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!