Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Ridgebacks becoming stupid? Not exactly.

I have been very interested in the temperament of Ridgebacks, and indeed of several other breeds; so I tried to find out more about the Stockholm study referred to in ( ) The final sentence of the Telegraph article indicating that Ridgebacks were among the worst affected (meaning, I suppose, most stupid) was especially provocative in that my past concerns were about “softening of temperament” not loss of intelligence. I have seen no sign of the latter.

The first article I ran across put the Telegraph article in doubt:

“We were tickled to read recent story in the Daily Telegraph citing a Swedish study which, the paper claims: found strong evidence that breeding for appearance has led to a decline in intelligence [in dogs]. Intrigued, The Local set about getting in touch with the study’s author, Kenth Svartberg, who, according to the Telegraph, was affiliated with Stockholm University. But Svartberg wasn’t listed on the school’s personnel roster, although an employee in the biology department told us he had authored a study about dogs back in 2006.

Finally getting in contact with Svartberg, we learned that he no longer works at Stockholm University, but instead operates a dog training business. He confirmed that the study cited by the Telegraph was published several years ago. What’s more, he was a bit hot under the collar at the way his research had been portrayed. “The study had nothing to do with intelligence in dogs, per se,” he told The Local.

He claimed the paper had “misrepresented” his findings and suspects it did so in order to contribute to an ongoing debate in the UK about the breeding of so-called “hand-bag” dogs.”

There really was such a study. In fact there were many studies. Here is a site that lists recent studies:

If you turn to page 53 you will find Svartberg’s references:

Svartberg, K., 2002. Shyness–boldness predicts performance in working dogs. Appl. Anim. Behav.

Svartberg, K., Forkman, B., 2002. Personality traits in the domestic dog (Canis familiaris).

Here is an abstract of the study “Shyness-boldness predicts performance in working dogs”:


This study investigates if there are relationships between personality and performance of dogs (Canis familiaris) in working dog trials. Data from 2655 dogs of the two breeds German Shepherd dog (GSD) and Belgian Tervuren (BT) were used. The breeds were chosen because of indications of differences in personality between these breeds, and because both breeds are commonly trained for working dog trials. All dogs were tested in a personality test between 12 and 18 months of age. Using a factor analysis, five factors were extracted: “Playfulness”, “Curiosity/Fearlessness”, “Chase-proneness”, “Sociability”, and “Aggressiveness”. Further analyses showed that these factors, with the exception of Aggressiveness, were all related to one higher-order factor, which was interpreted as a shyness–boldness dimension. Because of the risk of confounding variables, the influence of the owners’ previous experience was tested. This showed that owner experience was related to performance, as well as to the shyness–boldness score. Therefore, only data from dogs with inexperienced owners were used in the later analyses. According to their success in working dog trials, the dogs could be categorised as low, middle, or high performing. The results show that the shyness–boldness score is related to the level of performance: high-performing dogs have higher scores (i.e. are bolder) compared to low-performing dogs. This difference was significant in Belgian Tervurens of both sexes, and in female German Shepherds. In general, German Shepherds scored higher than Belgian Tervurens, and males scored higher than females. However, in well-performing dogs there were no breed or sex differences. This indicates a threshold effect; to reach high levels in working dog trials the dog, independent of breed or sex, should have a certain level of boldness. These results imply that a lower proportion of dogs of shyer breeds are able to reach higher performance levels, compared to dogs of breeds that in general score higher on the shyness–boldness axis. In German Shepherds, a relationship was also found between personality and age of success; bolder dogs reached success at a younger age. There were no differences in Boldness score between dogs succeeding in different types of working dog trials (tracking, searching, delivering messages, handler protection), suggesting that the personality dimension predisposes trainability in general. The results might be applied to the selection of breeding dogs in working breeds and in selecting suitable working and service dogs. A test like the one used in this study can give a description of an individual dog’s personality, which also can help matching the dog with adequate training.

Here is an abstract of the study “Personality traits in the domestic dog (Canis Familiaris):


The domestic dog (Canis familiaris) has been subjected to a huge range of selection pressures during domestication that has resulted in a considerable diversity in morphology and behaviour. This, together with the many uses the dog is put to in our society, makes the dog an interesting model for studies of animal personality. However, only a few attempts have been done to study individual differences in dogs. In this study, behavioural data from 15,329 dogs of 164 different breeds were used to investigate the existence of personality traits in dogs. The data were collected at a personality test that tested the dogs’ reactions to strangers, “fleeing” prey-like objects, and several potential fear- and aggression-eliciting stimuli. Factor analyses revealed the existence of five narrow traits: “Playfulness”, “Curiosity/Fearlessness”, “Chase-proneness”, “Sociability” and “Aggressiveness”. Higher-order factor analyses showed that all factors except “Aggressiveness” were related to each other, creating a broad factor that influences behaviour in a range of situations. Both narrow and broad factors were found in a dataset including data from a large number of breeds, as well as within eight of Fédération Cynologique Internationale’s (FCI’s) 10 breed groups. This indicates that the personality dimensions found in the study are general for the dog as a species. The finding of a major behavioural dimension in different groups of dog breeds, together with comparable results previously found for wolves (Canis lupus), suggests that the dimension is evolutionarily stable and has survived the varied selection pressures encountered during domestication. The broad factor is comparable to the shyness–boldness axis previously found in both humans and animals, and to human “supertraits” (a combination of Extraversion and Neuroticism). The results of this study can be used to describe and compare individual dogs, as well as breeds. This, in turn, can be used in applications like selection of service dogs and breeding animals, as well as predicting behaviour problems in pet dogs.


Thus far I have not been able to find the Kenth Svartberg reference that might be construed as suggesting by a malignant reporter, that the Ridgeback breed is becoming stupid. Svartberg says that his study had “nothing to do with intelligence in dogs, per se.” Still, his studies, based on the abstracts do seem to bear upon canine behavior and temperament are therefore interesting. Unfortunately, I cannot get past the “Abstract” level into the reports themselves because I do not have the proper credentials. Just having adequate “intelligence” isn’t sufficient justification for reading these materials.

It would seem safe to say that by breeding for looks, breeders have inadvertently lessoned the ability of these breeds to do their original jobs. In the case of Ridgebacks, most of us wouldn’t care if our Ridgebacks are no longer any good at hunting lions, but along with lion-hunting capability is a certain boldness and courageousness that we tend to assume is still there, even if we can’t see it. We Ridgeback owners have discussed the matter of whether our seemingly docile and friendly Ridgebacks would rise to the occasion if our lives ever depended upon it. After reading what I have posted and some other things I didn’t post, I am still not sure. I have been out in semi-dangerous places enough to know that one of my Ridgebacks, Sage, actually will rise to the occasion. My other Ridgeback, Ginger is still in doubt.

But note the abstract comment that the major behavioral characteristics previously found in Canis Lupus (except for aggressiveness) seem to be “evolutionary stable” in canis familiaris. Which may mean that breeding for looks isn’t going to get rid of defensiveness in Rhodesian Ridgebacks. And if our Ridgeback is more sociable than we would like, perhaps its “sociability” is merely on the same “sociability/aggressiveness” spectrum that has always existed in the breed.

Hold on, someone one might disagree, if there are still Ridgebacks at the “aggressive” end of the spectrum, how come we don’t hear about them? Perhaps we haven’t been paying enough attention. Those nations who want to ban Rhodesian Ridgebacks along with Pitbulls may have seen a few of them. And it may just be that trainers like Cesar Milan have “trained” owners of such dogs to be “calm and assertive” enough to keep these more-aggressive Ridgebacks from functioning in an unacceptable manner.

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