Dispelling Myths About Mutts: A Literature Review
“Golden retrievers are friendly.” “Pitbulls are aggressive.” “Beagles are noisy.” “Border collies are intelligent.”
These are just a few stereotypes based on dog breeds that one may encounter. Do any of them sound familiar? Some of these stereotypes are so widely recognized and regarded as accurate that they influence public policies on dogs.
However, despite these stereotypes being so ubiquitous, many of them are based on misinterpreted research results or flawed studies. The National Canine Research Council sought to address the root of some of these misconceptions on dog breeds by conducting a literature review of research studies that are methodologically sound and/or have a significant influence. Their findings are interesting, enlightening, and amusing.In turn, dog animal advocates can use this information to help dispel inaccurate, negative stereotypes of certain breeds and push for policy change.
One key takeaway they determined from these studies is that the results can be significantly affected by methodology. Specifically, several of the studies they reviewed asked dog guardians to report their dogs’ behaviors. This is problematic due to these reports being unverifiable and prone to misjudgments, biases, inaccurate memory, and misinformation. For example, one who perceives their dog’s breed to be especially intelligent may falsely interpret their dog’s expected, neurotypical behavior to be a sign of greater-than-average intelligence. All of this means data resulting from such studies should be interpreted with caution.
However, even the studies where researchers directly interacted with dogs and not their guardians were determined to have weaknesses. The surveys and tests used in these studies have yet to have their reliabilities and validities assessed. This means that, once again, resulting data from these testing instruments should be interpreted with caution.
A popular justification for the study of dog breeds is historic genealogy: it is a commonly-held notion that dogs were bred over time to meet specific needs such as herding and guarding. However, one study mentions that these breed origins were merely shared through storytelling and lack thorough documentation. Further, with modern dog breeding primarily prioritizing looks over function, the odds that these breed differences (assuming they even existed in the first place) have endured over so many generations are slim. These factors cause dog genealogy to be an unreliable way to group dogs.
On a similar note, there are significant differences among studies in how they categorize dog breeds. While some strictly looked at individual breeds, others grouped dogs based on genetics or appearances. This inconsistency yields a range of different results: while one study was able to identify differences among breeds based on guardian reports, another found contrary data and couldn’t correlate behaviors with breeds.
A final consideration for interpreting research on dog breeds is that differences due to breed represent less than one-third of genetic variation among dogs. This manifested in one study that grouped dogs based on their genetic relation and yielded groupings very different from how dog breeds are conventionally grouped.
While these factors present challenges and obstacles for dog researchers, advocates can use these as opportunities for action and education. Works such as this provide sound evidence in support of more equitable treatment of animals, which is crucial in advocacy. If a dog’s breed is a nonfactor in their inclinations and behaviors, this can be leveraged against legislation that discriminates based on breed. Additionally, dispelling myths about certain breeds may help to increase adoption rates at animal shelters that are frequently overflowing with “undesirable” companion animals. This means saved lives.