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Dog breeds have specific genes that shape their behavior

From the highly excitable sheep dog to the aloof Shiba Inu, and all breeds in between, dogs have a diversity of unique traits. By analyzing DNA samples from more than 200 breeds, together with approximately 50,000 surveys of pet owners regarding their dogs’ behavioral traits, researchers from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have identified many of the genes associated to the behaviors of specific dog breeds.

“The largest, most successful genetic experiment that humans have ever done is the creation of 350 dog breeds,” said study senior author Elaine Ostrander, the founder of the Dog Genome Project at the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI). “We needed dogs to herd, we needed them to guard, we needed them to help us hunt, and our survival was intimately dependent on that.”

“Identification of the genes behind dog behavior has historically been challenging,” added study lead author Emily Dutrow, a postdoctoral fellow at NHGRI. “The inherent complexity of canine population dynamics features varying degrees of selective pressure for aesthetic and morphological traits, some of which may be linked to behavioral traits, so pinpointing the genetics of canine behavior can be complicated.”

To identify the genetic drivers of the behavioral tendencies that make dogs good at specific tasks, the scientists collected whole-genome data from more than 4,000 purebred, mixed-breed, and semi-feral dogs, as well as wild canids. By applying state-of-the-art computational models, they found 10 major genetic lineages among hundreds of dog breeds. Each lineage corresponded to a specific category of breeds historically used for tasks such as hunting or herding, indicating that common sets of genes were responsible for behaviors among dog breeds that are well-suited for performing similar tasks. Then, by using 46,000 behavioral assessment surveys sent to purebred dog owners, the researchers identified unique sets of behavioral tendencies among the 10 lineages.

“Having established significant behavioral tendencies correlated with the major canine lineages, we then identified genetic drivers of these behaviors by performing a genome-wide association study on the DNA samples,” Dutrow explained. “We were particularly interested in livestock-herding dogs, who display one of the most easily defined breed-typical behaviors, characterized by an instinctive herding drive coupled with unique motor patterns that move herds in complex ways.” 

Surprisingly, the analysis revealed that the same pathways involved in human neurodiversity have also played a significant role in behavioral differences among dog lineages, suggesting that the same genetic toolkit may be used in both dogs and humans.

“The results of this study may point us toward how differences in the human genome can contribute to behavioral diversity among humans. Further research can help us draw a stronger link between genes that are important for behavior in dogs and genes that may play a role in human behavioral conditions,” Ostrander concluded.

The study is published in the journal Cell.


By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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