How Much Are Dogs Influenced by Local Culture?
A good friend insists: “You don’t study dogs, Julie. You study human culture. Dog behavior is a product of the people who love them.” And since I’m not one for quick comebacks, I typically just smile and pet her dog. Because I like dogs. And I study them (see what I just did there? Bam).
Or maybe she’s onto something. Is dog behavior independent from where they live? From the cultural norms they’re exposed to?
Maybe German Shepherds can tell us a thing or two. In 2009, researchers from Hungary and the USA published a cross-cultural survey where German Shepherd owners from each country weighed in on their dogs. While a number of similarities emerged, so did differences. For example, USA German Shepherds were more likely to be kept indoors and have more types of training experiences. And when it came to behavior, on some measures there was no difference between German Shepherds in each country—all owners reported low activity-impulsivity and low inattention scores—but there were also a few differences: the USA dogs scored higher on confidence and aggressiveness than those in Hungary.
Does this mean a German Shepherd here isn’t the same as a German Shepherd there? One possible answer is: yes, the dogs are different. If German Shepherd lovers in the USA prefer dogs with higher confidence ratings, this preference “could lead to selective breeding for higher confidence, resulting in a population of German Shepherds in the USA with this trait.” We know it’s possible to select for particular parental behavioral traits, and then observe them in offspring. “Genetic isolation, as well as environmental variation, could contribute to differences in pet behavior across cultures,” the researchers offer.
Or, it could be that the dogs are different, but the difference is environmentally driven. Cultural pet-keeping practices or training activities could result in actual differences between the dogs in the two countries. For example, a number of studies highlight that training style—particularly punishment-focused methods—is associated with dog behavior problems. Regional differences in training could affect dog behavior.
Or maybe there is not an actual difference between the German Shepherds in the two countries. Instead, maybe owners in each country differ in how they assess or rate their dog’s confidence and aggressiveness, not that the dogs actually are different. Maybe people in different parts of the world look at the exact same behavior and perceive it differently.
Sheesh. I don’t know about you, but it feels like we’re back at square one. Are dog behaviors products of the cultures they live in, as my friend suggests? Or might dogs have universal Dog Qualities, independent of the culture they find themselves in?
My friend isn’t the only one tuned into this question. This is because since the late 1990s, pet dogs often serve as study participants in canine science studies. In practice, dog owners in the immediate geographic area of a research group offer their dog Floofers or Flora or Mitzi to participate in “fun-for-dogs” studies. And while this model is not always used, and some studies bring in an international dog crowd, a good number of research groups rely on “local pet dogs.”
Given this “local pet dog” setup, if researchers aim to draw generalizable conclusions about The Dog—how and why they do what they do—researchers should consider whether a dog here is similar to a dog there. Studies often include a heterogeneous sample of pet dogs when drawing general conclusions, and researchers anticipate individual differences will emerge, but it’s assumed that these differences would not stem from where the study took place.
Maybe we should test this assumption. That’s probably what Dóra Szabó and her colleagues in Hungary, Vienna, and the UK had in mind when they set out to investigate whether the behavior of local dog samples was internationally representative. Instead of interviewing owners about their dogs, Szabó’s study, which was recently published in Animal Cognition,focused on dog behavior in different locations.
Szabó and colleagues had a simple question: would pet dogs from three different locations—Budapest, Vienna, and Lincoln, UK—perform similarly on four different cognitive tests? Apart from testing location, everything else was pretty much the same: the same person acted as experimenter, the same equipment and methods were used, and the same two breeds—Border collies and Labrador retrievers—acted as the majority breed in each testing site. The researchers explain that they “decided to test two popular breeds, which were easily available at all three sites because single-breed groups are genetically more homogenous.” Other purebred and mixed-breed dogs also participated, and they did differ between location.
Pet dogs in Budapest, Vienna and Lincoln participated in four tests: a Human Point-Following Test, a Problem-Solving Test, a Means-End Test (with a training and a test phase), and a Memory Test (click on each test for a video of the protocol). Tests covered different cognitive arenas, required minimal equipment and set-up, and were relatively short so as to avoid tiring the dogs. The tests came from published research, which allowed the researchers to check whether the initial findings could be replicated and whether each of the three locations produced the same finding. “To our knowledge, this is the first attempt to specifically measure reproducibility of a range of measures of cognitive-behavioural performance by dogs,” the researchers offer.
The main finding: A dog here is pretty much like a dog there. At least when it comes to the cognitive processes and problem-solving skills investigated here. Regardless of location, pet dogs in Budapest, Vienna, and Lincoln performed pretty similarly on the four cognitive tests.
Szabó and colleagues conclude that while the phenomena under consideration seem to pan out across the testing sites, future studies should continue to test this assumption as a number of studies have identified differences in dog performance relating to life experiences or even sex differences. When studying dog mental processes, the researchers recommend that “behaviour of a large number of dogs from different countries and multiple testing sites could be compared to establish the robustness of other widely used testing protocols.”
Of course, local and individual factors can also affect how dogs behave. In The Bark article, “Why are European dogs so well behaved?” Kama Brown, CPDT-KA, argues that more regular and ubiquitous socialization prepares European dogs to participate in daily activities like visiting markets, museums, and restaurants, or riding trains *mostly* without a hitch. In Europe, dogs are more frequently permitted access to public spaces and appear to generally behave socially appropriately. “Unlike the restrictions put on U.S. dog owners, Europeans are able to consistently expose their dogs to new sounds, sights and smells, which mentally enriches the dogs without overstimulating them,” Brown argues. And no matter where dogs find themselves, individual differences can stem from an interplay between genetics and environmental inputs, which can include dog personality, breed, breed line, as well as life experiences or training experiences.
I think we can agree that while a dog here can be like a dog there, dogs are individuals, and individuality can have local influences.
Szabó D, Mills DS, Range F, Virányi Z, Miklósi Á. 2017. Is a local sample internationally representative? Reproducibility of four cognitive tests in family dogs across testing sites and breeds. Animal Cognition, 20, 1019–1033.
Wan M, Kubinyi E, Miklósi Á, Champagne F. 2009. A cross-cultural comparison of reports by German Shepherd owners in Hungary and the United States of America. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 121, 206–213.
Many thanks to Eleanor Spicer Rice of Verdant Word, Buzz Hoot Roar, and Recluse or not? for weighing in on this topic and blog post!