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dog dna studies

Story at-a-glance -

  • Increasingly, researchers are turning to citizen science research to study canine genetics and behavior
  • One of the benefits of such studies could be to help pet parents better understand and accommodate inherited behavioral tendencies in their dogs
  • One citizen science research project currently underway is Darwin’s Dogs, which has enrolled almost 13,000 dogs as of this writing

By Dr. Becker

Dog DNA studies are all the rage these days, and they can reveal some really fascinating insights into what our canine companions are made of (literally!). For example, a 2014 study turned up four specific genes connected to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) in dogs.1

The genes were found in four breeds that seem predisposed to OCD: Doberman Pinschers, Bull Terriers, Shetland Sheepdogs and German Shepherds. One of the reasons dogs are such popular subjects for this type of research is because their DNA is far less variable than human DNA due to generations of selective breeding.

However, the best DNA research involves lots and lots (as in, many thousands) of study subjects, which presents a number of difficulties. It's so challenging, in fact, that some scientists are exploring ways to collect the volume of data they need outside a laboratory setting. Enter citizen science research.

Dog DNA and Canine Cognition Tests

Two companies that have entered the citizen science market are Embark, started by Adam Boyko, Ph.D., a dog geneticist at Cornell University, and Dognition, owned by Brian Hare, Ph.D., a canine cognition researcher at Duke University. Embark is sort of the Cadillac of doggy DNA tests. For $199 you get a DNA swab test kit that generates a report revealing not only your dog's breed and ancestry, but also his or her risk for over 160 genetic diseases.

Dognition isn't about DNA testing. Instead, it uses online interactive games to assess the way your dog's mind works — how he thinks, learns and problem-solves. For $19, you get a one-time assessment and profile report. For a $79 annual charge, you also get monthly games and other goodies.

Calling (at Least) 5,000 Dogs

Boyko and Hare have formed a partnership to see if they can get 5,000 dogs in the U.S. signed up for both the Embark and Dognition products, which would allow them to conduct a large-scale canine behavioral genetics study.

"We know a lot more about the bodies of our dogs and how they can break down, more than what we know about their brains and behavior," Hare told the Washington Post. "The reason we do not know about genes involved with brain and behavioral problems is there has never been a large scale study combining behavioral and genetic data on thousands of dogs."2

Hare and Boyko believe one of the benefits of their collaboration will be helping dog parents better understand their pets. So called "undesirable" behaviors are often rooted in a dog's genetics, and having knowledge of their pet's behavioral tendencies could help owners make adjustments to training, socialization and exercise habits to better meet their pet's needs. It might also help prospective pet parents make more informed choices when adopting a dog.

Establishing links between behavior, temperament and genetics in animals (including humans) is notoriously complicated and difficult. But some experts believe citizen science research projects are important because dogs evaluated in their own homes display more typical behaviors than dogs raised in laboratories.

This Citizen Science Research Project Is Already in Full Swing

Another citizen science research project currently underway to understand how specific genes control the behavior and health of our canine companions is Darwin's Dogs, led by Elinor K. Karlsson, Ph.D., a canine geneticist and assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

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) to create 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, and of this writing, nearly 13,000 dogs have been signed up.

Dog Behavior Is the Result of Nature (Genes) + Nurture (Environment)

Karlsson is combining genetic data from the dogs and looking for changes in DNA that relate to particular behaviors. She believes a dog's personality is shaped by both his life experiences and 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. "Or just wouldn't stay out of the water? Or wasn't interested in balls, or water, but just wanted to follow her nose?"3

Canine behavior traits are the result of hundreds of generations of artificial selection by humans, according to Karlsson. Breeders select dogs to breed based on, among other things, certain desirable behaviors, and in doing so make the genetic changes responsible for those behaviors more common in their gene pool.

"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 in addition, a dog's environment plays a major role and adds to the complexity.

"This is a huge effort, but could offer huge rewards," writes Karlsson. "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."4

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 or enroll your own dog in the Darwin's Dogs citizen science research project, you can do so here.