News Flash: Not All Golden Retrievers Retrieve!

Golden retrievers Cali and Orly stand on grass, surrounded by tennis balls
WHAT are we supposed to do with these?

Reporters at two of my favorite media outlets, the Washington Post and NPR, seemed surprised by results of a study released this week that discovered that the behavior and personality traits of individual dogs are highly variable — and can’t always be predicted by breed.

Both stories homed in on the fact that — get ready — not all retrievers actually retrieve! Shocking, right?

Not to a person who lives with two steadfastly non-retrieving goldens!

I immediately turned to Cali and Orly, closely related goldens, and said, “They’re talking about you.” They both love to chase tennis balls … but bring them back? Not so much. Several of Orly’s siblings are avid retrievers, though, so it’s not even possible to predict by litter.

The study concluded that “behavioral characteristics ascribed to modern breeds are polygenic, environmentally influenced, and found, at varying prevalence, in all breeds.” In simple English, that means dogs are dogs. Common dog behaviors can be found in any dog, regardless of breed or breed mix.

In truth, some traits are far more prevalent in specific breeds, as the combination of genes that influences some behaviors (think herding or, er, retrieving) are closely linked to physical traits that breeders have sought and shaped over generations of that breed. But there are no guarantees.

In addition to genetic influence, a dog’s environment has a lot to do with behavior. For some traits, the study said, “breed is almost uninformative.” The example cited in the study, a trait that is enormously influenced by environment and early experience, is “how easily a dog is provoked by frightening or uncomfortable stimuli” — that is, reactivity to other dogs, strangers, noises, or other unusual and unpredictable things.

I attribute Orly’s high levels of confidence and curiosity about everything, as well as her unabashed adoration of any human or canine she encounters, to the combination of her great breeding and exemplary early-puppyhood experience.

When I worked with service dog puppies, I found that puppies who lacked extensive early socialization and encounters with all kinds of people, animals, noises, smells, sights, and places rarely succeeded; they lacked the confidence to go into any and every situation where they could be called on to accompany their partners. Even organizations that carefully breed potential guide and service dogs find that, despite strong genetics and comprehensive early puppyhood programs, some dogs don’t make it. Again, no guarantees.

What the study does show, though, is that stereotypes are unreliable indicators of dog behavior and we should look at dogs as the unique individuals they are!


DNA Test? Why?

I wrote about the pitfalls of doggy DNA tests a few months ago — how they might cause people to panic about the potential that their dog is carrying a marker for a genetic disease or lead people to make unhelpful assumptions about the dog’s behavior.

I just saw a review in Wired examining three DNA testing services. So I have to chime in again.

These tests are not very accurate. They basically compare parts of your dog’s genome with all of the other dogs in the database and make guesses based on finding snippets that match. Each service has different dogs in the database, so there will be different matches.

The caveats about deciding what training method to use or panicking about diseases that your dog doesn’t have still hold. Even so, it can be fun to explore your dog’s genetic makeup. But buyer beware.

Like much data collection that exploits human subjects, the fun wrapper is hiding business motives. The parent company of the Wisdom Panel, for example, is a gigantic dog food manufacturer. One that happens to sell overpriced (poor quality) foods targeted at specific breeds. If your dog is found to have a significant proportion of Breed X, guess what? Little ads will start stalking you, trying to get you to buy food tailored to that breed — a concept which is absurd.

Cali sure loves playing with her sister Dora!

On the other hand, Embark is a spinoff of Cornell’s canine genomics initiative, according to Wired. They look at many more disease markers and are building a database that could someday contribute to research on all sorts of doggy health issues. Cool. It’s also the only one that claims to help you find your dog’s relatives. That’s also the most expensive one, of course.

For me, the bottom line is why you’re doing it. The test itself can be mildly uncomfortable for the dog, and the dog certainly doesn’t care about the results. If it’s all in fun, great. But if you’re trying to discover some deep truth about your dog, you’re better off just hanging out with him and getting to know him better. Instead, donate the $70 — $200 you’d spend on the test to your local shelter.