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The Genomics of the American Mutt

November 6, 2020, The Association

Have you visited The Association’s Innovation Bank of short, pre-recorded webinars that feature model programs from your colleagues? We highlight a new session each week, and today we’re excited to share the latest research on how genes affect behavior and appearance in “The Genomics of the American Mutt.”

When Jessica Hekman, DVM, PhD, of the Broad Institute of MIT & Harvard, began researching canine genetics, she sought to help the animal sheltering industry make more informed decisions. “Shelters may tend to eyeball a dog and say, ‘What breed is the dog, and what does that tell us?’ If a dog does look like a Lab,” asks Dr. Hekman, “do we then imagine that dog will have a lot of energy?” And do we pass on that information to adopters?

Highlights from the Institute’s research include:

  • “One of the strongest predictive traits we found based on breed was retrieving,” says Dr. Hekman. She sequenced the DNA from mixed-breed dogs and indeed found that dogs who have a lot of Labrador retriever in them are more likely to retrieve. But, she says, “there are plenty of dogs with a bunch of Labrador retriever in them who aren’t big fans of retrieving, and a whole lot of dogs who don’t have a lot of Lab in them who love to retrieve.” Bottom line for Hekman: “This is just an example to start thinking about some of the more important traits—aggression, friendliness, even general energy level”—and assumptions made based on a dog’s genetic make-up.
  • For the Institute’s MuttMix project, Hekman studied 21 dogs whose owners had no idea of their dog’s DNA, posted images, videos and descriptions of the dogs online and asked visitors to the site to guess each dog’s top 3 breeds. They found:
    • Of the more than 400,000 responses, there was a 25% accuracy rate overall
    • The accuracy rate was not much higher (28%) for those who identified as animal professionals
    • Bottom line: “It is quite difficult for people to take a look at a dog and guess the dog’s breed—or what the dog’s personality will be based on breed.”
  • The Institute also looked at compulsive disorder in dogs to see if this behavior could be tested for genetically. In a study of 150 dogs, they found strong risk factors but not strong predictability.
  • The lab is currently looking at behavior and genetics in more than 25,000 of dogs via its Darwin’s Ark project. Since 2016, they’ve collected DNA from 4,000 of these dogs, and sequenced DNA from 2,000. They’ve been able to predict a dog’s height based on DNA, and will soon be reporting back to each participant on their individual dog. 
  • Further studies that look at behavior traits found nothing statistically significant. “We need a lot more dogs in the study,” says Dr. Hekman. “When we hit 10,000, we’ll see something much more useful.”

As a general takeaway from all of the research, Dr. Hekman states: “We can learn about the biology around behavior, but we are quite a long way from being able to reliably predict behavior in shelter dogs through genetics. You really have to observe a dog and work with a dog—we are not at the point to offer a short-cut around that.”

Dr. Hekman encourages all individual owners to visit Darwin’s Ark, sign up for free, and answer survey questions about their pet dogs.

Learn More

Blog:  3 Ways Your Shelter Can Help Wildlife
Blog: Are You Doing These 3 Things To Help Keep People & Pets Together?
The Association Innovation Bank
Darwin’s Ark

About The Association
The Association for Animal Welfare Advancement is a cohort of leaders on a mission to champion, advance, and unify the animal welfare profession.

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