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Your dog’s personality is rooted in its breed’s DNA, study finds

A new study has identified specific genes that seem to play an integral part in characterizing the behavior of dog breeds.

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Key Takeaways
  • A new study compared behavioral data on dogs, obtained from owner surveys, with genetic information to identify genes associated with specific traits like aggression and attachment.
  • The study found 131 locations in a dog's genome that seemed to be linked to 14 behavioral traits across various breeds.
  • Some of these specific gene-behavior associations can also be found in humans, suggesting that future research could help scientists better understand conditions like anxiety, and even improve treatments.

If you’ve spent any time around dogs, you’ve probably seen that different breeds have some fairly easily identifiable personality traits: Daschunds can be a bit anxious, golden retrievers are obedient and play well with kids, and German shepherds tend to be smart and protective.

Recently, a landmark study provided some of the first evidence that these personality traits can be traced back to each breed’s genes, a finding that could someday help scientists better understand the relationship between genetic markers and behavior in humans.

In the study, a team led by Evan MacLean, a comparative psychologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson, compiled behavioral data on various dog breeds obtained from the Canine Behavioral Assessment & Research Questionnaire (C-BARQ), a survey in which people describe the behavior of their dogs by reporting how likely the dogs are to obey commands, show fear when a stranger visits the house, or tremble during a particular situation. The team then compared thousands of C-BARQ responses with genetic data on 101 dog breeds.

The results showed 131 locations in a dog’s genome that seemed to be linked to at least one of 14 canine behavioral, including aggression, fear, trainability and attachment. The team suggested these DNA regions account for up to 15 percent of a dog breed’s behavior, and that trainability, chasing and a tendency to be aggressive toward strangers were the most inheritable traits.

“It’s a huge advance,” Elaine Ostrander, a mammalian geneticist at the National Human Genome Research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, who was not involved in the study, told Science Magazine. “It’s a finite number of genes, and a lot of them do make sense.”

Links between genes and behavior in other species

Interestingly, some of the links between specific genes and behavioral traits observed in the study can also be found in other animals, including humans. The levels of aggression in foxes, dogs and humans, for instance, seems to be associated with a particular set of genes found in all three species. And these cross-species similarities could prove valuable to humans. For instance, as Science Magazine notes, scientists might someday discover an important relationship between specific genes and anxiety in dogs, which could lead to better anxiety-related treatments for humans.

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The researchers noted that dogs are an ideal species for this kind of research, mainly because of their simplified genetic architecture “resulting from population bottlenecks during domestication and strong selection during subsequent breed diversification,” and also because of “extraordinary phenotypic diversity” among their more than 200 breeds.

“Our findings suggest that dog breeds also provide a powerful and highly tractable model for questions about the evolution and genetic basis of behavioral traits.”

Still, it’s worth noting that environmental factors also play a major role in determining the personalities of dogs. Some research even suggests that the best predictor of whether a dog will be, say, aggressive is the characteristics of the owner.

The researchers behind the recent study cautioned that their work was broad in scope, and that it can’t prove that any single gene is causally related to the behavior of a specific breed. That’s hopefully something that future research will shed light on.

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