Huskies are independent, terriers are protective, retrievers are playful, greyhounds are aloof — every dog breed has its stereotype. But dog owners come to know that their own pup, be it a purebred poodle or a floppy-eared mutt, has its own unique personality. And with dozens of dog breeds and countless hybrids between them, the world of dog personalities and behavior is complex indeed.
Figuring out why certain dogs act the way they do has big ramifications, not just for our pets, but for working dogs and even for humans ourselves. To learn more, since 2005, a project at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine has been gathering information on dog behavior from tens of thousands of dog owners, building the most comprehensive database on canine behavioral traits in the world.
The Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire (C-BARQ) asks dog owners to spend about 15 minutes answering questions about how their dog responds in a range of everyday situations, along with information about its breed. The database currently contains information on more than 70,000 dogs, from over 300 breeds and crossbreeds. (There’s also a version for cats, called Fe-BARQ.)
>> Take Part: Answer Questions About Your Dog With C-BARQ Today!
This information is crucial for scientists studying dogs, because it gives them a well-validated, standardized questionnaire to use when assessing how dogs act, as well as a baseline for comparison.
Citizen scientists played a big role in helping establish C-BARQ as a foundational tool for dog research. The thousands of participants (and their four-legged research assistants) have helped give C-BARQ enough data to make it useful to scientists who need to compare their results with a reference database of dogs from around the world, or just need a lot of dog data to do their work.
“The types of studies recently that have used the C-BARQ are so various,” says James Serpell, emeritus professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine and co-creator of C-BARQ. “It’s really interesting to me actually how useful this tool has become in so many domains.”
Now, Serpell and his lab are working to expand the test and modify it for working dogs, like those that detect hazardous materials, or help people with disabilities. Adapting the C-BARQ for these specialized canines will help trainers better identify those suited for the job. Some dogs don’t handle things like sidewalk grates or stairwells well, Serpell says, and temperamental traits like those could be sniffed out earlier. Eventually, he says, “you could take a blood sample or cheek swab from a dog, test its genetics and say ‘this dog, at least genetically speaking, is a good candidate for this kind of work,’” potentially saving thousands of dollars in training fees.
Learning More About Our Best Friends
In 2023 alone, well over a dozen scientific papers have made use of the C-BARQ questionnaire and data from the project. One study of former laboratory Beagles found they were more fearful and attached to their owners, but also less aggressive than normal dogs, and still able to form strong bonds with their caretakers. Another looking at dogs with hypothyroidism found they were more likely to whine, urinate and get overly excited when left alone — traits that could be useful in diagnosing the issue. A study on dogs identified as having ADHD-like behaviors identified lower levels of serotonin and dopamine in their brains, similar, the authors say, to humans with ADHD.
Other research is using C-BARQ to explore the neuroscience behind dog behavior. By linking dogs’ performance on the questionnaire with MRI scans and other tests looking at dogs’ brains, researchers are beginning to link behaviors like anxiety to specific changes in regions of the brain like the amygdala. That could help scientists better understand the neural basis of these behaviors, and potentially reveal how to help treat them. The work could have crossover insights for humans, who share some broad neurological similarities with dogs, according to Serpell.
“These are pieces of the puzzle that are gradually building and creating a more complete picture of how the brain and our genetic makeup contribute to behavioral outcomes,” he says.
>> Don’t miss the latest episode of the Citizen Science Podcast: Give your dog (or cat) a personality quiz for science! Listen to the podcast or watch the video.
It’s not just canine psychology, either. In a paper published in the journal Cell in 2022, Serpell and two coauthors compared dog breeds on the basis of both genetics and behavior measured using the C-BARQ questionnaire to see if they lined up. They found dog breeds with distinct genetics often shared behavioral traits, something Serpell says reveals how human priorities have shaped dog breeds today.
“[This finding] reinforces the view that the evolution of the dog is really about behavior. And humans selecting for particular behavioral characteristics,” he says. “ You get this evolution of scent hounds and sight hounds and sheep dogs and hunting dogs.”
At the same time, data from C-BARQ is helping to reveal how complex the genetics behind canine behavior is. Serpell notes that we still don’t know, for example, whether aggressive behavior in one breed of dogs is controlled by the same genes as those in another breed. So, the genes that make a Shih Tzu liable to snap at the mailman’s ankles might not be the same ones making a Springer Spaniel more likely to play rough at the dog park.
In addition to powering big-picture scientific research into what makes dogs what they are, C-BARQ is also enabling insights that hit a little closer to home for the dogs themselves. One study used the C-BARQ questionnaire to identify behaviors associated with dogs suffering from atopic dermatitis, or itchy skin. The researchers found that dermatitis often made itself known in the dogs through a set of behaviors including chewing, hyperactivity and excessive grooming even before it could be diagnosed by a veterinarian.
Alerting dog owners to these behaviors could let them give their pups some relief even earlier, Serpell says. That sounds doggone great to us!