Peter Pan Pooches

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A recent article in New Scientist magazine published research undertaken by D. Goodwin, J. Bradshaw and S. Wickens from the Anthrozoology Institute at the University of Southampton in Great Britain. The research examined basic genetic behaviour in dogs and showed some behaviour characteristics are actually inheritable. ‘Burke’s Backyard’ believes that this research is excellent and paves the way for further research on the make up of the mind of dog breeds that could lead to the breeding of more suitable domestic dog breeds in Australia. This research suggests that dog breeders should be selecting for these characteristics.


Scientists compared 10 breeds of domestic dogs to the wolf, based on the fact that dogs have descended from the wolf. The 10 dogs included:

Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
Siberian Husky
Norfolk Terrier
Golden Retriever
French Bulldog
German Shepherd
Shetland Sheepdog
Labrador Retriever
Cocker Spaniel

The results showed the more physically different a dog is from the wolf, the less aggressive behaviour it displays. For example small dogs with pushed-in faces and floppy ears such as the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel were genetically a long way removed from the wolf, and thus displayed fewer wolf characteristics.

The researchers looked specifically at 15 characteristics in the wolf and noted whether they were present in the domestic dogs. Nine of these characteristics were aggressive behaviours such as growling, standing over an opponent, aggressive gape, baring teeth and staring. Six were submissive or yielding responses such as licking their muzzles, looking away, crouching and submissive grin.


The research scored the dog breeds studied which behaved and showed characteristics least like the wolf in order from Cavalier King Charles Spaniel to the most wolf-like, the Siberian Husky. The ranking from one to 10 is:

  1. Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
  2. Norfolk Terrier
  3. French Bulldog
  4. Shetland Sheepdog
  5. Cocker Spaniel
  6. Munsterlander
  7. Labrador Retriever
  8. German Shepherd
  9. Golden Retriever
  10. Siberian Husky

The Cavalier King Charles Spaniel – the most removed physically from the wolf – was also the most removed characteristically from the wolf. This breed showed only two of the nine aggressive behaviour patterns and none of the six submissive ones that were in the wolf. According to the research this breed never matures much beyond a wolf puppy of 20 days old for its entire life and stays in what’s called a neotenic state. Neoteny describes animals which carry their immature characteristics through life – hence the name of our segment ‘Peter Pan Pooches’ as,like the story book character Peter Pan, these dogs never grow up.

The results showed breeds furthest removed from the wolf remained in a less mature state than the breeds closer to the physical makeup of a wolf. The Siberian Husky, closely related to the wolf in its physical appearance, showed behaviour closely related to a mature wolf, according to the research.

Dog breeds that have developed away from wolf characteristics are ensuring dogs remain closer to a pup in their behaviour.

Other factors

But these research results do not mean that a Golden Retriever, Siberian Husky or German Shepherd is necessarily going to be more aggressive than other breeds. The research found there are other factors at play in relation to aggression. These include environmental factors, such as the way the dog is brought up by its owner and the dog’s threshold to aggression which can be low in breeds that more closely resemble the wolf.

There are other animals which carry physical and behavioural childlike characteristics such as the Arab horse which behaves like a foal its entire life.

Konrad Lorenz, who discovered the science of ethology (the hereditary aspects of animal behaviour), also says that humans often maintain childlike behaviour throughout their entire lives.

Further information

For further reading see New Scientist magazine 29 March 1997, Pampered pooches are canine Peter Pans by Peter Aldhous, p.5 or Deborah Goodwin, John W. S. Bradshaw & Stephen M. Wickens, ‘Paedomorphosis affects agonistic visual signals of domestic dogs’, in Animal Behaviour, 1997, vol 53, No. 2 (February) pp 297-304.