No, Science Doesn’t Say Dog Breeds Have Distinct Personalities in Their DNA

No, Science Doesn’t Say Dog Breeds Have Distinct Personalities in Their DNA

No, Science Doesn’t Say Breeds Have Distinct Personalities


January 18, 2019

There’s been a lot of talk recently about dog breeds and what their DNA says about their personalities. All of this talk was spawned by an article written by Elizabeth Pennisi titled Dog breeds really do have distinct personalities—and they’re rooted in DNA.” This headline has breedists excited. Finally, they can say for certain that their favorite breed of dog is as special as they’ve always believed them to be. Other people love it because it confirms what they’ve always believed – that breed alone dictates behavior.

Pennisi’s article is about a study by University of Arizona researchers called Highly Heritable and Functionally Relevant Breed Differences in Dog Behavior. The problem is that the title of Pennisi’s article does not accurately reflect what the study says at all. The headline doesn’t even represent what the article says.

Not only did many people share the story on social media without reading the article or the study, they didn’t put the study into context. It’s not peer-reviewed and it has yet to be published.

This is a lesson we should all have learned by now – headlines don’t tell the whole story or even an accurate story.

So What’s Really Going On with This Study?

The study focuses on dog behavior and breed traits, not personality. Personalities are entirely dependent on individuals. Breed traits do not make up the whole of who a dog is or what we can expect a dog to do.

The article makes frequent comparisons to human behavior, so let’s do that here – do siblings have the exact same personalities and respond in the exact same way to specific situations and stimuli?

The researchers openly admit their study falls short of exploring dogs’ individual personalities:

“One limitation of this study is that genotypic and phenotypic data were not collected from the same subjects, but rather aggregated across independent datasets.”

This is data without context. Data without context is easy to misinterpret and apply to one’s own preconceived notions. That’s exactly what’s being done by breedists (people who insist they can predict everything about a dog based on the way it looks and how it is categorized by kennel clubs) and it’s also being lauded by anti-dog advocates who insist that dogs with the label “pit bull”  are a menace to society.

The truth is all this study shows is a correlation, not a causation. That’s not wishful thinking on our part, that’s the nature of a lot of data and scientific studies.

To bring people back to reality, Marc Bekoff, Ph.D. put the study into context in an article for Psychology Today called “Dog Breeds Don’t Have Distinct Personalities.”

“… a correlation of some traits with a breed/breed mix doesn’t mean there is a causal—cause-and-effect—relationship between or among them.”

Again, breed traits, which most certainly exist, do not dictate personality. Bekoff points out something many of us have personally observed:

“When I watch dogs, I focus on individual differences among them, because no two dogs are the same. I love when people tell me that they live with two dogs from the same litter and they’re as different as night and day.”

He goes on to mention that breedism and the misinterpretation of breed traits can increase return rates for shelters and rescues. People adopt dogs believing they will be carbon copies of their breed stereotype only to find that the dog is an individual doesn’t meet their breed-based expectations.

We didn’t want to address this issue without giving Science Magazine a chance to respond. We expressed our concerns about the title and some of the implications in the article.

Their online news editor David Grimm, Ph.D., explained that the magazine often covers pre-published and non-peer reviewed studies and that the article did make it clear that correlation doesn’t equal causation.

He told us:

“As you may recall, one of the experts, Heidi Parker, echoes your and Marc’s [Bekoff] concerns: ‘This paper doesn’t call out any particular breed for its behavior.’ The article is also careful to point out that DNA explains only about 15% of a breed’s personality.”

But like we stated in the beginning, that’s not at all what the title of the piece says and thus, people now have a false understanding of dog behavior and genetics. Grimm never addressed the issue of the inaccurate title.

Bekoff, who was included on our communications with Grimm, responded:

“The title Dog breeds really do have distinct personalities—and they’re rooted in DNA” is over the top based and misleading based on the data that are presented — it’s catchy and all that but some people have walked away saying things like, ‘I knew that’ when the data are equivocal at best.

The fact remains that dog breeds do not have distinct personalities and if there are any correlations, which do not at all imply causation, they are weak — and while they may be rooted in DNA — where else could they be rooted — the title is misleading and that’s what caught my attention and the attention of the many people who wrote to me asking what I thought about it all.”

So What’s the Problem with a Catchy Title?

We know that to make it in the internet age articles need to have catchy titles. Believe us, we get it (this article is currently being written by someone who used to be a viral editor for a major dog publication – I SO get it), but your titles need to be accurate.

We know, and as has been demonstrated by the viral nature of the Science Magazine write up, people often share articles based on headlines and take away whatever impression the headline gives them as the truth.

Because of this, Bekoff isn’t the only scientist balking at those who take the study out of context. Dr. Ádám Miklósi is concerned that the misrepresentation and failure to recognize the common variations among dogs from the same breed, even from the same litter, can have long-lasting and negative consequences for individual dogs and their owners – one of which, we mentioned above. Other consequences include breed-specific legislation and policies.

We’re not only calling out one publication here, we’re calling out everyone who shared the article without reading it, thinking critically about it, or putting it into context. We need to be accurate about how we talk about dog behavior and genetics because it has serious consequences for all dogs – not just dogs who are routinely discriminated against. Every dog deserves to be seen for who they are, not who we think they are.

Remember that the takeaway here is that data means nothing without context and that, as Bekoff says:  

“breeds do not have personalities, individual dogs do.”

Let’s think critically before we share articles on social media. Let’s think critically before we believe articles on social media (and yes, that includes this one! We like thinkers.)

Those who are interested in a contextualized examination of dog behavior should check out Dr. Miklósi’s book Dog Behavior, Evolution, and Cognition. You can read Bekoff’s full commentary here.

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This Response to Our Podcast Exposes the Classism in Animal Welfare

This Response to Our Podcast Exposes the Classism in Animal Welfare

This Response to Our Podcast Exposes the Classism in Animal Welfare


January 2019

In our podcast from last week, Are We Loving Shelter Pets to Death,  we challenged people who believe that free adoptions are detrimental to dogs to examine where this belief comes from. One of the points we made is that there is classism behind this belief. We all have our own level of bias and it’s important that we deal with it.

We received an email from a woman involved in animal rescue (we are not naming her or her rescue) who had a lot to say about our podcast and our take that being anti-free adoption events is classist. Unfortunately, all her email did was prove our point that classism is a strong undercurrent in animal welfare.

Because she is most certainly not the only one who feels this way, we decided to respond to her email publicly. Here is our point by point response:

“I read the article on “Are we loving shelter pets to death?” I disagree with free adoption. It has nothing to do with thinking they will be abused. Instead it’s a viscous [sic] cycle of poverty.”

No. It isn’t.

“The dogs that end up in the shelter have been neglected 90% of the time by someone who could not afford to keep them.”

This is not true at all. If a dog is a stray, chances are we don’t know its background or who its owners were. When we do know who their owners are, we don’t usually know their income level or anything about them.

The assumption that 90% of dogs in shelters are abused or neglected is an outdated one and one that does an incredible disservice to shelter dogs. These assumptions are most often false and they are based on nothing more than extremely biased guesswork.

Assumptions don’t make for good policy and they don’t help dogs or people.

Listen to the episode

“so they let the [sic] go astray, stop feeding them, start abusing them out of anger from their own failures in life.”

Honestly, I’m not sure what to say about this level of discriminatory thinking. This is downright disgusting. This was the line that made us want to write about this publicly. We can say all we want that classism is behind people’s dislike of free adoption events, but sometimes you have to show people to make them believe it.

This person clearly showed us who she is.

The reality is that people on a low income often feed their dogs before they feed themselves. Again, you could talk to anyone who works within their community to help people and their dogs and you’d find this to be true.

Now, let’s address the truly infuriating line: “start abusing them out of their own failures in life.”

People on a low income include veterans, the elderly, and people with disabilities. Are those people failing in life? Are those people responsible for the fact that society as a whole tends to not think of them as actual people? Are those people responsible for their own marginalization, lack of accessibility, and income inequality?

No, they aren’t.

Seventy-eight percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. Studies say that millions of Americans are one health crisis away from poverty. Are cancer survivors at fault for their financial state? Are people suffering from chronic illnesses at fault?

This “rescuer” is saying that they absolutely are.


There is no room in animal welfare for classism


Currently, tens of thousands of people are being forced to work without pay due to the government shutdown. Do you know what real animal welfare workers and volunteers are doing? Helping them feed their pets. They aren’t blaming them for things that absolutely aren’t their fault.

They are helping them, because that’s what humans do for one another. Because that’s how you preserve the human-canine bond.

An adoption fee is not meant to make money, it is in place to ensure the “shelter, rescue, pet” will get vaccinated, neutered/spayed, and cared for.

This is 100% true. Rescues often cannot waive their adoption fees because they run on an extremely limited budget. But our podcast wasn’t about free adoptions for rescues. It was about free adoptions for high intake shelters. Limited intake rescues don’t have the same issues.

“People that take “free” dogs cannot afford them, then weeks or even months later they are returned to the shelter or reach out to rescues to “rehome” the dog.”

Where do we even start with this?

Many people of all different income levels adopt dogs during these events. For many, they’ve been thinking about getting a dog for a long time and this sort of event is the thing that gives them the nudge to do so.

As we pointed out in the blog that accompanied our last podcast, studies show that these dogs are no more likely to return to the shelter than dogs adopted at any other time.

There’s also the very classist assumption that people on a low-income can’t possibly love a dog as much as someone of a higher income.

Anyone who works in animal welfare will tell you that people of all income levels return dogs to shelters or abandon them. And the reasons why people do this vary widely. It’s not always for lack of love.

“The education of this cycle is lacking in every community. My rescue does not just save dogs, we educate.”

She spelled “discriminate” wrong.

“We started a program with local schools to teach kids at an early age how to care for pets and report a lost dog.”
This is truly fantastic. However, we wonder what else someone like this teaches children. Does she teach them that people of lower incomes are bad people who abuse and neglect animals? How does she treat children who are from low income families? Or are these classes only for rich white kids?

You can’t advocate for companion animals if you discriminate against their companions.

“When we adopt dogs out we spend hours informing the family of pet care and proper introductions, we send articles, and we make forms to give them an idea of what exactly the dog is thinking in a new environment.”
Good for her. Shelters do this thing called “adoption counseling” that also includes these things – well, except on “exactly what a dog is thinking in a new environment” because we can’t read dogs’ minds and science says dogs are individuals. There’s no way to know “exactly” what a dog is thinking.
“Free adoptions are setting the dog up for failure.”

No, they don’t.

What sets dogs and people up for failure is blatant and cruel discrimination. Patting oneself on the back while looking down your nose at others is inhumane.

You can’t advocate for dogs and dehumanize people at the same time.

There is no room in animal welfare for classism.

Thanks for coming to our Ted Talk.

Want to be on our podcast to talk about the intersection of animal welfare and social justice? Want to yell at us for our opinions? Email us!

The Individual Animal is available on iTunes, Stitcher, and wherever you listen to podcasts.

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Petfinder Dog Listings Show Just How Ridiculous Visual Breed Identification Is

Petfinder Dog Listings Show Just How Ridiculous Visual Breed Identification Is

Petfinder Listings Show Absurdity of Visual Breed Identification



This post was originally written in 2013. It has been updated with additional commentary.

We were elated last year when Petfinder added “mixed breed” as a primary identifier option for the dogs listed on their site. It was a big move toward science and a huge step away from inaccurate labels and inherent bias.

Subjective breed labeling still happens on the site because it’s still happening in shelters. Plus, the general public loves to play the “what is this dog?” guessing game – and we admit, the game can be fun! But animal welfare workers have a responsibility to be as accurate as possible. You can’t be accurate when you visually identify a dog.

The term “pit bull” dog has become a catchall term that doesn’t even apply to a standard of visual characteristics. Sometimes, the term seems to be applied at random. That’s why we put it in quotes.

Here’s a collection of dogs that we pulled from Petfinder in 2013. All dogs were given the label of “pit bull.”


From Saving Paws of WA: listed as Pit Bull Terrier

Is it just us or do these dogs look really different?


From Grateful Dogs Rescue, CA: Listed as American Staffordshire Terrier and Pit Bull Terrier Mix


From Homestretch Hounds, OH: Listed as Pit Bull Terrier Mix


From Philadelphia SPCA, PA: listed as Pit Bull Terrier and Plott Hound Mix

What is happening here?


From Villalobos Rescue, LA: Listed as Pit Bull Terrier Mix


From Rocket Dog Rescue, CA: Listed as Pit Bull Terrier Mix.


From Saving Paws of WA: listed as Pit Bull Terrier


From Manchester Animal Care and Control CT: listed as Pit Bull Terrier and English Bulldog mix.


From Poughkeepsie Animal Care and Control, NY: Listed as Pit Bull Terrier Mix


From Oregon Humane Society: Listed as Pit Bull Terrier Mix

We can’t go on! It’s too much! 

Do some of these dogs have similar characteristics? Sure. All dogs have similar characteristics! Inherent bias doesn’t only exist in what we think a label means, it also exists in the process of applying the label. We see what we expect to see – and what most people expect to see in shelters is a “pit bull” dog. (Here’s where we’d typically explain self-fulfilling prophecies, but you’re smart. You already get it.)

Some of the shelters listed here have removed breed labels since the original publication of this blog. It’s important to note that not all software gives people the option that Petfinder now gives, some animal welfare professionals have no choice but to guess at a dog’s breed due to the software system they use. So there’s absolutely no shade from us at the shelters listed here.

Here’s the important thing to remember

A dog’s label, right or wrong, doesn’t tell us who they are or how they will behave. This is true whether we are accurate or not in our labeling. This is true whether the dog is a pure breed or a mixed breed dog. The labels we assign to dogs don’t tell us what they need as an individual or whether or not they are safe to live in our communities. 

We cannot accurately predict a dog’s future behavior based on breed or breed label alone. Dogs are complex individuals whose behaviors are influenced by a number of external and internal factors.

You can call your dog whatever you want (we won’t judge you even if you call him a farty-butt), but when it comes to dogs in general, we owe it to them to see them as individuals, not as labels.

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Who Are The Dogs In Shelters Really And Why Does It Matter?

Who Are The Dogs In Shelters Really And Why Does It Matter?

Who Are The Dogs In Shelters Really and why does it matter?


November, 2018

One of the core questions we want everyone to ask themselves about a dog is “Who is this dog?” Not, “What breed is this dog?” or “What does this dog look like?” or “Where did this dog come from?” Those last three questions don’t necessarily tell you any relevant information about the dog. 

When you focus on guessing a dog’s breed or breed mix, you’re more than likely to be incorrect and, consequently, you’ll take away a lot of false assumptions about a dog’s potential behavior.  Not only that, assumptions based on appearance disregard the genetic complexity of dogs and all other influences that make up the individual dog.

A study by ASU’s Canine Science Collaboratory researchers Lisa Gunter and Clive Wynne showed that for the shelter dogs they studied most of the mixed breed dogs (95% of the sample) had, on average, three different breeds in their heritage. This means that they aren’t a member of any breed. They are simply a dog.

Going back to what we said earlier about genetics being complicated, Wynne puts it best:

“Genetics are not paint colors. If you take a few drops of labrador retreiver and a few drops of border collie, you do not get a dog that loves to jump into the water and herd fish.”

And we’re not even going to get into the fact that, in this study, people only guessed a dog’s breed mix correctly one in 20 times – We’ll let Wynne get into that.

Watch the short video below for information about the study and what it means for companion animals.

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A Dog Died On A United Flight. Here’s The Problem No One’s Talking About

A Dog Died On A United Flight. Here’s The Problem No One’s Talking About

A Dog Died On A United Flight. Here’s The Problem No One’s Talking About
March, 2018
The tragic story of a beloved family dog dying on a United Airlines flight went viral last week. There were lots of conversations about what the incident says about the way people treat dogs. That’s only the surface of what happened. In reality, this isn’t a dog-related incident at all. This is a people related-incident.

In fact, all canine discrimination and the disregarding of the human-canine bond boils down to us – to humans. There’s an underlying thread that connects this instance with breed-specific legislation, housing restrictions, discrimination against people with service dogs, and a myriad of other injustices that aren’t related to dogs at all.

These things happen because of the pervasive view that if something isn’t directly happening to you, it isn’t your problem. There’s no need for you to care for someone (human, canine, or otherwise) that you aren’t directly connected to. This is known as the bystander effect.

All canine discrimination and the disregarding of the human-canine bond boils down to us – to humans.

Were there people on the flight that have warm fuzzy feeling about dogs, sure. Were there people that felt uncomfortable about the situations, absolutely. The problem lies in that because it wasn’t their dog going into that overhead bin nothing was directly effecting them. Pair that with the fact that we, as humans, we have learned this behavior of conforming, no one took action.

Everyone fell into the trap of “otherness,” which leads to dehumanization and discrimination of people in general. We marginalize people who aren’t “like us” and ignore wrongdoing when it’s not happening to us personally. In many cases, we participate in it by following discriminatory social convention.

Due to the practice of othering, a flight attendant ignored a woman’s pleas that there was a living being in a carrier. Due to the normalization of silence in the face of adversity, no one stood up and said, “You will not disregard what this person is saying to you. You will not put her dog in an overhead bin.”

We’ll never change how people treat animals until we change how we treat each other.
Throughout our time working in animal welfare, we see the concept of otherness and the bystander effect play out so often.

One peek at a Facebook comment thread about the current United scandal and you’ll see a slew of posts from people bashing the family for bringing a dog on the plane, despite the fact that they paid the fee and followed regulations.

The discriminatory subtext of BSL and housing restrictions is that people who own dogs who look a certain way are inherently irresponsible. How many times have you heard “It’s always thugs who own “pit bull” dogs”? That’s a common statement, even among advocates. It’s immediate “othering” without taking any facts into consideration.

With regards to service dogs, the media coverage of people committing service dog related disability fraud has led people to assume that anyone with a service dog is lying about their disability. This is especially true if the dog doesn’t fit society’s arbitrary standard of what a service dog should look like. Now, the media’s focus is always on how to construct more barriers with regards to service dogs, rather than how to make the world more accessible to people with disabilities. This means more discrimination and less equality.

It’s true that all dogs and all people are individuals, we are still all connected. How we treat one another matters.
We all know these things happen. But most of us say very little. Typically, we say very little because these situations are so far removed from us, but as everyone on the United flight proved, even when injustice happens right in front of us we ignore it. While it’s true that all dogs and all people are individuals, we are still all connected. How we treat one another matters and it also matters whether or not we passively encourage wrongdoing by remaining silent.

We encourage everyone to stand up for what’s right. Stand up and speak up about how we treat one another. We say fuck our culture of politeness (yes, we’re swearing) and defend other people when you know they’re being dehumanized, marginalized, and othered. Speak out against discrimination in all forms. Don’t hand-wave racism or sexism. Remember and remind people that you can’t always tell if a person has a disability (and it also isn’t your business). Defend people’s right to fair and equal housing. And for goodness sake, don’t ever let anyone treat someone’s family member like luggage.

Featured image via aero_icarus/flickr.

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This Is One of the Most Important Educational Tools for Your Shelter Staff

This Is One of the Most Important Educational Tools for Your Shelter Staff

You’ve heard us say all dogs are individuals. You’ve heard us say looks don’t equal behavior. You may be on board with that, which is great, we love that, but you’re unsure of how to get your shelter staff and volunteers to accept the science that breed isn’t indicative of a dog’s personality.

We’ve got the best tool for that and it’s in a handy-dandy infographic! *All of the images in this post are outtakes from the infographic.

Here’s how you can use this as an education tool for your shelter staff and volunteers.

For one, we drop some science in the infographic, like the above information about how even dogs of the same breed all behave differently. And there’s also this gem:


It’s not easy to step away from convention. Habits are difficult to break. Asking “what breed is this dog?” comes naturally to all of us. It’s really weird to hear someone say “breeds don’t matter when picking the dog that’s right for your home.” People need solid reasons to break habits and make big changes, especially when they’re dealing with lives – both human and animals.

Science helps with that. Of course, science can be overwhelming. Our infographic breaks that down into bite-sized talking points upon which you can create deeper conversations with your staff – and even potential adopters.

which percent is it

The fact that there’s no way to know which part of a dog’s breed may influence their behavior is powerful. Even if a dog is purebred, you still don’t know what breed traits it possesses, there are too many factors at play.

The only thing you do know for sure is the behavior you observe from the dog – and that’s what really matters.

You’re in the business of placing great pets in great homes. You can’t do that if your descriptions of dogs are based entirely on guesswork. That doesn’t make for good adoption matches, but observing the dog in front of you does.