Quick notes on THAT study about genetics and personality

In the days since the study hit the popular press, I’ve found myself writing the same things over and over in various social media discussions. While I really want to write about this properly, I know myself well enough to admit I may never get around to the meticulously crafted long-form post… So, considering that, I’ll adapt something I just wrote on LinkedIn and save myself time when I see the next excited comment about this study.

Before I start: there are many things to critique this paper, but I will stick to what I know most about – namely, survey research methods. I have been working in commercial market research for almost 20 years, and my three Master’s degrees have all included research methods training from various perspectives. My day job is to understand human decision making, so I’m acutely aware of how various decision making biases and thinking errors are a natural part of the human mind… and how they can get in the way of validity and reliability of survey-based research.

First, here are some of the headlines…

And here are some articles if you haven’t read these yet:

I would highly recommend reading the small print of this study – the genetics side is probably first class but the survey questions that served as input into the factor analysis are highly debatable, both from the perspective of what is widely known about how people interpret survey questions, the reliability of self-report when it comes to pet owners (notoriously unreliable because of lack of animal knowledge, perspective and various cognitive biases).

The “personality trait” statements mix up behaviours that are known to be strongly influenced by prenatal/neonatal experiences, epigenetics, early life socialisation, the dog’s life experiences overall incl. the training methods exposed to, relationship style with owner, owner’s experience with dogs/training & current circumstances. The survey does not even measure or control for age of adoption, nor the origin of the dog – the first 8 weeks of a dog’s life have a disproportionate impact on them so a dog who has a poor start in life will turn out very differently than a dog of the same breed with a caring, conscientious breeder. In this study, we have no idea of any of these factors – as such, it doesn’t tell us all that much.

In addition, the survey doesn’t record the owner’s training approach so, for example, we have no idea if they use corrections – that would potentially explain things like the dog ignoring the owner’s presence, presenting “calm” (i.e. shut down) and not coming back when called (you’d probably try to escape your prison warden too!). But because humans are inherently quite biased to see themselves in a positive light, owners are likely to rate these as the dog’s “personality” rather than their own shortcomings/failings. Corrections and punishment are still commonplace in the US, as are dogs from puppy mills (poor socialisation) and even “purebred dogs” might have come through shelters which are traumatizing experiences for dogs.

The last critique from me (for now) is that it’s very strange they mixed and matched the questions, even though there are several validated & widely used temperament assessment scales in canine science. As such, it’s impossible to connect this research to the rest of the literature – reducing its contribution.

Here is also one interesting critique from someone who recently published a book on quality of scientific research: https://stuartritchie.substack.com/p/dog-breeds

To add some detail to my critique (and because it REALLY bothers me how much media attention this is getting without proper scrutiny), I have included below the statements with some comments so that anyone can make a judgment for themselves how much they want to take the claims at face value.

And if you find yourself thinking this level of scrutiny seems like too much effort, then consider if you might be falling prey to confirmation bias – filtering information based on what aligns with your beliefs. For many people, the belief that is now being widely confirmed is along the lines of “it’s all in how you raise them” when there is a lot of evidence that genetics do indeed matter (ever seen a small lapdog as a police search dog or a newfoundland herding sheep?) and it’s dangerous to assume otherwise. That’s how people get dogs entirely unsuited to their lifestyles, thinking they’re getting a blank slate before being disillusioned, disappointed and resentful of the dog who tends to end up in a shelter, or worse, euthanised for behavioural problems.

Of course, there are always other sides to this but in reality heritability of behavioural traits varies per breed and per trait (as other research suggests), just like the heritability of morphology varies by feature and breed – even the heritability of conditions such as hip dysplasia varies significantly between breeds and populations.

More to come when I have time… hopefully!

*****

Factors 1-2: Human sociability and arousal level

Factors 1-2: Human sociability and arousal level.

Factors 3-6: toy directed motor patterns, biddability, agonistic threshold, dog sociability.

Factors 3-6: toy directed motor patterns, biddability, agonistic threshold, dog sociability.

Factors 8-9: environmental engagement and proximity seeking

Factors 8-9: environmental engagement and proximity seeking

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