Darwin’s Dogs wants your dog’s DNA

Project seeks to understand genes that govern canine behavior


DNA DONATIONS  To learn how genes affect behavior, researchers are asking pet owners to send in their dogs’ DNA and answer questions about behavior, including whether a dog tilts its head or crosses its paws.

From left: adogslifephoto/istockphoto; dogboxstudio/shutterstock; cynoclub/istockphoto

Going for walks, playing fetch and now participating in genetic research are just a few things people and their dogs can do together.

Darwin’s Dogs, a citizen science project headquartered at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, is looking for good — and bad — dogs to donate DNA. The project aims to uncover genes that govern behavior, including those involved in mental illness in both people and pets.

Looking to dogs for clues about mental illness isn’t as strange as it may seem. Certain breeds are plagued by some of the same diseases and mental health issues that afflict people. Researchers have learned about the genetics of narcolepsy and obsessive compulsive disorder, as well as cancer, blindness and many other ailments from studying purebred dogs. Studies of purebreds are mainly useful when the problem is caused by mutations in a single gene. But most behaviors are the product of interactions between many genes and the environment. A search for those genes can’t be done with a small number of genetically similar dogs. So, Darwin’s Dogs hopes to gather data on a large number of canines, including many breeds and genetically diverse mutts.

Finding behavior-related genes, such as ones that lead dogs to chew up shoes or engage in marathon fetch sessions, may give clues to genes that affect human behavior. “It seemed to me that if we could understand how [changes in DNA] make a dog so excited about chasing a ball, we could learn something about how our brains work and what goes wrong in psychiatric disease,” says project leader Elinor Karlsson.

Karlsson and colleagues launched darwinsdogs.org, inviting people to answer questions about their dogs’ behavior and share their pets’ DNA. More than 7,000 dog owners have already signed up, and the researchers are still recruiting new volunteers.

The process is simple and can be done alone with your dog, or even as a family activity. First, take an online quiz about your canine companion. The quiz is divided into multiple sections. Some sections gather basic information about your dog’s appearance, exercise and eating habits; others ask about simple behaviors, such as whether your dog crosses its front paws when lying down or tilts its head. (Some questions are philosophical puzzles like whether your dog knows it is a dog.) Each question has a comment box in case you want to explain an answer. Plan to spend at least half an hour completing the questionnaire.

Once the questions are answered and the dog is registered, researchers send you a DNA sampling kit that comes with written instructions and an easy-to-follow picture guide. The kit contains a large sterile cotton swab for collecting DNA from your dog’s mouth. (It’s an easy procedure for the human involved, and Sally, the 14-year-old Irish setter “volunteer” Science News sampled, was rather stoic.) Also included is a tape measure for recording your dog’s height, length, nose and collar size. When you’re done, just seal the sample, measurement sheet and consent form inside the return mailer and drop it in a mailbox.

Dog owners don’t need to pay a fee to participate, but they do need patience, Karlsson says. It takes time to analyze DNA, and the researchers can’t say exactly how long it will be before owners (and Science News) learn their dogs’ results. These results will include the dog’s raw genetic data as well as information about the dog’s possible ancestry. Knowing ancestry or particular mutations a dog carries may help veterinarians personalize a dog’s care.

Dog trainers are being enlisted to give owners feedback on their dogs’ personalities and to suggest activities the dogs may enjoy. Karlsson hopes to create a way for impatient owners who are willing to donate money to the project to get their reports back faster.

Tina Hesman Saey is the senior staff writer and reports on molecular biology. She has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in science journalism from Boston University.

More Stories from Science News on Genetics