Behavior has many causes: this is a general statement that many people believe is true, and it often causes people to extend the conclusion to one that suggests that we can never understand behavior, that it will always remain a black-box mystery. But of course, as professional animal behaviorists, academic or clinical, some of us have set ourselves the goal of understanding the causes of, and therefore the modification of, just that behavior that seems so complex.
Of course, as is so often true, the answer that we see depends on the focus that we bring to the question. To a professional animal behaviorist (let’s use the more modern name for one who studies animal behavior: an ethologist), the answer for the cause for a behavior depends on the level at which you want an answer. Let’s start simple today, a higher, broader level of analysis. For an ethologist, behavior has two possible causes, and is most often caused by an interaction between these two: genes and the environment. This is the old nature/nurture controversy that we still occasionally see raise its head, but as we well know now, all behavior is, at some level, a result of both genetic predispositions and the effects of the environment. And when we say ‘effects of the environment’, we really mean learning: all of the behavior modification that has occurred through the learning that an animal has experienced throughout its lifetime. We know now, for instance, that for all animals, there are four types or forms of learning, and that every modification of behavior gained throughout the lifetime of an animal has happened through one of these four mechanisms. But the four forms of all learning is a topic for another blog: today I want to mention some new literature that once again points to the role of genetics in the behavior of our canine companions, and of course, suggests a similar role for genetics in the behavior of cats, parrots and even ourselves.
What color is your dog? The color of your dog can tell you something about the genetic predispositions for its behavior. Now, let’s be careful: I phrased that sentence with some thought. The color of your dog tells you something about predispositions for behavior, not the behavior of a specific animal. Why? Because, as we said above, the behavior of a specific animal is determined by both its genetic predispositions and the effects of its lifetime environment. This is why the extensive history that we take at each one of our clinical appointments are so important: that history, and every part of it, has had an influence on your pet. But likewise, the scientific evidence is quite clear that genetics is important too.
So what about color? Well, we all agree that color is genetically determined by genetics (not entirely, but largely) and we know that almost all genes control more than a single characteristic (in fact, each gene controls many characteristics), so the color of your dog can tell you something about its genetic code, and therefore, something about its genetic predispositions. Really? Yup, for instance, researchers just this past year showed quite clearly that, in Labradors, occurrence of problem behaviors like barking, chewing, and digging, were related to coat color: gold dogs showed significantly higher levels of these behaviors, even after numerous environmental factors were removed. This supports a 2001 study, in which researchers at Cornell University’s Veterinary Hospital showed that chocolate-colored Labradors were less likely to present with behavior problems than other Labradors, and that gold/yellow Labradors were significantly more likely to be reported with aggression problems.
How about other breeds? Well, there is very little research in applied animal behavior (anyone looking for a philanthropic opportunity?), but a study in 1996 showed that red or golden English cocker spaniels were more likely to show aggressive behavior than black ones. Interesting, huh?
And now, with the completion of the Dog Genome Project, we have a complete map of the domestic dog DNA. With this tool, we are rapidly gaining more information about the role of genetics, and genetic interaction with learning, in determining the cause of our dogs’ behavior.
Stephy Garmola says
Hi. When it all come to opinions, everyone has its own; specially regarding \”The Genetics of Behavior: What Color is Your Dog?\”. Have you seen a good scientific research on chocolate?
James Ha says
I am going to assume, based on the topic of this article, that you are referring to chocolate-colored dogs, and not the confection/”drug” extracted from a tropical tree nut.
No, there is very little scientific evidence of any relationships between coat color and behavior, other than the studies I cited above… that’s what made these so interesting. They are very preliminary, of course, but thought-provoking, and all the more so because we now understand how coat color is controlled through the genes in dogs, according to a more recent study that I found while researching your question.
So we know how chocolate, and most other coat colors, are produced in dogs (the same genes, it appears, that determine coat color in all other mammals). This allows us to understand how coat color might be related to, or “predict”, behavior, at least, behavior which has a genetic component to it, as we believe that most behavior does.
So, other than a study from a few years ago that indicates that chocolate-coat dogs are slightly more likely than random to be adopted from shelters (brindles were significantly LESS likely to be adopted), there is no other scientific literature on coat color and behavior!
Peggy Modjeski says
Dr Ha, I just got your DVD on this topic at Dr McConnell’s
Seminar in Madison,WI.
I loved it. We’re can I find more? I am an RN
turned dog trainer and a science geek. I love
this stuff. Thanks
Jim Ha says
I think that some of the best sources to keep an eye on are the science news summaries, like ScienceMag.org, ScienceDaily.com, and ScienceNews.org… they freq feature and summarize for the advanced layperson good articles about dog behavior.
Luis Buitron Ramirez says
Dear Dr. Ha, I’m glad to read all your articles and watch seminars about animal behavior (specially small animal behavior). I’m a five-grade vet student from Perú (Universidad Nacional de San Marcos – Faculty of Veterinary Medicine) and i’m very interested on Veterinary Clinical Ethology, that’s why me and some friends created a Study Group (Study Group of Animal Ethology or [in spanish] Taller de Etología Animal) to investigate and diffuse (seminars, conferecence, meetings by DVM) all type of information related to canine, feline, equine, livestock, exotic and wild life behavior. Also, I created a web-page ( to keep going with this idea, and inform people about tips, articles, educational videos for them pet’s life.
This article is so interesting, i’ve already read something in Journal of Vet Behavior about this topic, and it’s surprisely how many factors affect (in different ways and proportions) phenotypic behavior of small animal.
Dr. Ha, I wonder if I could post a translate version of your article in our web site (https://tea-ethos.blogspot.com/) for people, veterinarians and all concerns get information about this item.
Thanks for your attention. Greetings and Merry Christmas!!!
James Ha says
I would be delighted to have you translate this article for your website! Please go ahead…
Would you please let me know the names of the studies that you are referring to? I’ld love to read them! Thanks!
sharon chestnutt says
I work with dogs at a boarding kennel and chocolate labs are notable for their behavior problems and lack of self control.