How genes determine your dog’s sweet and silly behavior
A new study may help us understand our canine companions a little better. Scientists at the National Institutes of Health say they’ve discovered some ways genes can influence the behavior of certain breeds, such as dogs meant to herd livestock.
For about two decades, a team led by Elaine Ostrander of the National Human Genome Research Institute has been working on the Dog Genome Project. The ultimate goal of the project is to understand how genetics influence everything from a dog’s vulnerability to disease to the shape of their body. In their new study published On Thursday in Cell, her team took a deep dive into the genetic underpinnings of dog behavior.
“Our study analyzed the genomes of thousands of dogs from hundreds of breeds and populations around the world to uncover the genetic basis of behavioral diversity in modern dogs,” Ostrander said in an email to Gizmodo. “We wanted to understand what in their genes makes sheepdogs move livestock, terriers kill vermin, dogs help us hunt, etc.”
In all, they studied the genes of more than 4,000 purebreds, mixed-breed mutts, semi-feral dogs, and even feral cousins of the domestic dog. Based on this analysis, they identified 10 genetically distinct lines. The team noted that breeds with similar behavioral traits are often grouped together within these lineages, such as dogs that hunt primarily using their sense of sight compared to hunting dogs that rely on scent. They then compared what they found with survey data from more than 46,000 purebred dog owners.
From there, Ostrander said, “the team determined that each lineage has its own unique mix of behavioral tendencies that make them good at the jobs they were originally bred to do.” Terrier breeds, for example, tend to be more enthusiastic about chasing potential prey, which makes sense since these dogs were originally bred to chase vermin.. Finally, the team tried to find specific genetic variations that could drive the behavior of certain breeds, including those that influence early brain development.
“For example, in herding dogs, a behaviorally unique collection of breeds historically used to herd livestock, we identified variants associated with genes that control axon guidance, a process that lays the foundation for connectivity in the brain that modulates complex behavioral traits,” said Ostrander. These variants, some of which have been linked to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in humans, could help explain why sheepdogs tend to become incredibly focused when herding.
While humans have domesticated many animals, dogs were probably the first. And since then, they’ve been arguably the most diverse creature in existence, especially over the past few hundred years when intentional dog breeding has become widespread (for example, a pug bears very little resemblance to a husky). But more importantly, Ostrander and her team’s research also indicates that many of the genetically determined behavioral differences we now see in dogs were not created by modern breeding.
“Instead, early dog types probably came into prominence over thousands of years in different parts of the world, as people kept them for different purposes,” Ostrander said. “Our work shows that when people started categorizing dogs into ‘breeds’ a few hundred years ago, they kept some snapshots of the genetic diversity of dogs that existed in a certain place at a certain time, and that this genetic diversity was relevant for behaviour.”
This work is just the beginning for the Ostrander team. They plan to continue looking for specific gene variants that drive the breed’s behavior. The same unique approach developed for this research should also allow them to study how a dog’s genetics can influence other complex traits, including the risk of certain diseases. And just as dogs have so often done for us in the past, what we learn from this research could one day help humans too.
“Dogs and humans get the same diseases, those diseases present themselves in much the same way, and everything we learn about canine genetic health impacts our understanding of our own susceptibility to disease,” Ostrander said.
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