A happy chocolate lab sticks his tongue out.

Let’s cut to the chase: most people — including a significant portion of those who handle animals for a living, such as vets and groomers — will agree with the statement that certain dog breeds tend to carry certain personality traits. Labradors, are thought of as a loyal family dog. Dachshunds are always on alert. Herding dogs like Australian shepherds always want to be on duty, etc. 

But are these stereotypes true? Or, more to the point, does genetics play a role in determining dog behaviors? If it does, we can’t find strong evidence yet. The biggest study of this topic to date surveyed over 2,000 dog owners, comparing the results to genetic testing, and it concluded that breed alone was not an accurate predictor of behavior

However, many experts, including the American Kennel Club among others, were quick to caution that this study doesn’t mean that every dog is the perfect fit for any given family. When seeking to adopt a puppy, always consider the likely traits the animal will develop as it gets older, such as its size, dietary requirements, and need for vigorous exercise. Breed can inform many of these qualities, including those that you can’t see with the naked eye, and so it should be considered as one component of the equation.

At the same time, never assume that a specific dog will or won’t develop behavioral challenges because of its breed. How you raise the animal and how you treat it will always have the biggest impact on its behavior, bar none. That’s why it’s a great idea to start them off with a solid foundation of puppy training, when possible, and to attend regular dog training classes if you are seeing specific concerns or have specific goals in mind. 

Is Dog Aggression Genetic?

One of the most easily debunked myths about dog breeds is that any one breed is more “dangerous” than the others.

It is true that certain types of dogs appear more often in lists of attacks, especially when looking at fatalities from dog attacks. But do these charts actually tell the story many people assume it does? 

Debunking Dangerous Dog Myths Stemming From Fatality Stats

First, note how 33 breeds were excluded from the list above, yet they contributed one or more fatalities in the years studied. That means that there’s a fair amount of diversity in the dogs that can inflict lethal harm.

Second, consider that the source of data for the chart largely comes from reports filed by law enforcement. Unless the animal possessed a certified breed pedigree (which would not be available for breeds like ‘pit bull’ that the AKC and other institutions don’t recognize), then there is no way for certain to determine if the reported breed is accurate.

Third, there are many variables at play beyond breed that could lead to the false impression of a strong correlation. In an article for Forbes, data journalist Niall McCarthy wrote in 2018 that “there is evidence to suggest that owners of vicious dogs are far more likely to have criminal convictions for violent crimes, which may go some way towards explaining the Pit Bull’s disproportionate rate of fatal attacks.”

Statistics Ignore Other Factors at Play

In line with the last point made, there are many dogs that are capable of inflicting harmful bites but that lack the muscular power to seriously hurt a healthy adult. Lists of fatal and serious attacks almost exclusively include large dog breeds, despite the fact that smaller dog breeds are just as capable of biting or causing some degree of injury.

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) notes how “referrals for aggression problems more closely approximate the breeds implicated in serious bite attacks, probably because owners are more likely to seek treatment for aggression in dogs that are large enough to be dangerous. Larger dogs (regardless of breed) are implicated in more attacks on humans and other dogs.”

So while smaller dogs may have issues with aggression or even a history of biting, the owner is much less likely to report the bite or refer the issue to an animal behavior professional.

Further, some factors are much more useful for explaining trends in attacks than breed, such as trends in ownership. A 2007–08 survey of dog bites by breed in the Denver area uncovered that Labrador retrievers showed up in the highest percentage, unsurprising considering they were the most popular breed at the time.

When looking at studies like these, breed type becomes less-relevant than other factors. As the AVMA notes, trends in attacks by breed “may relate to the popularity of the breed in the victim’s community, reporting biases and the dog’s treatment by its owner (e.g., use as fighting dogs). It is worth noting that fatal dog attacks in some areas of Canada are attributed mainly to sled dogs and Siberian Huskies, presumably due to the regional prevalence of these breeds.”

Why Did the Dog Gene Study Conclude That Behavior Wasn’t Closely Related to Breed?

In the words of the study itself: “[genetic areas] associated with aesthetic traits are unusually differentiated in breeds, consistent with a history of selection, but those associated with behavior are not.”

One of the biggest conclusions drawn from owner surveys was that the differences in dogs’ personalities within each breed were just as great if not greater than the differences between the breeds themselves.

On a genetic level, the study observed that only some behavior similarities could be explained through common genomes identified within each breed.

“Most behavioral traits are heritable [heritability (h2) > 25%], but behavior only subtly differentiates breeds. Breed offers little predictive value for individuals, explaining just 9% of variation in behavior. For more heritable, more breed-differentiated traits, like biddability (responsiveness to direction and commands), knowing breed ancestry can make behavioral predictions somewhat more accurate. For less heritable, less breed-differentiated traits, like agonistic threshold (how easily a dog is provoked by frightening or uncomfortable stimuli), breed is almost uninformative.”

Looking at it from a different angle: if asked to guess a dog’s breed just from being given a set of personality traits, you would have a low chance of being accurate considering the indeterminate role of genes, especially in areas like aggression or anxiety.

On the other hand, physical traits had consistent correlations with identified genes, leading the study team to conclude that “at least 80% of a dog’s appearance can be tied to its DNA.”

The most obvious reason for this discrepancy is that modern breeders select purebred pairings with more focus on physical breed traits compared to personality or behavioral ones. Since our reliance on dogs as working animals has greatly fallen off (gone are the days of dog-powered machinery!), the need for these traits has dwindled. Further, many of the dogs bred for a highly specific purpose are now crossbreeds, including the venerable Alaskan sled dog, as opposed to a purebred.

So Why Do Breed Stereotypes Persist?

Stereotypical breed traits are often reinforced by the image of the breed, which in some cases has been instilled over the course of a century or more. Oil paintings of scent hounds and water retrievers elicit triumphant personas. Dogs bred for the companionship of courtiers are depicted as refined, but perhaps a bit foppish. And, in recent years, reputations reinforced through media and culture have painted some dogs as vicious and aggressive.

Many of the observations made about dogs are, in effect, cherrypicking out the traits that reinforce these stereotypes while chalking up the remainder of the personality to “that’s just my dog!”

None of this is to say that breed behaviors are wholly a myth, especially in lines of dogs like hunting dogs, scent dogs, or military dogs.

“Purebred dog breeds have been developed, some for hundreds of years, for a purpose, whether that be cuddling on laps, hunting birds, herding livestock, or pulling sleds,” writes AKC’s Penny Leigh. “They were selected for traits that would produce the best dogs for their intended jobs — and those traits still define their personalities today, even if they are not being used in their intended roles.”

Anyone who’s seen a pointer point or a gang of corgi puppies herd a stuffed animal knows that some instincts just don’t go away, despite a century or so of these qualities becoming less important to breeders. But when it comes to theories that some dogs are naturally predisposed to cause injuries or start trouble: according to genetics, that dog just won’t hunt.

Get Personalized Dog Training to Make Your Companionship Stronger

At Greenlin Pet Resorts, we never make assumptions about a dog’s needs or personality based on breed alone. That’s why we always perform a multi-point assessment at the start of every training relationship, while providing dog owners with a detailed questionnaire regarding the animal’s home life and current routine. 

We find that some things that owners take for granted, like diet or sleeping conditions, can have an outsized impact on the dog’s disposition. Our recommendations seek to always identify the underlying reasons a dog may be struggling with certain commands or undesired behaviors. In some cases, those needs are colored in part by a breed trait, like a need for stimulation or work, but the ultimate outcome relies entirely on what the owner hopes to achieve and what changes they are willing to make to get there.

At Greenlin, every dog is welcome (unless/until they exhibit certain behaviors that cause concern). We want both dogs and owners to have every advantage when it comes to enjoying a long, fulfilling life in each other’s company. That’s why each dog training program is customized to the goals of the owner and the specific needs of the dog. Our multi-pronged approach helps tap into the dog’s inner needs in healthy, productive ways, redirecting them from undesired behaviors towards ones that are fulfilling to both dog and owner. We also offer one-on-one demonstrations with owners so that they can see what their dog has learned and can reinforce the achieved results within the home environment.

If you are interested in helping your puppy grow up with good manners, or you want to realign your dog’s current behaviors towards something that’s more appropriate for their lifestyle, we’re here to help. Sign up today for a free evaluation and tour of our facilities at any of the six Central Pennsylvania Greenlin Pet Resorts locations near you!