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Does the colour of a dog’s fur really say something about their behaviour? And if so how are the two correlated?

Where does the colour come from?

These days, you can find a dog in almost any colour, even within the same breed you can get different colours. But why has dogs fur colour changed so much from when they started their domestication till now? Let’s look at where the colours come from first. The colours come from 2 different types of pigment – Eumelanin and Pheomelanin. Eumelanin gives black fur and Pheomelanin gives red, yellow and brown fur.

Dogs did not always come in so many colours. Wolves, as we know, are not found in this many colours. The many different colours in a dog fur was created throughout the dogs’ domestication. In fact, the changes in the dog’s fur was the first signs that domestication had begun. But not only did they change fur colour they also started losing their colour. Throughout the dog’s domestication the offspring started getting little white spots in their fur. This was linked to Eumelanin slowly being decreased and then through generations evolved into offspring being born with a completely white fur (read more about the dog’s domestication here). This was tested on another species, the fox.

The Fox experiment

Can your dog's sparkling fur colour tell you about his/her behaviour? 1

The geneticist Belyayev and his team was interested in what happens both genetically but also behaviourally, when you try to domesticate a species, in this case a fox ( Watch more about the experiment here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HsIibD-TLcM).

They wanted to test what exact changes that happens to an animal during domestication. As the dog has already been domesticated they choose to work with wild foxes instead. They therefor started to capture wild foxes and bread them. After each breeding they would pick the tamest offspring and make them next in line to breed. Then they would again pick the tamest individuals and have them breed and that continued over many generations.

By picking out the tamest individuals, a.k.a the least afraid and aggressive, and breeding them, they found that after a few generations the offspring started to have white spots in their fur. The white seemed to increase after every new generation. What is interesting here is that Belyayev and his team picked the tamest individuals for breeding and ended up affecting other aspects of the foxes physical appearances. In this case tameness is related to loss of pigmentation. The fact that the foxes started getting white spots in their fur is not surprising as a gene often codes for more than one thing. In this case the gene that coded for tameness also coded for pigmentation.

Although no one knows how exactly this happens, the physiology behind might be able to explain why this loss of pigmentation affects a dog’s behaviour. The production for Eumelanin and Dopamine are related in the body. Dopamine has a big influence in how the brain works in social contexts making it plausible that by decreasing the production of Eumelanin you also affect the Dopamine production, changing the way the brain works and thereby affecting the way an animal behaves. This was studied further in a study with Cocker Spaniels.

The red coloured Cockers

A study in Spain performed a behaviour study on Cocker Spaniels. They tested how different coloured Cocker Spaniels reacted to different types of stimuli and looked at the body language and behaviour. They found that red Cocker Spaniels showed more aggression to people then black or mixed coloured Cocker Spaniels. The reason behind being that the gene coding for a higher risk of developing aggression is also the gene coding for pigmentation.

Risk of disease

Can your dog's sparkling fur colour tell you about his/her behaviour? 2

Science has also found that certain colours are correlated with risk of certain diseases. This is the case for Australian Shepherds who are born white but also deaf. They are missing the pigment Eumelanin who not only gives the black colour but also has a specific function in the inner ear. Without Eumelanin the white dogs go deaf.

This proves that the fur colour of your dog can have an affect on his/her behaviour and that we as owners need to take that into consideration when we work with our dogs.

If you are having problems with your dog, then feel free to contact me to set up a consultation and let’s your life with a dog a happier one!

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