Dog Breeds Are A Behavioral Myth... Sorry! : Short Wave Is your border collie a lethargic couch potato? Is your golden retriever bad with kids? Is your German shepherd too timid to guard your home?

Turns out, there may be good reason why your pooch doesn't act as expected. Regina G. Barber talks with writer Katie Wu about the science of dog breeds, including how much a dog's personality is linked to breed. (Hint: less than you might think!)

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Dog Breeds Are A Behavioral Myth... Sorry!

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EMILY KWONG, BYLINE: You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.


Hey, SHORT WAVErs. Regina Barber here, and today we're entering the world of our favorite squirrel-seeking friends.


BARBER: Before there was Lassie, before Toto, before Scooby Doo, there were ancient wolves and ancient humans. And they kind of became pals.

KATIE WU: The circumstances are kind of unclear. But at some point, both species realized, you know, this is not a terrible partnership to form.

BARBER: This is Katie Wu. She's a staff writer at The Atlantic. And recently, she dug into why dogs act the way they do and how dogs became man's best friend.

WU: They came into contact with each other maybe because, you know, the wolves were attracted to, like, garbage dumps in human encampments or, you know, because they just got really friendly while they were hunting in the same spaces. If I'm a wolf, I can get a consistent source of food. You know, this nice, tall, bald ape thing likes to pet me, and I feel a lot safer. And the humans are thinking, wow, this is an apex predator. It can help me hunt, can guard my family and it's just pretty cool to play around with. And the two species started to coevolve.

BARBER: Suddenly, there was this really friendly wolfish lineage that kept on coming back, helping out the humans and getting belly rubs in return and eventually settling into these specific doggie jobs.

WU: It was almost a dog Industrial Revolution where they super specialized into these careers and, you know, started acquiring some physical traits to match.

BARBER: Take border collies. They've evolved to herd animals like sheep. But herding isn't the only doggie profession out there.

WU: Another class is the broad class of hunting dogs - retrievers and hounds - dogs that perform guarding functions that are just patient and calm but make a lot of noise when something goes awry, and I also enjoy some of the little vermin hunters.

BARBER: Dog-wolf vermin hunters that, thousands of years later, would become little terriers.

WU: They are, ironically, some of the most wolfish because they just sit around. And when they see something they want to catch, they will go after it, totally take it down and sometimes just eat it whole.

BARBER: Very catlike.

WU: For sure - the mousers of the dog world.

BARBER: But the idea of specific breeds didn't come up until much later in the 1800s.

WU: In the Victorian era, when all of a sudden the priorities around what we should be shaping dogs to be went from, oh, I want this dog to do a specific task that's going to help me with day-to-day life, to I really want a dog that is yay high and has a tail that curls exactly so.

BARBER: Right.

WU: It went from like...

BARBER: And can fit into my lap.

WU: Right. Totally. Dogs became these, like, sort of private commodities. It was the era of, like, fancy everything. Aesthetic became the kind of ruling principle of dog breeding. And all of a sudden, we got tons of formal dog breeds that were defined by these super specific, almost dating profile-style criteria for how dogs should look and, to some extent, behave for the sake of fulfilling these principles of purity.


BARBER: Today on the show, when purity and reality collide - the complicated history of dog breeds and what they can and cannot tell us about the personalities of our canine companions. I'm Regina Barber, and you're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science pup-cast (ph) cast from NPR.


BARBER: So let's hang out in 1884 and explore the early days of the post-doggie Industrial Revolution. The American Kennel Club, or AKC, formed to advocate for this idea of the purebred family companion. It came up with some strict guidelines that would dictate all of the physical traits of a breed - like its coat, its bark, its height, but also its personality.

WU: Three of the first words you will see on any breed's AKC homepage are these adjectives that sort of give you a sense of its personality - things like lively or friendly or gentlemanly (laughter) - like, these personality descriptors. And then there is usually this long paragraph about how the dog is expected to behave based on what it was bred for and what people wanted it to be.

BARBER: And there is some truth to this. Katie says that you can still recognize a lot of these ancient traits in the behaviors of some dog breeds today.

WU: Dogs with herder lineage are still pretty herder-y (ph). You know, they really like toys. They're good at listening to commands. And those are the types of things that probably made their ancestors really good at their jobs.

BARBER: But the AKC takes it a few steps further.

WU: And if you go into, you know, these documents called the Breed Standards, which include the criteria for how a dog should look, there often is a little section called temperament. And that can also be super specific. It says the dog has to be bold or vivacious or whatever it is. And often, there's even a line in there that says if the dog does not meet these behavioral criteria, it should be severely punished.

BARBER: Katie says right around here is where the guidelines and the science no longer add up.

WU: Where it gets more subjective and tough to assess is when we get into the aspects of personality that maybe feel a little bit more anthropomorphic...

BARBER: Right.

WU: ...More like a mirror of ourselves. Like, is my dog friendly?

BARBER: Is it gentlemanly?

WU: (Laughter) Right. Like, did I adopt this dog thinking it would be serious-minded, so I treated it like it would be serious-minded, and then it became serious-minded?

BARBER: FYI, if you want a dog that's, quote, "serious-minded," then the American Kennel Club says get a Chow Chow. But that advice will only get you so far.

WU: It's a really interesting tension because we do expect dogs to behave in a certain way if they were adapted to certain careers over millennia. But breeds were so much about looks, and so what is the connection here?

BARBER: Researchers have been trying to get to the bottom of this dog personality debate for a long time. And finally, there just might be an answer from experts at UMass Chan Medical School and the Broad Institute.

OK, Katie, in your piece, you discuss a massive study done recently where the researchers recruited tens of thousands of dogs and gave a survey asking questions to the owners like, does your dog cower during storms? Does it ignore commands? And then they sequenced the genomes of about 2,000 of those dogs. So what do researchers say is at play when thinking about how they behave?

WU: Right. So I thought this study was fascinating because there are so many dog breeds out there today, and it's pretty clear that people have these implicit assumptions about how different breeds should behave. You know, when you see a dog on the street and you are maybe a dog person, one of the first questions is, what is your dog? And the answer, whether it's a Chow Chow or a Chihuahua, often tends to affect how people treat that dog. And these researchers found that surprisingly little of a dog's behavior, of its personality or its temperament, whatever we want to call it, is actually attributable to breed.

BARBER: So in the end, how much did the dog's breed explain their behavior?

WU: Yeah, so this study found that less than 10% of all the diversity in dog behaviors can be explained by breed.


WU: And, I mean, I - it's tough. Researchers are still really figuring out how exactly to make those estimates. There was a study from just three years ago that did kind of a roughly similar analysis. They did their study a little bit differently, but they found a much higher percentage being attributable to breed - somewhere closer to half, depending on how you slice and dice the data. You know, this is definitely a contentious area. If you ask the same questions of humans - how much of our personality is from genetics versus environment? - people would definitely disagree.

BARBER: Right.

WU: I think the only agreement is it's not zero and it's not a hundred.

BARBER: Right. And when I hear about dog breeding and how do you make the perfect dog, for me, it brings up a lot of stereotypes people make about humans. Like, for myself, being Asian American, I remember hearing Asians are smarter and how that's detrimental. And as you said earlier, dog breeds and temperament - those connections came up in the Victorian era, which is when eugenics was all the rage, right?

WU: Certainly this is something that comes up. Any time someone publishes a paper on dog breeds and behavior and different predispositions, they inevitably get questions about race. Like, isn't this something that explains, like, why so-and-so people of this race or ethnicity are more prone to this or behave like this...

BARBER: Right.

WU: ...Or why can't we make assumptions? It's so unbelievably different. There is a wonderful review that I would highly recommend anyone who's interested in this question check out. It's called "Human Races Are Not Like Dog Breeds: Refuting A Racist Analogy," which just - that title - chef's kiss. And, you know, they really lay out how the history and genetics of dog breeds just is not an apt parallel.

BARBER: Right.

WU: We have to consider that race is so complex. There are cultural dimensions. There is so much else going on. And I will also point out that the Victorians sort of manifested this idea of breed. And one of the ideals they really held it to was purity - keeping bloodlines pure. And we know, from dogs and humans, how disastrous that can be. And we know that a lot of dog breeds today have health problems because of rampant inbreeding.

BARBER: Right.

WU: It is not good for anyone who wants to maintain a species' general well-being. Ultimately, this obsession with purity, in both species, has been to the detriment of everyone involved.

BARBER: Totally. So, Katie, you've taken us on this 10,000-year journey from wolves to canine breeds today. From your research into the overarching history of dog breeds and the origin of these specific doggie personalities, what's your takeaway?

WU: Dogs have been shaped by us, and maybe there is some hubris to that. Maybe, you know - humans love to categorize things. We love to anthropomorphize things. We love to...

BARBER: Right.

WU: ...Attribute personality traits to even, like, our cars, our microwaves. With dogs, the inclination may be especially strong because we know we have this history with them. We know that we purposely went out of our way to select them and subdivide them into breeds and specialize them in ways that we thought would make certain dogs good lap dogs, others good hunters, others good herders, others good guide dogs. And maybe if we did that well, then we should be able to predict them. But I think we do have to remember that even though dogs were so very influenced by us, they remain their own animals. Each dog is an individual, and it's still going to have its own complex thoughts, its own ability to interact with its surroundings and interpret them. And that's something that we can't forget. And maybe they are the ones shaping us a lot of the time.

BARBER: Thank you, Katie, so much for talking to us. This has been very enlightening.

WU: Absolutely. This was really fun.

BARBER: Check out Katie Wu's article called "Humans Can't Quit A Basic Myth About Dog Breeds." We'll put a link to that and the review she mentioned in our episode notes. This episode was produced by Margaret Cirino and Rebecca Ramirez, edited by Stephanie O'Neill. Marge, also checked the facts. The audio engineer for this episode was Alex Drewenskus. Andrea Kissack runs the science desk. Edith Chapin and Terence Samuel are the executive editors and vice presidents of news. And Nancy Barnes is our senior vice president of news. I'm Regina Barber. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.


BARBER: So, Katie, what's your experience with dogs?

WU: So I had a dog when I was younger. She was a Pomeranian. But I have not had a dog since. I am a hardcore cat person.

BARBER: Me too.

WU: I have multiple cats (laughter). And I don't know if that's ever going to change.


WU: I truly feel like once you go cat, you can't go back.


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