Image via iStock.com/GeorgePeters
By Victoria Schade
Dog breed descriptions are almost like dating profiles; pet parents want to match up with the best companion for their lifestyle. That is why many pet parents rely on breed profiles to help them decide on important factors like a dog’s workout requirements or their personality before committing to a forever relationship.
Learning as much as possible about different dog breeds is a great way to help prevent bad matchups, like a high-drive working dog living in a small apartment in the city or a dog with demanding grooming requirements winding up with someone who can’t afford the upkeep.
While breed descriptions can help give insights about what a potential partnership might be like, it’s important to remember that dogs are individuals with personalities that are also shaped by their experiences.
Just because a dog breed is known for being aloof or energetic, it doesn’t mean that every dog within that breed will conform to those traits.
Behavioral Traits Are More Difficult to Predict
There are certain aspects of a dog’s makeup that are easier to predict from a genetic standpoint, like the way the dog looks. A dog’s coat type is determined by a limited number of genes, as is a dog’s size (although factors, like diet, can influence a dog’s final size).
On the other hand, canine behavioral traits are influenced by many genes as well as environmental factors, like early puppyhood experiences, socialization and training.
Dr. E. Kathryn Meyer, veterinary behaviorist at the Veterinary Behavior Clinic in Gaithersburg, Maryland, explains that breed temperament descriptions are part of the guidelines that have been set by the American Kennel Club (AKC) that describe the idealized specimen of that breed.
She states, “It is much easier to breed for the physical attributes that make a Beagle a Beagle, than it is to breed for the behavioral attributes that make a Beagle a Beagle.”
And, keep in mind that most breeders are selecting for a dog’s appearance to conform to the breed standard rather than focusing on temperament.
Selective breeding certainly impacts behavior, but it’s not a predictor of it. So instead of a genetic guarantee of dog personalities by breed, there are endless variables that can influence whether a Labrador loves water, or if a Frenchie is the class clown.
Nature, Nurture and What Shapes a Dog’s Personality
If you’ve ever met a litter of puppies, you’ve probably noticed that even at 8 weeks old, they’re already exhibiting behavioral variety.
There’s typically a bold puppy, a shy puppy and a few in-between pups. From that starting point, the unique experiences each pup will have in their new homes make it possible for the siblings to end up with a variety of personality types despite their shared genes and early life.
Suppose one puppy—a Boxer—goes to a home where the pet parents researched how to start off their new relationship on the right paw. They feed a high-quality dog food, enroll their new pup in training classes and take care to provide ample socialization opportunities.
The other Boxer puppy winds up in a home that feeds low-quality food, keeps him crated most of the time, only takes him out to the yard for potty trips and spanks him if he has an accident in the house.
Which of the two dogs do you think is more likely to represent the typical lively, affectionate and outgoing Boxer personality type?
The Challenges of Breed Descriptions
Breed descriptions are an excellent summary of the potential personality traits of a dog, but behavior isn’t hardwired. Dr. Meyer has seen patients that are nothing like how the AKC describes them, including a Golden Retriever that was extremely aggressive to unfamiliar people and a Shiba Inu that loved everyone despite a description of dog breed personalities that says they’re reserved with strangers.
One of the challenges with breed descriptions is that they can give pet parents an unrealistic expectation of how a dog will act and make it seem that every dog from the same breed will act the exact same way. If you assume that breed personality descriptions are blueprints, then you fail to take the individual dog into account as well as the fact that personality can change over time.
Breed stereotypes can also be self-fulfilling prophecies; pet parents who believe that a Husky will always pull on their dog leash might be less likely to try to modify the behavior with positive training. Breed behavior stereotyping can even trickle into how we view mixed-breed dogs; pet parents might be wary to adopt a Terrier mix due to Terriers being labeled as stubborn.
But, there is a way to add dimension to a dog’s breed description. Dr. Meyer suggests that pet parents should meet a puppy’s parents and other offspring from the parents if they want a better behavioral snapshot.
“I think you can make some general predictions based on breed, but don’t consider them to be guarantees,” says Dr. Meyer. Lumping dogs by their breed’s typical behavior fails to take the individual dog into account, and there’s no greater favor we can pay our dogs than loving them for exactly who they are—failed fetchers and all.