We’re quick to make assumptions about dog behavior based on the way our furry best friends look. But is a dog’s breed an accurate predictor of the way they’ll behave?
It’s easy to assume that a dog’s breed is a genetic blueprint for the exact way a pup will turn out, especially given the detailed traits and characteristics that are part of every breed description.
But what happens when you bring home a breed with a reputation for being a “confident, funny, and fearless” dog that turns out to be anything but? Is your pup an outlier, or is there more to a dog’s personality than what’s encoded in their genes?
- A dog’s behavior is not guaranteed by breed alone.
- According to one study, a dog’s breed explains about 9% of their overall behavior.
- A dog’s overall life experience is a better predictor of the way they’ll interact with the world around them.
Does Breed Affect Behavior?
Breed undoubtedly impacts aspects of a dog’s behavior—it’s part of the reason why we task Border Collies with herding and not Dalmatians. But according to one recent study, a dog’s genetic wiring might not weigh as heavily in their personality as once assumed.
The study included more than 18,000 dogs and surveyed pet parents on topics that ranged from their dog’s sociability with other dogs and humans, to their dog’s ability to follow directions, to their dog’s interest in toys. The study determined that breed explains only about 9% of an individual dog’s behavior. It's important to recognize that the American Kennel Club’s breed personality descriptions describe the idealized dog of that breed—not a guarantee.
Pet Parent Expectations vs. Dog Behavior
Pet parents often enter relationships with dogs, particularly purebred dogs, assuming how they’ll respond to the world around them. This inadvertently creates canine self-fulfilling prophecies.
For example, if we buy into the idea that all Chihuahuas have a tendency to nip, we might write off the behavior as “just part of the package” if a Chi pup starts biting fingers when being picked up (a reaction many puppies might have), rather than take steps to mitigate the dog’s discomfort.
Based on their breed description, we might also assume that every Labrador is easygoing and good with children, only to discover that a Lab that never had experience with kids might be skittish around them.
Behavior is complicated and fluid, and while a dog’s breed certainly plays a role in the development of canine personality, the ways our dogs actually behave is based a combination of factors.
It's important to recognize that the American Kennel Club’s breed personality descriptions describe the idealized dog of that breed—not a guarantee.
What Affects a Dog’s Behavior?
While there are aspects of a dog’s temperament that can seem hardwired, personality is a combination of nature and nurture. Factors that can impact the way a dog’s behavior develops include:
Maternal influence: A mother dog’s behavior during weaning can impact a puppy’s willingness to interact with people. For example, skittish mothers might model behaviors that puppies adopt.
The amount and quality of early socialization: Puppies that are raised without frequent positive exposures to novel sights, sounds, locations, and beings might be less confident, easily startled, and slower to recover from stress.
Environment: Dogs that grow up in households where all their needs are met will likely develop differently than dogs that live in deprived households, like those kept outside with minimal human contact.
Ongoing socialization as the dog matures: While early socialization is critical for developing confident and behaviorally appropriate puppies, socialization is a muscle that needs to be worked throughout a dog’s life. Adult dogs that don’t have opportunities for positive experiences with new environments and people might be less likely to react to the world confidently.
Level of daily exercise: Many behavioral challenges stem from a lack of adequate physical and mental exercise. Dogs that seem to be “hyper” or “naughty” probably aren’t getting enough exercise.
Training: Training is more than just a way to ensure polite behavior; it’s also a passport to the world, as well-trained dogs are usually able to feel comfortable in a variety of settings.
Diet: Dogs that eat a balanced diet of healthy food will develop and behave differently than dogs eating lower-quality foods. Dogs that eat foods with too many fillers and artificial ingredients might be more likely to have energy peaks (like overexcitability) and crashes (like lethargy).
Caregiver personality: We love our dogs because they’re such wonderful companions, and that bond between us can lead to our dogs mirroring our behavior. High-strung, nervous pet parents might wind up with a dog that has similar challenges.
While there are aspects of a dog’s temperament that can seem hardwired, personality is a combination of nature and nurture.
Dog Breed and Behavior: The Big Picture
Yes, dog personality is impacted by their genetic blueprint. But assuming that a set of breed characteristics is a guarantee of behavior does our dogs a disservice.
Dogs are individuals, and honoring their quirks is a big part of being a good pet parent. A dog’s overall life experience is a better predictor of the way they’ll interact with the world around them than what their breed standards says. So if your Labrador hates the water or your Beagle has the world’s strongest recall, you can chalk it up to a combination of life factors, including their relationship to you.
Featured Image: Adobe/Марина Колобанова
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