09 February 2016

RESEARCH - Dog DNA Examined for Genetic Links to Behaviour

Regular folk may watch the dog chase its tail for mere entertainment. But researchers want to explore such behaviour to see if it might be driven by something in the doggie DNA.

There are 3,000 dogs, and counting, enrolled in the project dubbed Darwin's Dogs which will compare information about canine behaviour against their DNA profiles. Darwin's dog “follows the pawprints of evolution” and tries to understand how dog DNA changed as the creatures went from living in the wild to being part of human households.

With human studies, researchers have found links between psychiatric disorders by analyzing DNA samples with success in issues including depression and schizophrenia. But because the human population is so genetically diverse, there hasn't been success in exposing a genetic link for conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder.

With more “genetically homogenous” dogs, however, the hope is that there will be more luck on locating links. And if they can better understand how genetic changes can lead to behaviour differences — even for normal behaviours — it will ideally offer insight into psychiatric and neurological diseases in dogs as well as humans.

Purebreds are the more typical target when it comes to genetic studies in dogs, given breeding has been aimed at making them “highly genetically consistent.”
But in this study mutts will be part of the mix, says geneticist Elinor Karlsson, assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Of course, most of the research regarding dogs' behaviour will be done with owners who observe it – and researchers anticipate that will be an easy task. “Fortunately, it turns out that people love to talk about their dogs,” Karlsson says.

By Nadia Moharib

Nadia Moharib is an animal lover who has adopted everything from birds to hamsters, salamanders, rabbits, fish and felines. She has written about all-things-pets for years and was a long-time editor of a pet magazine in a daily newspaper which featured a Q & A column, Ask Whit, penned by her pooch (ghost written, of course.) The serial dog owner lives in Calgary, Alberta and most days can be found at a dog park picking up after her rescue pooch, Scoots.

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