People love talking about their dogs. Listen to pet owners chatting and you might hear lengthy discussions about their dogs' bathroom habits, culinary preferences and weird behavioral quirks.
So when researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical School wanted to study the relationship between canine genetics and behavior, they turned to the people who know dogs best: their owners.
"Rather than needing to get professionals to go out and figure out what these dogs are doing, that's what the owners are doing for us," says project leader Elinor Karlsson, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and director of vertebrate genomics at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.
Karlsson runs a citizen science canine genetics project called Darwin's Dogs. Anyone with a dog can sign up to participate in the research. It entails answering lots and lots of questions about your pet ; (on last count, there were 18 surveys).
Questions run the gamut from your dog's environment and how picky he is about his food to whether he likes to carry things in his mouth and whether he's "a people person."
"Some got added on later because we realized people would keep answering all these questions for us," Karlsson says.
"There's a really oddball set of questions suggested by dog trainers and behavior experts that are things that happened in some breeds more than others but people were unlikely to care about so they wouldn't train them not to do it. Those are things like crossing their front paws, tilting their heads, spinning before pooping ... a set of questions we never would've thought of."
Once dog owners take at least 10 surveys for their four-legged friends, they are sent a kit so they can submit a doggy DNA saliva sample. Researchers will analyze the DNA from the saliva samples to look for differences linked to specific behaviors or personality traits.
Understanding dog genetics
Watch a golden retriever and a tennis ball. In many cases the dog will retrieve the ball over and over and over again, no matter how many times you throw it. Toss that same ball to a poodle and he might want nothing to do with it.
"I've been studying dog genetics ever since I was doing my Ph.D., and I have been fascinated that dogs have very different behaviors based on the breed," Karlsson says. "There are actually genetic differences underlying those behaviors."
A genome is the complete set of DNA, including all genes, that you inherit from you parents. Humans have about 3 billion DNA base pairs or "letters," while dogs have about 1.5 billion, according to Karlsson.
"We're hoping that by studying dog DNA, we'll have an insight of how genetics affects behavior," she says.
Dogs and humans both suffer from some similar psychiatric diseases like anxiety and compulsive disorders, and neither have ideal treatments. Either they aren't highly effective or they have lots of side effects, Karlsson says. The hope is that findings in canines could lead to treatments in people.
Calling all dogs
The Darwin's Dogs project was launched in October 2015, and researchers thought they might get about 1,000 dogs that first year. Instead they got 10,000. According to the website counter, 13,621 dogs have been enrolled in the project, and owners have supplied a whopping 1,451,399 survey answers.
Karlsson plan to run the DNA for every dog, but asks owners for patience. Researchers have just run the DNA for the first batch of 600 in a study on impulsivity, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. They chose half the dog participants that were really not impulsive, according to their survey answers, and half that really were, and they will compare the DNA to see if there's anything that stands out, Karlsson says.
There's still plenty of time for people (and their dogs) to sign up because, as far as she's concerned, the project is just getting started.
"Ideally, all the dogs will be part of this," she says. "Even though behavior in dogs seems to have a lot of genetics involved with it, it's still very complicated. It's not a simple trait like coat color where you can predict what your're going to get. It's really striking how different these dogs are on these traits."