Genetic studies of dog behaviour

Last changed: 30 June 2017

PhD study by Helena Eken Asp. Supervisors: Erling Strandberg, Katja Grandinson, Freddy Fikse, Kerstin Lindblad-Toh (Uppsala University).

There are approximately 800 000 dogs in Sweden, and the absolute majority of these are primarily kept as companion animals. Dogs kept as family pets have to cope with various situations in their daily life. They are frequently exposed to noisy and crowded environments, and often have to interact with strangers, both people and other dogs. Behavioural problems in dogs are attracting more and more attention. The most severe problems are fear-related behaviour and aggression, High levels of fear and anxiety significantly affect welfare of the animals. Fear, anxiety and aggression in dogs can be inter-related, as fearful dogs can display aggressive behaviour when pushed into a “state of emergency”.

In Sweden, we have a long history of recording behaviour in dogs on a large scale. The Swedish Working Dog Association (SBK) has, since 1989, carried out a standardized behavioural test called Dog Mentality Assessment (DMA (in Swedish MUH or MH)). The test was originally designed to help breeders controlling their genetic material and as a tool for further training of dogs. During the test, dogs are exposed to various test situations and the intensity of their reactions is scored by an official judge. The test situations can be categorized as social contact, play, chase, sudden appearance, metallic noise and “ghost” (an approaching person covered in white). The judges are all trained and certified by SBK. 

Earlier research has shown that broader behavioural traits, so-called personality traits, can be defined using factor analysis of the DMA variables. These personality traits – labelled Sociability, Playfulness, Chase-proneness, Curiosity/Fearlessness and Aggressiveness – show heritabilities ranging from 10-25% (Saetre et al., 2005, Strandberg et al., 2005). Svartberg (2002) also showed that the personality traits defined from the DMA are phenotypically correlated with everyday behaviour of dogs as perceived by their owners.

Today, around 8 000 dogs representing more than 180 breeds are being scored in the DMA every year. This constitutes a unique material. There is no other country with an official description of dog behaviour on so large a scale. The results of the DMA can be used to identify behaviour problems on an individual or breed level but as of yet it has not been used very efficiently in trying to decrease behavioural problems by breeding. We believe that we can use this material to create a routine genetic evaluation of dogs for behaviour traits thereby improving their welfare and also to find biologically interesting genomic regions that determine these traits.


The aim of the research project is to develop routines for genetic evaluation for behaviour traits, especially those related to fear and aggression, and to identify regions in the genome that are related to these behavioural problems. This knowledge will be important in the creation of breeding programs for improved welfare in dogs. 

1. Breed differences in everyday behaviour of dogs.

2. Quantitative genetic analyses of Dog Mentality Assessment and everyday life behaviour data in Rough Collie

3. Quantitative genetic analyses of DMA and everyday life behaviour in several Swedish dog breeds 

4. Genome-wide association study of behavior traits in Swedish dogs

Financing: This project is partly financed by SKK/Agria