Is a Dog's Personality Ingrained in His DNA?

Some dogs are known for their friendly, happy personalities. adamdo/Shutterstock

When we think of certain dog breeds, key characteristics come to mind. Golden retrievers are jovial and family-friendly. Border collies are smart and need a job to do. Dobermans are fierce protectors of their homes and people.

But are these true inborn personality traits or just a series of characteristics we casually connect to the breeds?

In a new study, researchers suggest that certain distinctive breed behaviors are anchored in a dog's genes. The findings may help scientists one day better understand the link between genetic markers and human behaviors.

A research team led by Evan MacLean, a comparative psychologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson, started by studying data on behavior from the Canine Behavioral Assessment & Research Questionnaire (C-BARQ), a survey that allows people to report on their pet's personality and behaviors. Dog owners answer questions about how their pet responds to commands, squirrels and triggers that might prompt anxiety like thunderstorms or strangers. The data allowed researchers to look at information for more than 14,000 dogs from 101 breeds.

The researchers then compared this behavioral data for the breeds to genetic breed data from a different group of dogs. It wasn't an exact matchup since they weren't comparing the behavior to the genetics of the same dog. The researchers identified 131 sites in a dog's DNA that appeared to be connected to 14 behavioral traits. These DNA regions account for about 15 percent of a dog's personality. The findings suggest that trainability, chasing, a tendency to be aggressive toward strangers, and attachment and attention-seeking are the most heritable traits.

More work is needed

The results may help researchers make strides in human behavioral research, too. MacLean and his team suggest that the same genes are responsible for guiding behavior across species. So learning about the genetic relationship between anxiety and dogs could help toward developing treatments for anxiety in humans, Science points out.

"This is interesting and it also supports a lot of what people think, but a lot more work is needed at this point," Elinor K. Karlsson, professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and founder of Darwin's Ark, a citizen science project centering around genetics and pets.

"In general, defining dogs based on their breeds isn’t very fair to dogs as individuals. It needs more validation."

The study was posted in the preprint server bioRxiv and has yet to be peer reviewed, meaning other researchers in the field have yet to provide feedback on the study and it has yet to be published in a scientific journal.