Dogs may be stereotyped as man’s best friend, but our collective opinions of different breeds vary widely in terms of friendliness – as well as other personality traits. The American Kennel Club (AKC) describes Chihuahuas as “charming”, “graceful”, and “sassy”. Toy dogs, like those that can fit in a purse, are stereotyped as docile. Pit bulls are often unfairly dismissed as dangerous. Representations in the media have only intensified a myriad of canine stereotypes ranging from hasty generalizations to outright discrimination, but is there merit in these stigmas?
Maybe not, a new study published in Science find. The researchers’ study of dog breeds and behavior challenges the assumptions we have about the personalities of different breeds – finding that behavior was “much more variable” in individual dogs, even of the same breed. This suggests that our stereotypes of ankle-biting Chihuahuas and vicious pit bulls may be wrong.
Want more health and science stories in your inbox? Subscribe to Salon The Vulgar Scientist’s weekly newsletter.
The team of researchers from the University of Massachusetts Medical School collaborated with the Foundation of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants on the in-depth analysis of the behavior of dogs. Approximately 200,000 responses were then mapped to their standard breeds via genetic correlations from over 2,000 subjects. The researchers asserted that while the aesthetics of standard breeds do not vary greatly, individual temperaments most certainly do.
“While we can’t really ask a dog themselves about their problems, thoughts, or anxieties, we do know that dogs lead emotionally rich lives and suffer from disorders that show up in their behavior.”
“We have to accept that our dogs are individuals,” Professor Elinor Karlsson, PhD and lead author of the study, pointed out in the briefing. “Each dog is a study of one, and just like our children, yes they are from the same parents, but they are not identical. If you have children, that almost certainly is, so we want to accept our dogs for who they are and maybe help them to be more like we would like them to be in different ways.Some dogs really don’t need special attention with extra training and some do. make.
A critical conclusion from the scientific study suggests that aggression, the main trait of concern in discriminatory legislation, has little to do with race.
“When we looked at this factor, which we called the agonistic threshold, which included many questions about whether people’s dogs reacted aggressively to things, we didn’t see effective breed ancestry,” Karlsson said. ” From this point of view, [breed-specific legislation] doesn’t seem to make much sense to us.”
Indeed, the study seems to run counter to the existence of breed-specific legislation that bans certain breeds of dogs due to stereotypes about their behavior. More than 700 municipalities across the United States have enacted laws banning a total of 75 breeds based on perceived aggression, reported the AKC. Seeking to determine whether there is, in fact, any legitimacy to stereotypes more generally, the researchers designed the survey to chart racial trends. Lo and behold, little to no genetic evidence lends credence to such race-specific discrimination, as their findings attest.
“While we can’t really ask a dog themselves about their problems, thoughts, or anxieties, we do know that dogs lead emotionally rich lives and experience disturbances that show up in their behavior, and some dog breeds – I had heard – tend to carry these disorders more commonly,” commented PhD candidate and study first author Kathleen Morrill, before presenting the findings in a briefing.
Acknowledging that the experiences of dog attack victims and dog owners may not seem to match their findings, Marjie Alonso of the Foundation of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultantsa collaborator on the racial stereotyping study added that even she was surprised.
A barking Chihuahua just doesn’t elicit the same prejudice as a Pit Bull exhibiting the same behavior. Whether it’s a matter of volume or association with a more consistent bite, the former is ignored as sass. Therefore, the AKC assigns these personality traits to each breed. However, the supposed personalities bark more than they bite.
In fact, breed only accounted for about 9% of the variability in the behavioral data of the 78 breeds analyzed. Certain traits like barking and sociability are followed more by breeds. Aggression, on the other hand, was one of the least correlated traits with race.
“The majority of behaviors that we consider to be characteristics of specific modern dog breeds are most likely the result of thousands of years of evolution from wolves, to wild dogs, to domestic dogs, and finally to modern breeds,” said Karlsson to reporters. “These inherited traits predate our concept of modern dog breeds by thousands of years.”
Standard breeds are actually a rather new phenomenon of the 19th century – long enough to select for physical traits, but perhaps not behavioral traits. Modern breeds, however, exhibit physical traits for which their ancestors were selected. Thousands of years spent selectively breeding for hunting, guarding, herding and other inclinations, postdoctoral researcher and co-author Kathryn Lord explained in a press briefing, have physically shaped these populations to their roles. .
“If you breed a dog to run very, very fast, be a sprinter, he will end up looking like a greyhound because that’s the shape you need to be a sprinter, so there are physical differences , but what they’re actually picking up the behavior,” Lord explained.
Some trends persist, but modern breeds differ in crucial ways from their working ancestors. Their selection had everything to do with form over function – at least as far as standards go.
Alonso relied on modern perceptions of stereotypes to breed prejudice. In fact, breed only accounted for about 9% of the variability in the behavioral data of the 78 breeds analyzed. Certain traits like barking and sociability are followed more by breeds. Aggression, on the other hand, was one of the least correlated traits with race.
“People are very good at finding role models,” Alonso told reporters at the press conference. “I think they find patterns even when there aren’t any. That’s a lot of what people see.”
Karlsson suggested that appearance essentially distorts perceptions of behaviors. “You’ll never have a Great Dane-sized Chihuahua, and you’ll never have a Chihuahua-sized Great Dane, but you can certainly have a Chihuahua that acts like a Great Dane; you can having a Great Dane that has the same personality as a Chihuahua,” she added with a chuckle during the briefing in response to a quip from Morrill about the impossibility of drastic variation in breed sizes. .
Controlling for the breed’s ancestry, their analysis determined that size doesn’t really matter – for behavior, at least. The study also predicts redemption for often demonized breeds like pit bulls, which, as commentators have pointed out, are more likely to exhibit bad behavior due to neglectful owners than due to a specific temperament. to race. Still, breed-specific legislation banning pit bulls is common in municipalities across the United States.
RELATED: Pit Bulls Were Once Considered The Perfect “Nanny Dogs” For Kids – Until The Media Turned Them Into Monsters
Interestingly, media stereotypes affect adoption rates for specific breeds. Another study from 2022 found a relationship between the appearances of dog breeds in movies and their adoption rates. “Films with dogs portrayed as heroes were followed by a significant increase in the number of American Kennel Club breed registrations for the breed featured, while anthropomorphized dogs were followed by a significant decrease in number of dogs registered up to five years after the release of a film,” wrote the researchers of this study, published in Plos One. In other words, our perception of a race’s innate behavior is strongly tied to media representations.
Reputedly favored for illegal dogfighting, pit bulls are depicted as synonyms for aggressive dogs simply displaying similar traits. Additionally, categorizing pit bulls as “dangerous breeds” doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, researchers say.
Mixed breeds, or “mutts,” have actually emerged as the perfect test subject in scientific study, and their “purebred” parents may owe them a debt of gratitude.
“Among these pooches, you’ll find dogs that are naturally mixed in their physical appearance, personality traits, disease risk, and DNA,” Morrill added. “It’s usually difficult, if not impossible, to separate, say, a purebred Dalmatian and his personality from his spots, but in pooches it actually becomes possible to separate looks from other traits.”
Learn more about dogs and genes: