Dog Breed Stereotypes … Fact or Fiction?

We’ve all heard stereotypes about various dog breeds – Rottweilers are aggressive, Chihuahuas are yappy, Retrievers are good with kids, Collies are highly trainable … and these are just a few. I mean, these ‘facts’ are pretty much a given aren’t they? We’ve heard them so many times they must be true.

Well, not necessarily.

As much as we all know these stereotypes, we all probably know one or two exceptions to these ‘rules’. But then, if we know one or two exceptions … how many of the dogs do we know that actually conform to the stereotype? One, two … none? Hmm, it all begins to sound less convincing then, doesn’t it! Maybe, when you really think about it, the only aggressive Rottweilers you’ve seen are ones on TV or in films, whereas the ones you’ve encountered in the fields when walking Fido have actually been pretty nice. In fact, the Chihuahua that you met the other week in the park didn’t make a peep, did it? Come to mention it, your neighbour’s Collie never does what he’s told and, although your friend’s retriever is great with the kids, your Great Aunt’s Retriever, Tommy, was actually pretty antisocial; he always seemed at his happiest when it was just him and Aunt Mabel at home…

Gets you thinking, doesn’t it. How accurate are these stereotypes really?

Just like people, dogs are very individual and a recent study has found that a dog’s breed really has far less to do with certain behavioural traits than we may have previously thought. The US study published in the Science journal in April 2022, and reported in The Guardian, found a high degree of variability between individual animals of the same breed, and no behaviours exclusive to one breed.

The study, which analysed survey responses relating to the physical traits and behaviour of 18,385 pet dogs, almost half of which were purebred, found that there were some traits that appeared to be more associated with certain breeds, but these where the more ‘functional’ traits such as howling, herding or retrieving rather than behavioural or social traits. For example, in the study, Beagles were found to be statistically more likely to howl, while Retrievers were more likely to fetch, suggesting a stronger genetic component to these behaviours – but this was a slight trend rather than a given. Some Retrievers howled. Some Beagles fetched. They were all different!

For other traits there seemed to be little or no correlation with breed, suggesting a dog’s breed does not dictate or guarantee behaviour. The overwhelming factor was the high degree of variation within a breed, which tells us that it’s not possible to predict a dog’s behaviour based on its genetics.

As the Guardian reports, not all traits were found to be heritable or showing a prevalence in any particular breed, including how easily a dog is provoked by a frightening trigger – suggesting that aggressive behaviour may have little to do with genetics and more to do with other factors such as environment and experience. This casts doubt on the validity of breed-specific legislation. The same study was reported in the Washington Post where it was noted that while in some cases it backed up stereotypes – Labradors and Retrievers generally scored highly for human sociability – it also, in some others, contradicted them – American Pit Bull Terriers, outlawed in some US cities and often not allowed in apartment blocks due to a reputation for being aggressive, also scored highly on

human sociability. These dogs, with a widely-held reputation for being hostile, were often found to be highly receptive to unfamiliar people – again suggesting that it’s the way the dogs are brought up and treated that contributes to their behaviour, rather than any inherent genetic ‘nastiness’.

All of this is very interesting and certainly casts doubt on our preconceptions. The scientists behind the study have urged people to look less at the breed and more at the dog in front of them, when determining the character of your pup. Don’t be influenced by stories and stereotypes. The largest factors in a dog’s behaviour are likely to be its environment and experiences although, as with humans, there will be aspects of individual personality coming into play, too.

You could get a lazy collie, a soft and dopey Rottweiler, a howling Labrador or a meek and mild-mannered Chihuahua. Your Alsatian may be scared of its own shadow while your Poodle bravely protects its property … just like you and me, all dogs are different and it’s really important to bear this in mind when you either buy or adopt a dog.

My ‘study’ is far less formal than this scientific one….

but, speaking from the experience of many years in veterinary practice and meeting countless dogs I can honestly say that no two are the same! Even if they look almost identical they will have totally different characters. I could, if I wanted to, decide before they come in that they will behave or react in a certain way based on what I think I know of their breed but honestly 9 times out of 10 my preconceived ideas would be proven wrong, so I just don’t bother trying to guess anymore! I have the privilege of treating many characterful individuals and that’s exactly what they are … individuals.

These strongly-held beliefs about certain breeds’ behaviours or personalities has a huge impact on which dogs are adopted from shelters and which are sadly left there for the long-term. There are many dogs with an unfortunate and often undeserved bad reputation waiting in shelters up and down the country for someone to give them a chance at a loving home. The most important thing to do when adopting a dog is to spend some time getting to know them – you’ll soon get past the stereotypes and see them for who they really are. And, at the end of the day, all that matters is that you ‘click’!

Speaking of click … another worrying problem that’s being reported from dog charities and shelters is the fact that less ‘Instagrammable’ dogs are not being chosen for adoption. Yep, that’s right – new owners are sadly picking pets due to how they’ll look in photos on their grid! It’s a scary sign of the world that we’re living in right now and all I can say is that our loyal four-legged friends deserve better. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder … and the love of a dog, well that really is a beautiful thing.

Right, now the sun’s just starting to dip a bit and it’s cooling off slightly I’m off to take my two for a little wander. Just a reminder that, for as long as this heatwave lasts, you should avoid walking your dogs during the hottest part of the day – an early morning stroll or an evening wander will suit them just fine or, if that doesn’t work for you, they won’t take any harm from missing a walk or two rather than risking the devastating consequences of heatstroke. Stay cool and stay safe!