breeding,” Dr. Karlsson, a researcher from the study stated in a press release. “For the most part, pure breeds are only subtly different from other dogs. A golden retriever is only marginally more likely to be more friendly than a mixed-breed or another purebred dog, such as a dachshund.”

Tell the American Kennel Club this, and it takes issue.

While a representative acknowledged “every dog is different,” the AKC believes “breed and type of dog does inform about general and instinctual behavior.”

The organization uses personality traits on its site to describe breeds, using adjectives like “fearless” “loyal” and “clown.” But dog-cognition researcher Ádám Miklósi disagrees with using these terms, stating they these anthropomorphizations are more a marketing tactic than an accurate description.

He also cautions these characterizations can be dangerous.

If a dog doesn’t live up to his supposed sunny disposition, he may end up in a shelter. On the flip side, if a dog is considered to be an aggressive breed, not only does he risk being abandoned but also faces discrimination.

For instance, some home insurance companies will not cover dogs they deem “dangerous.” Lemonade states that it will not cover “high risk” dogs, including Doberman Pinchers, Rottweilers, German Shepherds, Great Danes, Siberian Huskies and Pit Bulls. The reasoning is that it claims these breeds are more likely to bite, but there is no evidence to back that up, as reporting what breed of dog bit someone can be challenging (e.g. what types of dogs are reported; for mutts, how can you tell the breed; etc.), and there are plenty of small dogs that bite, too.

Related: The Myth of the Big Bad Pit Bull

State Farm takes a different approach, treating each dog as an individual and looking at past incidences, not breed, when making a coverage determination.

“State Farm does not ask what breed of dog is owned when writing homeowner or renters insurance,” it says on its website. “Just like humans, dogs are individuals. Every dog has a unique personality. While a dogs’ breed may dictate what the dog looks like, how a dog reacts to people or situations isn’t guaranteed by breed or type.” 

This discrimination can be taken a step further, when breed-specific legislation, such as banning certain breeds in cities, is passed.

Categorizing a dog based on preconceived notions can impact his dog’s entire life: how we treat him and how we expect him to act. So, as the old saying goes, don’t judge a book by its cover.

By Andrea Huspeni

Andrea Huspeni is the founder and CEO of This Dog's Life. Her mission it to help dogs live a happier, healthier and longer life. When she isn't working, she spends time with her two dogs, Lola and Milo. She resides in Brooklyn, NY.

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