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Between You and Me: Want a dog? Check out the parents first

By Leah S. Dunaief

leah dunaief

Recent impressive research tells us something we already knew: not every golden retriever always retrieves. We have been fortunate to enjoy three golden retrievers in a row over four decades, and for the first two, when we threw a tennis ball, it was enthusiastically returned and dropped at our feet. Then there was Teddy.

Teddy came to us at eight weeks, a golden ball of fur with two eyes, two ears, a pink nose and a tail. He passed on 12 years later, and during that time, we were convinced he was the most beautiful, most intelligent and most fun dog in the world. But there was one oddity about Teddy the Golden Retriever. When we took him out on the lawn and threw a tennis ball, he would politely sit down and watch his trajectory. Then he would look back at us as if to say, “Yeah? SW?”

However, if we brought him to a beach and threw a rock that landed among thousands of other rocks, he would bring back that exact rock and drop it at our feet, backing off, tail wagging, and wait for the next throw. This had a terrible effect on his front teeth. Over the years, it wore them down, but he never seemed to mind and didn’t appear to be in any discomfort.

The other item he retrieved at the beach was seaweed. He would plunge into the water, stick his nose beneath the surface, then come up with a mouthful of seaweed and bring it about 10 feet up on the shore, where he would deposit it. From his many trips to the beach, there remained a line of seaweed that marked his hunting spot.

Although the current researchers never interviewed Teddy, they did surveys of 18,385 dogs and sequenced the genomes of 2,155 dogs for their research paper published in the journal Science. They were looking for predictors of canine behavior and concluded that by breed it was essentially useless. This might surprise you, as it did us, except regarding the retrieving aspect we just discussed.

But apparently, stereotypes like pit bulls being aggressive were not validated. In fact, they scored high on human sociability, with videos showing lap-loving pit bulls. According to an article reporting on this study in TI have New York Times this past Tuesday, written by James Gorman, “Labrador Retriever ancestry [most popular breed in America]on the other hand, didn’t seem to have any significant correlation with human sociability.”

However, the research allows, there are some few predictable traits. “If you adopt a border collie…the probability that it will be easier to train and interested in toys is going to be higher than if you adopt a Great Pyrenees.”

Go figure.

Breed supposedly accounts for only 9% of the variations in any given dog’s behavior. Rather, behavior patterns were strongly inherited, to the tune of 25%, again according to the research, within any given breed. In studying genomes, “several genes [were discovered] that clearly influence behavior, including one for how friendly dogs are.” So if you are about to buy a dog, check out its parents first.

The researchers found 11 specific DNA regions that were associated with behavior, and an interesting comparison can be made with those same areas in human genomics. A region that affects the likelihood of a dog howling corresponds in humans to language development, and another that marks dogs enjoying being with humans presents in human DNA with long-term memory.

So I will tell you a little more about Terrific Teddy. When company would arrive at our home, he would walk up to each newcomer, wag and, I insist, smile, until the person gave him a pat on the head. He would then go on to the next person and wait until the greeting ritual was repeated. After that, he would withdraw to a corner and watch the socializing quietly unless called.

He was a bit of a terror under the table when we were at dinner. He would stealthily snatch the napkins off the diners’ laps. Some day I will write a children’s book about Teddy, the Napkin Snatcher Dog.

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