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Calling All Dog Owners! Darwin's Dogs Need You

March 16, 2016

Story at-a-glance

  • Darwin’s Dogs is a citizen science research project to help researchers understand how specific genes control the behavior and health of dogs
  • The researchers plan to combine the genetic data from a large number of dogs and look for changes in DNA that relate to particular behaviors
  • Each participating dog guardian fills out a survey and receives a kit to collect a small amount of their dog’s saliva to be used for DNA analysis. There’s no cost to the dog owner, and the researchers share any information they find

By Dr. Becker

According to Elinor K. Karlsson, PhD an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, a dog’s personality is shaped by both his life experiences, and also thousands of years of evolution.

“Have you ever known a dog who would retrieve the same ball over and over again, for hours on end?” asks Karlsson, writing for The Conversation.1 “Or just wouldn’t stay out of the water? Or wasn’t interested in balls, or water, or but just wanted to follow her nose?”

Karlsson believes these canine traits are the result of hundreds of generations of artificial selection by humans:

“By favoring useful behaviors when breeding dogs,” she says, “we made the genetic changes responsible more common in their gene pool.”

Karlsson has worked in dog genetics since 2003, and was one of the authors of the original dog genome paper published in 2005.2

Darwin’s Dogs: Citizen Science Research

To understand how specific genes control the behavior and health of dogs, much more information is needed. That’s why Karlsson and her colleagues have initiated a citizen science research project called Darwin's Dogs.

The Darwin’s Dogs project is unique in that it doesn’t focus on specific breeds or rely on DNA collected by scientists.

Instead, Karlsson and her team are asking dog guardians to record their own observations of their pet’s behavior and personality, and collect doggy DNA at home using mouth swabs provided by Darwin’s Dogs.

Karlsson and her team collaborated with members of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC) in creating several short surveys to gather pet owner information about their dog’s diet, behavior, personality, and more.

The Darwin’s Dogs project is open to all dogs — purebreds and mixed breeds. The research team will use new DNA sequencing technology and powerful new analysis tools to collect genetic information from each dog.

According to Karlsson:

“By including all dogs, we hope to be able to do much larger studies, and home in quickly on the important genes and genetic variants.”

Calling Lots of Dogs!

What Karlsson and her colleagues plan to do is combine the genetic data from many dogs and look for changes in DNA that relate to particular behaviors.

“It won’t be easy to match up DNA with an obsession with tennis balls, for instance,” says Karlsson. “Behavior is a complex trait that relies on many genes.”

Complex traits can be the result of tens or even hundreds of different genetic changes. And, of course, a dog’s environment also plays a significant role, which adds to the complexity.

To be successful, Darwin’s Dogs needs lots of canine companions participating in the research project. Karlsson and her team hope to enroll 5,000 dogs initially. The more dogs they can involve, the more complex biological puzzles they can work to solve.

According to Karlsson:

“This is a huge effort, but could offer huge rewards. By figuring out how a genetic change leads to a change in behavior, we can decipher neural pathways involved in psychiatric and neurological diseases shared between people and dogs.

We already know these include not just anxiety, but also PTSD, OCD, autism spectrum disorders, phobias, narcolepsia, epilepsy, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.”

She cites the example of genetic studies of narcolepsy in Doberman Pinschers to locate the gene mutation that causes the disorder.3

This research led to “critical new insights into the molecular biology of sleep, and eventually, to new treatment options for people suffering from this debilitating disease,” according to Karlsson.

Karlsson and her colleagues are investigating both canine behaviors and diseases.

Their theory is that by locating the genetic changes that led to complex behaviors (e.g., retrieving) and perhaps even personality characteristics, such as playfulness, they can learn more about how brains work. 

How to Participate in Darwin’s Dogs

The way the process works is that each participating dog guardian fills out a survey. After doing so, he or she will receive an easy-to-use kit to collect a small amount of their dog’s saliva to be used for DNA analysis.

There’s no cost to the dog owner, and the researchers share any information they find. If you want to learn more and/or enroll your own dog in the Darwin’s Dogs citizen science research project, you can do so here.

Another Dog Owner Citizen Scientist Project: Dognition

In another citizen scientist study, 500 dog guardians from around the world perform small experiments with their canine companions to investigate the ability of dogs to think and problem-solve.

In one experiment, the memory vs. smell test, dogs have proved they depend more on their memory than their nose to find treats hidden under overturned plastic cups.

The dogs observe their owners hide a treat under one of two cups. Then while a helper distracts the dog, the owner moves the treat to the other cup while the dog isn’t looking. When the dogs are released to find the treat, instead of following their noses to the right cup, most of them go to the cup they saw their owner place the treat under.

The dog guardians then visit the website Dognition to record the results of their tests. The site was created by Brian Hare, PhD founder of Duke’s Canine Cognition Center. Hare makes clear that the tests or experiments are just games. “The owners love playing them and the dogs love playing them,” says Hare, who realized more people would participate if the games were online.

Because there are so many dog owners inputting information into Dognition, researchers have been able to compile a great deal of fascinating data on the inner workings of the canine mind. They’ve learned that all dogs have a unique set of mental skills they use in everyday life. Some dogs are better communicators than others, some have better memories, and some dogs excel at understanding their owner’s perspective.

How to Participate in Dognition

The more citizen scientists participating in studies, the more information the researchers are able to gather about the way our canine companions think.

From the Dognition website:

“The Dognition Assessment provides a window into your dog's individual cognitive style — the thinking, learning, and problem-solving strategies that influence much of your dog's behavior. You'll play science-based games that assess five core dimensions of your dog's cognition — empathy, communication, cunning, memory, and reasoning.

Then, in your dog‘s Dognition Profile Report, you'll gain a richer understanding of your dog through analysis and insight from the world's top canine experts.”

Dognition has two ways to participate:

  • For $19, you get a one-time assessment that includes 20 interactive games, an in-depth game analysis, and a Dognition Profile Report
  • For a $79 annual charge, you get the three items above, plus monthly games, expert tips and tricks, and 50 percent off additional dogs. If you’d prefer to pay monthly vs. annually, it’s a $9 per month charge plus the one-time $19 charge

You can also give either package as a gift.

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Sources and References

  • 1 The Conversation, December 2, 2015
  • 2 Nature 483, 803-819 (8 December 2005)
  • 3 Cell, Volume 98, Issue 3, p365-376, 6 August 1999
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