The 139th Westminster Dog Show was held last week. Everyone went gaga over the purebred pooches’ cuteness and incredible charm.
We think a “champion” show dog has the best quality of their respective dog breed but we may be wrong.
In a massive study of more than 80,000 dogs, it was found that there are actually a lot of behavioral differences within any given breed, particularly when it comes to aggression.
“There is no other breed or species of animal with such a wide variety of appearance and behavior,” says Dr. James Serpell, an animal behaviorist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Interaction of Animals & Society.
The difference in behavior is mostly due to man’s dog breeding practices. Breeds were developed to highlight certain behaviors or traits that humans found useful.
Many years back, breeding meant identifying dogs who were well-suited for hunting, herding and other work. The practice changed slightly around the mid-19th century, when breeding interests shifted toward appearance and aesthetics. This was the beginning of change for many existing dog breeds.
“The fundamental purpose of dogs now is just to provide people with companionship,” Serpell says. “But then, a lot of these breeds still show those original behavioral predispositions to do particular things.”
This phenomenon is most evident at the recently-held Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show – where people are encouraged to judge dogs and their behavior with stereotypes based only on dog breed. Beagles are bred as hunters while terriers as diggers and hunters of small rodents. Labrador Retrievers are game retrievers.
Serpell wanted to find out how deep-seated these types of behaviors really are, but he encountered problems gathering data from domestic dogs.
The problem led him to create C-BARQ. It is an online tool that lets dog owners share information about the behavior of their pets. Owners answer a detailed survey that asks them how their dogs respond to different stimuli in their environment.
The survey received more than 80,000 responses. With that amount of data, the C-BARQ may be the world’s largest collection of behavioral data on dogs. It contains clear dog profiles and patterns—particularly regarding aggressive behavior.
About 10 to 15 percent of dogs can show very high levels of aggression while 20 or 30 percent show no aggression, says Serpell.
It also revealed that Pit Bulls and Akita Inus – which are popular fighting dog breeds –show serious aggression toward other dogs. Overall, the most aggressive title goes to Dachshunds, which display heightened aggression toward dogs, strangers, and even their owners.
This means judging a dog based solely on its breed overlooks one of the most important aspects of dog behavior –the influence of their owner and environment.
“[Dogs] perceive signals from us that we’re not even aware we’re giving,” he says. “Little attributes of personality we may have, probably change the way they typically behave. It’s unendingly interesting to me.”