What Is the Most Disloyal Dog Breed?

An answer to the Explainer’s 2008 Question of the Year.

Daniel Engber recently chatted online with readers about this article and the “Explainer” column in general. Read the transcript.

Three weeks ago, the Explainer released the annual list of questions we were either unable or unwilling to answer in 2008. Among this year’s entries were brainteasers like “Why do women like soup?” and “If someone with DNA from the Stone Age were born today, would they be normal?” In keeping with Slate tradition, we then asked readers to vote for the unanswered question that most deserved a response.

More than 30,000 votes came in by the time the polls had closed. Many of our astute readers also wrote in to say that some of the questions on the list had been answered elsewhere. Indeed, our top vote-getter— Why do cockroaches flip over on their backsides when they die?—was explained 25 years ago by the Explainer’s arch-nemesis, Cecil Adams. (Answer: They don’t always die that way.) The second-place question— Why don’t humans have a mating season?—has also been thoroughly investigated, by Jared Diamond. (Answer: We have sex year-round so fathers have a reason to stick around.) Same goes for No. 3 in the standings, concerning a dimly remembered photograph from Life magazine that shows a descendent of George Washington. The image can be found here, and several articles have been written on the question of Washington’s lineage.

So, by process of elimination, we bring you the fourth-most popular question on the list, and our official Explainer Question of the Year for 2008:

What is the most disloyal dog breed?

The answer: Nobody knows.

The conventional wisdom among dog fanciers holds that each of the 161 breeds now recognized by the American Kennel Club has a distinctive temperament reflecting its history and original purpose. The terriers, for example, were once bred to hunt vermin; thus they’re thought to be hostile to other animals. Working dogs that were originally bred to guard property might be seen as especially loyal.

But recent work suggests that the personalities of modern dogs may have little to do with their breed’s history. A researcher at Stockholm University named Kenth Svartberg analyzed the behavioral profiles of more than 15,000 animals and derived several essential canine traits: A dog is more or less playful, curious/fearless, and sociable. Then he studied a few dozen breed types and rated them according to those traits as well as on their level of aggression.

Svartberg turned up two interesting facts. First, like many other researchers, he found tremendous variability among dogs of a particular breed. So even though German shepherds scored higher marks for playfulness than, say, poodles, you’ll still find plenty of individual poodles that are more playful than a given German shepherd. Second, he discovered no significant differences in traits among the broader breed groups—terriers, working dogs, herding dogs, and sporting dogs. For instance, the terriers taken as a whole were no more aggressive than the other breed groups, and the working dogs were no more sociable or fearless.

The recent history of dog ownership may explain why we don’t see distinctive personalities in these groups today. Whereas dogs were once bred for a specific task, now they tend to be bred for physical traits (that make for better show dogs) or for a family-friendly temperament (that makes for better household pets).

It’s nevertheless possible to identify personality differences across specific breeds. (There may not be a temperament common to all terriers, but each individual terrier breed has its own predilections.) So which breeds are most disloyal? That depends on how you define the term. Loyalty is not a trait measured by any mainstream dog personality assessment—if it exists at all, it’s a complicated mixture of other traits. In Svartberg’s system, for example, you might argue that a loyal dog is one that’s generally affectionate (high playfulness) but aggressive toward strangers (low sociability). By that logic, a friendly and playful Labrador retriever would be construed as disloyal since it’s prone to lavish affection on everyone who comes near it. According to Svartberg’s data (PDF), a pinscher, a Bernese mountain dog, or an English springer spaniel might be the most disloyal since each ranks very low on playfulness, with moderate sociability.

Of course, you’ll get a different Judas breed for every definition of disloyal and for every method used to assess the dogs. Animal behaviorists Lynette and Benjamin Hart conducted a large-scale survey of small-animal veterinarians and created a table of breed rankings for 10 personality traits. In their system, a “disloyal” dog might be construed as one that ranks high for “aggression towards owner” (e.g., chows, Rottweilers, and Akitas) and low for “territorial defense” (e.g., whippets, golden retrievers, and basset hounds). Once again, since there’s no definition or measure of loyalty, there’s no accepted answer to the question.

Bonus Explainer: How do you measure a dog’s personality? Give the owner a questionnaire, or test the dog directly. There are many standardized instruments for assessing canine temperament; click here (PDF) for a review of the literature. Kenth Svartberg uses something called the “Dog Mentality Assessment,” used by breeders with the Swedish Working Dog Association. Here the dog must endure 10 trials as it walks down a wooded path. These include the sound of a gunshot, the sound of a metal chain being dragged across a piece of corrugated metal, and the sudden appearance of a humanlike dummy. (The dummy is pulled off the ground with ropes that are slung over tree branches.) In the most peculiar segment, the dog is rated on its “reaction to two slowly approaching persons covered in white sheets (’ghosts’). … Over the head the functionaries have white plastic buckets with holes for the eyes.”

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Sam Gosling, Benjamin Hart of the University of California-Davis, Diane Mollaghan,and Lisa Peterson of the American Kennel Club.

Previous Questions of the Year:

2007: Why don’t we drop medical waste and nuclear waste into active volcanoes, the “ultimate high-temperature incinerators”?

2006: Can a bar of soap get dirty, or is it self-cleaning because it’s soap?