Dog behaviors are linked to breed genetics

Your dog’s ability to learn new tricks may be less a product of your extensive training than basic genetics.

Among 101 dog breeds, scientists found that certain behavioral traits, such as learning ability or hostility, are more common in genetically similar breeds. While past studies have studied the genetic basis of dog behavior for specific breeds, this study, published October 1 in Notes from Royal Society B, is the first to investigate a wide range of breed diversity and to detect a strong genetic signal.

“Oddly enough, everyone knows that different dogs have different behaviors,” says Noah Snyder-Makler, a geneticist at the University of Washington in Seattle. “But we did not know how much and why.” People and dogs have lived together for at least 15,000 years (SN: 7/6/17). But only over the past 300 years, breeders have produced varieties such as Chihuahuas and Great Dane.

So, Snyder-Makler and his colleagues examined how 101 dog breeds behave when searching for genetic similarities between breeds with certain personality traits. Data came from two databases of dog genotypes and from the C-BARQ, a survey that asks owners to evaluate their purebred’s tendency to behave like stalking or being hostility towards strangers. As a result, the study did not have genetic and behavioral data from the same dogs, which could help identify rare genetic variants, which, nevertheless, may be important for diversity in behavior.

“They are not ideal data sources,” said Clive Wynn, an animal behavior specialist at the University of Arizona at Tempe who did not participate in the study. “But that allowed them to look at many, many dogs.”

Using data from over 14,000 dogs described in the C-BARQ, the researchers gave each breed a rating for 14 different behaviors, and then looked for common genetic similarities among the breeds that had similar ratings. Regarding traits such as hostility toward strangers, learning ability, and pursuit, researchers found that genes contribute between 60 and 70 percent of behavioral variations among breeds. For example, poodles and border collies had higher learning outcomes, while chihuahuas and dachshunds were more hostility towards strangers.

Energy levels and fear showed a lower genetic contribution, about 50 percent, suggesting that differences in environment or learning play an equally important role in shaping such behavior.

“Such a strong correlation suggests that these were traits that people historically cared for and raised,” said co-author Evan Maclean, a biologist at the University of Arizona at Tucson.

Researchers then looked for specific genetic variants that could contribute to behavioral differences. Of the thousands of options, 131 turned out to be largely related to breed behavior. None of the genes was in the vast majority of cases associated with any behavior, which suggests that the behavioral diversity of the breed is the result of the complex interaction of many genes in addition to environmental differences.

Although such a study does not show whether the genetic variant induces a specific behavior or how it arises, it indicates certain variants that require further study of this issue.

Most of these options were related to genes that are considered important for neurological development and functioning, which is “exactly what you could predict for genes that you think can influence behavior,” says Carlos Alvarez, a genomics researcher at the Columbus National Children’s Hospital, Ohio, which was not involved in the study.

“Dogs are a really powerful system for researching the genetics of many traits and diseases because generations of domestication and breeding have simplified their genomes,” says Alvarez. “This study shows that behavior is no different.”

Wynn agreed that the study marked an important event for understanding how dogs adopt certain temperaments. But “dog owners should not perceive this as the fact that their dog’s personalities are completely innate and predetermined,” he says. However, there are a huge number of differences between individual dogs. So “it is better to treat a person as an individual, and not as a representative of his breed.”

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