Good Dog: Studies & Research
Researchers exploring the canine point of view
Doesn’t it sound reasonable to study the behavior of cranes? After all, cranes are quite different from humans — they can f ly, spend lots of time on one leg and don’t need an external GPS to find their way to Florida.
But what if we replace “cranes” with “dogs”? Why study dog behavior? Unlike cranes, dogs are not a wild species with feathers, migratory patterns or conservation needs. Dogs have lived alongside humans for at least 15,000 years; are ubiquitous in human cultures; and regularly find their way into our literature, hearts and beds (also unassisted by GPS, it must be noted). We think we know dogs just fine. What’s the point of all this scrutiny?
Dogs aren’t new in the world of research.
In other academic arenas, Marc Bekoff, Ian Dunbar, Michael Fox and the late Frank Beach all conducted extensive investigations into canine social behavior, physiology and development. And of course, in 1965, Scott and Fuller produced their seminal text, Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog. Konrad Lorenz, Nobel Prize–winner and acclaimed ethologist, also had dogs on the brain; if you doubt that, pick up a copy of his book, Man Meets Dog.
Despite the thousands of years dogs and humans had spent in close proximity, scientists had never explored either the relationship or the factors that allowed dogs to become our social partners.
Dogs’ perspective as members of the human environment was missing from the equation. “It’s odd that this companion animal who has been at our side longer than any other is really not well understood,” observes Kristina Pattison, researcher at the University of Kentucky’s Comparative Cognition Laboratory.
“Dogs suffer from a failure of imagination by those asking the questions,” explains Mary Lee Nitschke, professor of psychology, Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB) and founding member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT). “If you already ‘know’ a dog can’t think, you’re not going to ask whether it can think.”
In 1994, imagination and an open mind prompted the creation of the Family Dog Project at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, initially under the guidance of Vilmos Csányi, and now headed by Ádám Miklósi. Rather than taking the position that dogs’ place among humans was unworthy of scientific investigation, they put the dog, and the dog-human relationship, under the microscope.
While previous studies had investigated owners’ intimate feelings toward dogs, the dog’s perspective on this relationship had not received comparable attention (probably because canine penmanship is quite poor and they rarely complete questionnaires in a timely fashion).
To explore the dog’s perspective, the Budapest group placed companion dogs and their owners in a modified version of the Strange Situation Test, a behavioral experiment initially created to explore the mother-infant relationship from the infant’s perspective. The test is simple enough. In a novel environment, a dog experiences separations from and reunions with an owner and a stranger while a researcher records the dog’s behavioral changes. It turned out that dogs behaved much like human infants. The conclusion? The dogowner relationship, like the motherinfant relationship, fulfills the criteria for attachment.
This research sparked a shift in perspective and demonstrated that there’s a lot we don’t know about dogs and their relationships with humans. For example, it was commonly assumed that in order for a dog to develop an attachment bond with an owner, the dog needed to be acquired as a puppy, and within a narrow age window at that. But when the Strange Situation Test was applied to adult shelter dogs who had low or restricted human contact, these dogs also displayed attachment behavior toward designated “owners.” An additional study confirmed this; guide dogs bond with their blind owners even though their relationship forms later in the dog’s life. The takeaway message was twofold: older dogs can bond with new owners, and our assumptions about dogs are not always spot on.
Since then, scientific inquiry into dogs and the dog-human relationship has exploded. “It’s almost like dogs have been rediscovered by scientists, and there are so many different aspects they can study,” notes Mychelle Blake, APDT executive director.
Dogs have now attracted the attention of a range of disciplines, from animal behavior and psychology to evolution, genetics and veterinary behavior.
Nowadays, companion dogs, working dogs, village dogs and even shelter dogs have become study subjects.
While some are interested in contributing to a growing portfolio of insights into “the dog,” others have something else in mind. “Some of the present research does not directly pertain to dogs and the humans they live with,” notes Márta Gácsi, researcher with the Family Dog Project. “Comparative studies may be examining the roots of different human social behaviors, and not necessarily concerned with the dogs themselves.”
The Duke Canine Cognit ion Center, which is part of the university’s Evolutionary Anthropology Department, takes this multifaceted approach. Their website explains, “Our goal is to understand the flexibility and limitations of dog cognition. In doing so, we gain a window into the mind of animals as well as the evolution of our own species.”
“Research also has direct application for dogs and owners,” reminds Gácsi. Jennifer Bentlage, who’s working toward a master’s degree in the cognitive biology program at the University of Vienna’s Clever Dog Lab, agrees. “If I can explain the purpose of my research to my parents, then it’s worthwhile.” Bentlage, who is currently exploring social learning, has recruited her own dogs, Monty and Michel — shelter dogs from Spain and Greece, respectively —as test subjects for her project.
“I am very interested in the dog’s cognitive abilities because this relates very strongly to the pet owner,” explains Ian Dunbar, founder of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT), veterinarian, animal behaviorist and director of the Center for Applied Animal Behavior in Berkeley, Calif. “The importance of cognition is so that people realize who dogs are and what they can and cannot easily grasp.”
Dog cognition, a seemingly technical phrase, is simply a catch-all-term that describes dogs’ attention, memory, perception, problem-solving and mental imagery skills. As you might imagine, the questions are endless.
Crystal Thompson, a self-proclaimed dog-seminar junkie from St. Paul, Minn., thinks dog cognition research is paramount. “We have learned so much in the last few years that it behooves anyone interacting with dogs — owners, trainers, shelter workers, vet staff — to do a self-audit, to check their assumptions about dogs against what research is finding.”
We expect dogs to act a certain way, and they do.
Dogs have the potential to move in tandem with humans, stopping when we stop and starting again at our first subtle sign of forward motion, but magic is not the mechanism (although the resulting experience can certainly feel magical!). Instead, research finds that dogs are astute surveyors of human behavior, and everything from our gaze to our larger body movements provides meaningful information.
For example, researchers have found that the right side of the human face better expresses our emotional state, and when looking at other humans, we display what’s called a left-gaze bias, or a propensity to look toward the right side of the other person’s face, where all the clues are. When dogs look at human faces, they also display a left-gaze bias. Could your dog be sensitive to your emotional state? Yup.
And just as social contexts and relationships matter to you, they matter to your dog. Research has shown that if a stranger approaches your dog in a threatening manner, your dog will respond with avoidance/aggressive behavior. But if you approach your dog in the same way, your dog responds with tolerance and contact-seeking behavior. In short, dog owners feel connected to and supported by the dogs they live with, and for good reason.
But sometimes, dogs don’t act the way we want them to.
This is where cognition research comes in. Is the dog’s assessment of a situation comparable to the human’s, and if not, what is the dog’s vantage point?
Numerous studies have found that dogs attend to human communicative intent. As your significant other may have told you (possibly more than once), how you say it matters. Want a dog to come to you from across the room? Research by Patricia B. McConnell, and beloved Bark columnist, explored how different sounds affect dog behavior: “Four short notes were more effective at eliciting a come response and increasing motor activity levels than one longer continuous note.” In the real world, yelling “COOOME!” (akin to one longer continuous note) will most likely result in exasperation, but short, rapidly repeating notes, like “Pup-pup-pup,” will likely bring a dog on over.
Are dogs cooperative or competitive? Are dogs like chimpanzees, who more readily locate food in competitive situations when prohibited from going to a certain location. (A possible chimp translation might be: “The only reason you’re telling me not to go there is because that’s where the good stuff is, you jerk.”) Nope, dogs fare better in cooperative situations, finding food when informed of its location in a friendly, cooperative tone. Bringing this back to daily life: if you wonder whether the dog-human relationship is based on competition or cooperation, this is another check mark on the cooperative ballot.
Understanding the dog’s perspective is important because incorrect assessments of behavior can cause problems in dog-human relationships. “People think the dog is doing something to create trouble,” explains Floridabased Soraya Juarbe-Diaz, DVM, and board-certified veterinary behaviorist. “Almost everything on TV is about conf lict — a fight, someone trying to win or cheat; it’s very confrontational and we are always looking for a fight for superiority. Fortunately, animals don’t always work that way.”
And why can’t dogs just do what we want them to do? In one study, dogs who performed a 10-minute sit-stay (meaning, they exerted self-control) gave up quicker on a subsequent task than dogs not required to exert that initial self-control. This initial act of controlling their behavior depleted their energy, thereby adversely affecting subsequent behavior.
The consequences for not understanding dogs’ behavioral capacities can be dire. “The biggest cause of death in dogs is behavior problems, and failure to inhibit is at the root of many behavior problems,” explains Pattison.
“He barks all the time — failure to inhibit barking; he growled — failure to inhibit an aggressive response. He jumps up — failure to inhibit jumping. We expect dogs to forgo their species-typical behavior patterns and inhibit them in favor of a response we find more appropriate.” The applications for dog cognition research are vast. “The cognitive research says, look, the dog is not doing this to get your goat, he’s not doing this to diss you, he’s not trying to dominate you and take over the world,” says Dunbar. In other words, he’s just being a dog. Kelly Ballantyne, DVM, finds that the “final showdown” misconception often results in inappropriate owner-dog interactions and worsening of the dog’s behavior.
Dog-care professionals are taking note of this growing body of research. In 2004, APDT began including a science track at their yearly conference. Their mission is not simply to saturate trainers with research, but also to provide education about research methods and the nuances of study design. APDT leadership hopes that as more research hits the press, trainers will read studies with a critical eye and make informed decisions about their application for training. As Blake points out, “One study simply advances a hypothesis, and ongoing research is needed to improve our understanding of dogs.” “Research helps broaden our view of what is possible,” add Nitschke. “The fact that cognitive studies sometimes disagree with each other is wonderful, because it means there is more for us to look at. Different studies with different results broaden our vision of what is possible.”
Research also has application in the classroom. “My students were blown away,” reports Johnna Chamberlain, who teaches at the Lang School in New York City, a school for gifted children with learning differences. That’s how she describes her students’ reaction to “Dogs Decoded,” the NOVA special on dog cognition. “[My students] hadn’t considered that dogs were communicating through their barks, bodies or tails. Since [my students] might have social or emotional delays in relation to perspective taking, it was a big deal for them to consider their own relationships with pets and realize that dogs are communicating and thinking in their own unique way.”
Thompson looks at the breadth of cognition research from a different angle; she wonders whether owners are providing for their dogs’ mental needs. “It’s important for owners to realize that dogs have real mental abilities and needs. Putting food in a dog’s bowl is just wasting his brain. It’s the little things — Kongs, Tug-a-Jugs, hiding kibble around the house — it’s not hard, and it’s a simple way to engage their natural abilities.”
“How you interact with dogs often depends on your impression of their abilities,” notes Juarbe-Diaz. Reframing our expectations, with a little help from research, could set up dogs to succeed in our primate world. As Gertrude Stein said, “I am because my little dog knows me.” Shouldn’t we do the same for dogs?
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Venturing deep into the history of our oldest friends
Mark derr, long-time Bark contributor and historian of the dog, recently released a new book, How the Dog Became the Dog, in which he examines canine evolution. Derr covers a lot of ground in this work — 135,000 years, to be precise! We talked with him about the dawn of dog, and how our evolutionary pathway coincided with theirs.
Claudia Kawczynska: Canines going from fierce predator to “loyal companion” is quite a leap. Can you sketch how and why this might have happened?
So, wolves and humans had an affinity, and sociable wolves would often breed near human societies. As they began to do that, populations were established, though not everywhere and not in great numbers. One group of socialized wolves would die out and others would appear in other places at other times. There is evidence that destroying the structure of a wolf pack destroys the culture for the young, leaving them without guidance. Imagine that this happened over many, many generations, resulting in a more socialized “dogwolf” — or dog-like wolf. In that sense, you’re never going to find a single place for the [first domesticated] dog to have appeared. Rather, you have [the dog developing] wherever you have wolves and humans.
CK: What was in it for the wolves who paired up with us?
CK: Was this consciously directed?
CK: Like getting better food to feed those offspring.
CK: Did this relationship affect our own evolution?
CK: You note that with genetic data pushing back the dawn of dog to perhaps 135,000 years ago, the idea of neoteny has been turned on its head. How so?
Now, the latest research shows that a small number of genes have a big effect on everything from overall size and leg length to numerous other factors. I’ve been saying that for years. I didn’t know precisely what the mechanism was, but it wasn’t paedomorphism. There are other explanations, as it turns out. Not only that, but many of the features some consider neotenic are simply creations of modern breeders, who strove to make dogs more cuddly and humanlike by selecting for rounded skulls and large, forward-facing eyes.
To reiterate an important point, which I’ve made in numerous articles in The Bark and in my books, there is no evidence that dogs originated from selftamed, submissive, neotenic wolves. That theory — which is based on dogs originating during the Mesolithic Age, when people lived in settlements with garbage dumps — is not right. Dogs evolved much earlier than that and were in the camps with the hunters and gatherers.
CK: Back when we were both hunting the same species — together or separately — is it possible that wolves were hunting us too?
Take an example from Lewis and Clark, who describe great herds of bison out there on the plains, and the Indians who hunted them with their dogs. The wolf is described by Lewis as the “shepherd” of the bison. The way wolves hunt really isn’t that much different than the way herding dogs gather animals.
People like Barry Lopez have done work on the business of wolves and human cultures, and why wolves are so distrusted by humans. The answer, I suspect, is that once dogs and agriculture were firmly established, a divorce occurred between humans and wolves (and other wildlife), because those animals were seen as threatening our livelihoods. At some point, the wolf became a competitor — an enemy, even — not because it was hunting us, but because it was taking our livestock. The mediating force is the dog.
More recently, the conservation movement established a sharp divide between the wild and the built, a divide that really shouldn’t exist, but does. At that point, the wolf became one thing and the dog became another, and they are in opposition rather than what they are, which is very closely related. I don’t think that the wolf has ever been an enemy of humans, but I could be wrong.
CK: Pat Shipman, archaeologist and author of The Animal Connection, pointed out that it was unlikely that wolf packs tracked nomadic hunters in order to live off their spoils (among other things) because those wolves would have had to cross the territory of other wolves, which would have been highly dangerous for them. So it was more likely that the dogwolf and the human were partners in the hunt. What’s your take on that?
CK: Besides our shared characteristics, what else do we have in common with dogs?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
We may owe our evolutionary success to the domestication of dogs
Scientists have long debated why Neanderthals lived successfully on earth for over 200,000 years and then died off after humans came along, about 40,000 years ago. Some blame it on climate change, while others think humans were more successful at getting food due to social cohesion and the ability to develop advanced tools.
However, a new theory claims that we may owe our evolutionary success to the domestication of dogs.
Anthropologist Pat Shipman speculates that the relationship between humans and canines began in hunting, where dogs would help people identify prey and haul carcasses back home on their backs (dogs of the Paleolithic era were typically the size of a modern-day German Shepherd or larger). This assistance gave humans an advantage in obtaining food and conserving energy.
Shipman believes that the relationship between humans and dogs only got stronger over time and may have even led to shared characteristics for communication. In humans, the whites in our eyes are highly visible, compared to other primates, allowing people to "talk" silently when hunting in groups. It turns out that canines, unlike other animals, have the ability to decipher our eye contact. In a study conducted at Central European University, dogs performed as well as human infants at following the gaze of a person when they held their head still.
Because canines may play an important role in our success over Neanderthals, Shipman calls them "humanity's best friend." Dog lovers need no validation that our pets are critical in our lives, but now we may have more to thank them for than we previously thought!
Culture: Science & History
Which DNA test should you choose to settle the “what’s in the mix” question?
For years, you’ve argued with your spouse that the 60-pound, black-and-tan tennis ball–chaser who takes you for walks and sweeps the coffee table clean with his tail is a German Shepherd mix, and that there is absolutely no Doberman Pinscher in there. Finally, in order to end the breed debate once and for all and restore peace to your household, you’ve decided to settle the question with a mixed-breed analysis test.
You’ve heard of the “swab test” and the “blood test” and know that both claim to unravel breed ancestry. With a little more research, you discover that the world of canine heritage tests has expanded since the first tests became available in 2007. Having a choice is great, but how do you go about comparing them and choosing the one that’s right for you?
There are several factors to consider, including the type of sample required, the number of breeds that can be identified, costs, turnaround times and the way the results are reported. Before you commit to a test that will decide the outcome of the German Shepherd/Doberman Pinscher battle, be sure you understand what you’ll be getting.
MetaMorphix Inc. (MMI) Genomics administers the Canine HeritageTM Breed Test, commonly referred to as “the swab test,” and Mars Veterinary provides “the blood test,” the Wisdom PanelTM MX Mixed Breed Analysis. These two companies have been considered the main players in this market, but new contenders are flocking to the scene. The most recent challengers are DNA Print Genomics, which offers the Doggie DNA Print, and BioPet Vet Lab, which recently unveiled the Dog DNA Breed Identification Test. Both use cheek swab samples.
The swab sample has the advantage of a collection procedure that is simple enough to be done by the owner at home. It does have some drawbacks, however, including a risk of contamination and too few cells being obtained for successful testing. To avoid the latter, BioPet Vet Lab includes a card that changes color to indicate that a sufficient sample is present. Blood samples are collected by a veterinarian and the chances of contamination and inadequate sample size are greatly reduced.
Tests also differ in the number of breeds available for comparison. Mars Veterinary interrogates the genetic signatures of more than 130 of the 159 breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club (AKC).* MMI Genomics recently announced the XL version of their test, which has a database of more than 100 breeds. The breed list available for BioPet Vet Lab contains 58 breeds. DNA Print Genomics does not report specific breed matches; rather, “15 elements of dog ancestry” are revealed, and the customer performs a search of the company’s online database to identify matches to particular breeds. Since each test interrogates a different set of breeds, sending your dog’s sample to more than one company may not return identical results.
Cost and turnaround times vary from test to test. In the past, the cost of the Wisdom Panel MX Mixed Breed Analysis test was determined solely by individual veterinary clinics, but the test can now be purchased online for $124.99, and test results are available within three to four weeks. (Your veterinarian will still have to draw the blood sample.) The swab tests are sent directly to the owners for sample collection, and prices and turnaround times vary: Doggie DNA Print, $199, six to nine weeks; Canine Heritage XL Breed Test, $119.95, four weeks (if you submitted a sample for the original version of the Canine Heritage Breed Test, you can purchase an upgrade to the XL version for $55 online); and the Dog DNA Breed Identification Test, $57.95 to $59.99, two weeks. (Prices current at press time.)
Results are presented as a certificate or report, depending on the company. MMI Genomics provides owners with a Certificate of DNA Breed Analysis. Three breed categories are included in the results: Primary, Secondary and In the Mix. BioPet Vet Lab’s Ancestry Analysis Certificate reports breeds in your dog’s genetic background in order of prevalence; a paragraph about each breed as well as a behavior, health and personality summary are included.
A report from DNA Print Genomics includes genotypes, ancestral population results and 15-N population results. Ancestral population results indicate your dog’s relationship to each of the four most basic branches of the canine family tree—wolf-like, hunters, herders and Mastiffs—while 15-N population results are a set of numbers that compare a sample to groups of breed signatures in the database. Each owner is given an ID and password that are used to query the online database for matches to specific breeds.
The Mars Veterinary report presents images of the breeds present in your dog’s ancestry, with the relative size of the image indicating the prevalence of each breed. An appearance, behavior and history section describes characteristics of each identified breed that might be seen in your dog.
As the companies run more tests and add breeds to their databases, the accuracy of the results may improve. It is also possible that even more companies will enter the canine breed ancestry DNA test field. When deciding where your dog’s sample will be submitted, determine what you want to learn and educate yourself about each of the tests. All of the companies agree that working with your veterinarian will ensure that you get the most out of your results. Who knows, choosing the test that best matches your needs could do more than just earn you a victory in the great German Shepherd/Doberman Pinscher debate!
*None of these tests are designed to identify purebred dogs, and the AKC will not accept test results for registration purposes.
Want to read more about dogs and DNA? Click here.
Culture: Science & History
The Science and Art of Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon
In setting out to explain everything that was known about the natural world in his 44-volume Histoire Naturelle, Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon (1707–1788) reserved a special place for the dog. In fact, he may have been the first naturalist to raise the question of the role of dogs in human evolution: “To conceive the importance of this species in the order of Nature, let us suppose that it never existed. Without the assistance of the dog, how could man have conquered [and] tamed…the other animals. … The training of the dog seems to have been the first art invented by man; and the result of this art was the conquest and peaceable possession of the earth.”
Born in 1707 in Montbard, Burgundy, the son of landed gentry, Buffon was interested in many disciplines; he studied law and mathematics, and was also fascinated with the biological sciences. The first few volumes of Buffon’s groundbreaking work were published in 1749, in the middle of the French Enlightenment, a period considered to “have given birth to the modern world.” Yet it was also a time steeped in church doctrine that provided only dogmatic biblical answers to most questions about biological diversity.
His Histoire Naturelle was an ambitious and tremendously popular project; it was the most widely collected work of its time and reached more readers than even the classics of Voltaire and Rousseau. Replete with Buffon’s insightful theories on everything from the formation of Earth and the planets to crustaceans and rhinoceros, it contained beautifully executed and detailed illustrations (including those of dogs, as shown here). Arguing for a more dynamic and inclusive natural history, Buffon resisted the detailed taxonomic classifications of Linnaeus.
In his foreword to Jacques Roger’s biography, Buffon (1997), L. Pearce Williams writes that “it is no exaggeration to suggest that Buffon’s ideas stimulated much of the scientific work in natural history that culminated in the Darwinian synthesis. Even when he was wrong, as he often was, he was precise enough in his errors to permit others to see beyond his vision.”
In considering the dog, Buffon was fascinated by the many different types of canines. He recognized 30 “fixed varieties,” but acknowledged that there could be even more. He also described 17 “races”—as he called the differences within species—that he attributed to geographic influences such as climate. Into one of these groups he put the “shepherd dog, the Pomeranian, the Siberian, the Lapland and Iceland”—dogs that have “an instinct which induces them to follow and protect flocks”; into another group were “the grey-hound [sic], the large Danish dog and the Irish grey-hound.” Dogs in this latter grouping “are fond of running, and of following horses and carriages … they hunt rather by eye than the nose.”
The next grouping belonged to the “true hunting dogs,” the “hounds, harriers, spaniels, terriers and water-dogs.” Lastly, he grouped the “small Danish dog and the Turkish dog” together, and placed the British “bull-dog” in its own “group,” noting that it was difficult to “preserve” that particular breed in France—he remarked that these dogs “often send forth a disagreeable smell.” In his construction of a canine genealogical tree, he placed the “shepherd dog” at its root. He tried to mate a dog with a wolf, and a dog with a fox, but because his limited experiments were unsuccessful, he concluded that they all were distinct species and that the “dog derives not his origins from the wolf or fox.”
It was with his theory of “degeneration” of species due to climate, and most especially to the climate of the New World, that he had the most long-standing influence outside of the scientific field. In fact, modern pundits have ascribed the fractious Franco-American political relationship to Buffon’s “barkless American dog” theory. Although it was Dutch philosopher Cornelius de Pauw who first claimed that “dogs cease to bark” when brought to America, Buffon picked up on this observation and used it to partially explain the differences in Old and New World species. He thought that the latter were of the “degenerative” variety—weaker, smaller and generally more puny—hence, dogs unable to bark.
Great American thinkers, including Hamilton, Jefferson and Franklin, took umbrage at this, believing that it was meant to extend beyond “natural history” to politics—that this “American degeneracy” was also being applied to their newly formed style of government. In number 11 of the Federalist Papers, Hamilton wrote, “Men admired as profound philosophers have, in direct terms, attributed to her inhabitants a physical superiority, and have gravely asserted that all animals, and with them the human species, degenerate in America—that even dogs cease to bark after having breathed awhile in our atmosphere.”
Jefferson wrote his book Notes on the State of Virginia (1781) to refute Buffon’s theory, and included a “careful analysis of the relative sizes of American and European animals.” Buffon recanted this theory before his death, but old myths die hard. The “barklessness” of our dogs survived well into the last century, when the poet Paul Claudel, serving as the French ambassador to the United States in the 1930s, repeated this fiction.
Though most of Buffon’s theories explaining natural phenomena were, by and large, incorrect, one of the most important contributions he made—as was noted by biographer Jacques Roger—was to “transformed the way of understanding nature.” Buffon’s courageous and innovative approach paved the way for Darwin and other revolutionary thinkers responsible for much of what we know today about the natural world.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Culture: Science & History
Unraveling the genetic tapestry provides clues to breeds and their mixes
A mongrel dog is like a box of chocolates: You never know what you’re going to get. And therein lies the appeal. What’s more fun than serendipitous unpredictability all bundled up in puppy fur? But when that puppy grows up, we inevitably make assumptions about her ancestry based on how she looks and behaves. Our logic goes like this: “If my pooch is long and low to the ground, and she never barks, she must be a Corgi/Basenji mix.”
But it’s much more complicated. The genes—and there may be hundreds—that work together to make a Corgi look like a short-legged Shepherd may be completely different than those responsible for a Basset Hound’s low-slung carriage. With some exceptions, scientists cannot yet connect genetic dots to specific traits. But they have discovered something tangible that measures some of the differences between breeds: genetic patterns of organization displayed on a scatter graph that answer the question, “What’s the same and what’s different?”
A scatter graph provides a symbolic visualization of DNA, wherein each individual dog contributes one point. The resulting pattern indicates the type and strength of the relationship between individuals. The more the points cluster around each other, the more alike they are.
In addition to simplifying methods used to find markers for breed-related disease, the researchers identified patterns of “breedness” and tracked the history of breed DNA. At the same time, by following mitochondrial DNA, genetic material passed down from mother to offspring without changing, they traced the breed’s journey.
Depending on how much time is attributed to a generation and how many generations are involved, scientists can estimate how much time has passed. Based on this tracking, it has been suggested that it took 5,000 years to develop and refine a handful of the world’s 350-plus breeds, and about 400 years to create the rest.
Research indicates that four distinct breed groups are ancient: (1) Middle Eastern Saluki and Afghan, (2) Tibetan Terrier and Lhasa Apso, (3) Chinese Chow Chow, Pekingese, Shar-Pei and Shih Tzu; Japanese Akita and Shiba Inu, (4) Arctic Alaskan Malamute, Siberian Husky and Samoyed. Although the 13 breeds look different, they are so closely related that they are represented by a single genetic cluster. It’s likely they all originated from the same stem-parent—proto-breed, if you will—who roamed the Asian continent.
As humans migrated from one place to another, this ubiquitous proto-breed trotted along, bringing with her the ingredients needed to cook up all the breeds we’re familiar with today. Her offspring performed work unique to each geographical region, such as hunting, hauling or guarding. Isolated and mating only with each other, “accidental” breed types exhibiting consistent shape, color and behavior emerged.
No matter what historians might claim—scent hound to sight hound, bird dog to bad dog—evidence produced through genetic research indicates that all remaining breeds have been concocted in the last 400 years. Although closely related to one another, they can be identified as distinct based on the way their DNA separates.
How They Do It
“We look at ’breedness‘ among dogs. Our canine database is built with 10,000 samples of 108 breeds. We ran 400 markers to identify the best markers for a ’breedness‘ test against 38 breeds. We created a panel of 96 pieces of DNA that split dogs into their identified pure breed. In our preliminary test, we found that individual purebred dogs cluster with other purebreds.” Initially, MMI chose 38 AKC registered breeds from their database, selected for their popularity based on number of registrations. Recently, as DeNise notes, they increased the number to 108 breeds. This jump in breed recognition required testing thousands of markers to identify the just over 300 markers that characterize these 108 breeds.
Breeds are created a number of ways. In simple terms, when breeders interfere with natural reproduction and rigorously select for traits favored by humans, specialized breeds like Retrievers, Spaniels, Hounds and Terriers are the result. Saving spontaneous mutations in a litter of dogs, repeating the breeding to get more of the same mutation, and breeding those dogs back to one another has resulted in the English Bulldog, Chinese Crested and Inca Hairless. More recent breeds, such as the Airedale, Australian Cattle Dog and Doberman, are the result of crossing older breeds to make new ones.
When kennel clubs closed gene pools in the late 19th century to suspend change in registered dogs, breeds drifted toward a more uniform stereotype. Until the early 1800s, an assortment of dogs with similar talents who could produce somewhat similar offspring were awarded the right be called a breed. Breeds evolved, flourished and disappeared when jobs were eliminated. Tumblers, who mesmerized prey by “winding their bodies about circularly, and then fiercely and violently venturing on the beast,” disappeared when guns came into widespread use. Turnspit dogs, who made a living running on a wheel to turn meat so it would cook evenly, received their pink slips when technology improved cooking methods.
By and large, Victorian society was not so pragmatic; sentimentality and commercial opportunity were catalysts for saving unemployed breeds from their inevitable demise. As a result, many Terrier breeds went from killing varmints in the barnyard to killing time in the Victorian parlor in less than a decade.
Whereas previously, a breed was a regional product maintained and preserved by a small community of knowledgeable people, commercial interest in the well-bred pet dog initiated a shift in breeding practices during the Victorian era. The old-money kennels operated as a pastime by the wealthy gave way to a large number of small, commercially operated kennels run by entrepreneurs of modest means and experience.
Germane to this tale is that, according to the unwritten rules governing canine physiology, anatomy and behavior go hand in hand. One cannot be changed without affecting the other. Victorian enthusiasts who were busily adding aesthetic traits to utilitarian breeds were creating not only subtle variations in type, but in many cases, modifications in behavior as well. As utilitarian breeds went from working hard to hardly working, many exhibited new physical and behavioral characteristics that were compatible with their augmented duties as companion animals. Breeders claimed the “sub-breeds” as their own, made up new names and registered each one.
However, no matter how they’re sliced and diced, reducing and suppressing genes so they aren’t expressed doesn’t mean they’ve been eliminated. They’re still lurking and, depending on the method used to analyze the DNA, the lurkers often show up in the results.
Most people assume all mixed-breed dogs had a purebred ancestor at some time in their recent heritage. But in fact, this is not necessarily the case. When you run a mongrel’s DNA through a computer program, the algorithms attempt to group breeds together on a scatter chart. If the heritage of the dog is such that it is not in MMI’s database of 108 breeds, the program tries to find varieties that are most alike. Because at least one or two of the handful of ancient breeds are in every modern dog, sometimes the program will identify an ancient breed in the mix. “In the report we send to the client, we use the terms ‘primary,’ meaning the majority of the DNA matches a breed; ‘secondary,’ meaning less than the majority of the DNA but a strong influence nonetheless; and ‘in the mix,’ meaning the least amount of influence,” DeNise notes. That’s how you might get an obscure breed in the report. For instance, a 35-pound mongrel with a tablespoon of Husky and a teaspoon of Border Collie may also have a dash of Borzoi, because before gene pools were closed a century ago, Huskies were crossed with coursing hounds to add speed.
Don’t Judge a Pup by Her Cover
Researchers are intrigued by data that suggest expressed traits are somehow turned “on” and “off” by other genetic components, thus causing the wide variations in canine form and behavior. For instance, it’s possible that many breeds have the genetic potential for a black tongue, but only a few breeds have the molecular mechanism to switch that color on. So that black-tongued mutt may not have any Chow in the mix after all.
On the other hand, the results may show that a quintessential Heinz 57 has the genetic makeup of a single breed and it could be one she looks nothing like.
DeNise explains it this way: “In a population of any breed, there are dogs that are carriers but don’t exhibit phenotype [observable characteristics]. If you reduce the size of breeding population—creating what we call a bottleneck—you start increasing the frequency of deleterious traits, like dwarfism or white coat. If we looked at the DNA of, for instance, a group of white mini-German Shepherds, they would probably cluster with German Shepherds. After they’ve intermated for five to six generations, we may not come up with that. They would cluster with each other. If breeders were changing allele frequencies quickly, you could do it very fast.
“There are always contradictions that make you say, ‘Huh, that’s really weird.’ One odd thing that happens is due to some sort of random assortment of genes in mixed-breed dogs. The algorithm may identify a breed that is not consistent with the physical appearance of the dog. We sometimes get an indication of this when the certificate is printed with the picture of the dog provided by the owner, and the certificate is reviewed by our customer service department prior to mailing it to the pet owner.”
A 90-pound, wiry-haired mongrel who swims, chases balls and makes goo-goo eyes like a Golden Retriever and whose only pedigreed relative is a very distant Chihuahua confounds the process, but says a whole lot about the complexity of canine genetics and why some scientists devote their careers to studying canine evolution. Extreme variation in anatomy and behavior is unique to the domestic dog. If humans were an equally anomalous species, we’d weigh between 20 and 650 pounds and range in height from three to 10 feet. In dogs, adaptations change with such speed that scientists suspect there may be a clue in the canine genome that could reveal how evolution works.
Sorting It Out
MMI can’t as yet define the percentage of “breedness” in mixed-breed dogs. One reason is that some breeds cluster loose and others tight. Why this happens isn’t clearly understood. German Shepherds, Standard Poodles and Collies cluster tight. Miniature Poodles cluster tight, but Toy Poodles cluster loose. Within their breeds, Labrador Retrievers and Beagles often cluster as two different groups. According to DeNise, “Labs from the United Kennel Club that are bred specifically for hunting and AKC Labs do not necessarily cluster as one breed. And AKC Beagles and Beagles bred specifically for research don’t cluster together either.”
She adds, “In my opinion, it’s possible that a population that increases rapidly doesn’t cluster as well as those populations that have remained static. This is because, as you increase a population to accommodate breed popularity, people breed everything, including animals that may not exhibit all the physical characteristics that are desirable.”
And even when dogs look alike, they can display behavioral differences. As DeNise notes, “We understand so little about how behaviors are coded. Many behaviors are learned, but there are probably multiple genes that are responsible for herding, birding, heeling—these kind of hard-wired behaviors.”
Scientists are eager to tease out genetic connections to breed-associated motor patterns. When wolves hunt, they display these behaviors sequentially: orient > eye > stalk > chase > grab-bite > kill-bite > eat. Artificial selection, however, extracts and segregates these patterns in incomplete sequences. In certain breeds, individuals perform the abbreviated motor pattern repeatedly. A Pointer who stops dead in her tracks and stands stock still with her front leg held rigid in mid-stride to indicate the presence and position of game is the lofty goal of bird-dog breeders. To wolves, it’s just a good meal interrupted.
Combinations of canine anatomy and behavior push and pull one another along in a rhythm of interconnected patterns in relationships that may not be as random as they appear. Like principal components of an automobile in which the size of the engine and the weight of the body directly affect efficiency, it appears that dogs, too, have integral parts wherein one component is proportionate to the other.
Researchers don’t fully understand the relationship, but they are making headway. As reported in Genetics (June 2008), a team of scientists identified a few single genes that regulate systems controlling skull shape, weight, fur length, age span and behavior. Because mutts are combinations of DNA from different breeds, they may hold the answer to how the genes influence multiple traits.
Scientists suspect that many evolutionary secrets are hidden in the dog genome. For dog lovers, deconstructing Molly or Max’s mixed-breed heritage is an interesting intellectual mystery to be discussed at cocktail parties or the dog park. For scientists, their genetic material is nothing less than an instruction manual for species building. Whereas populations evolve over the course of millennia through the process of natural selection, dogs can change so rapidly and abruptly that they represent evolution at hyperspeed. How it happens remains a puzzle. Now scientists are looking to mutts to find the missing piece.
News: Guest Posts
New evidence of ancient bloodsuckers
Flea problems got you down? Well, count your lucky stars that you’re not raising a pack of pet Brachiosaurus. Recently, paleontologists in China discovered fossil evidence of Jurassic fleas that were as long as a thumbnail with sharp “mouth parts” all the better to dig into dinosaurs’ tough reptilian skin. Shudder.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
A few genes make all the difference
My relationship with dogs is sometimes a bit split. One side of things is that I love them, for all the reasons everybody reading this understands so well. Another side of my relationship with dogs is my fascination with them—a true scientific interest, based on some of their extraordinary characteristics. And research about their genetics has continued to add to their appeal as creatures worthy of great attention, even beyond the fact that they are so lovable.
From the diversity of forms seen in the domestic dog, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that their genetics are unusual. Though other domestic animals including chickens, horses, cows, sheep and cats have many different breeds, dogs alone have the amount of physical variation that is represented by Great Danes, Dachshunds, Pugs and Borzois. Animal lovers are generally interested in that fact, but all scientists ought to be astounded by it, and I most definitely am.
The selective breeding that has led to the range of forms in this species is a fascinating genetics experiment. Geneticists are grateful to the “field work” done by countless breeders over many generations because the dogs that have resulted provide a way to understand things that can’t be learned elsewhere.
One of the most fascinating recent discoveries that makes use of the variation in dogs is that it’s only a few genes that are responsible for the huge range of differences in the appearance of different breeds of dogs. The incredible variation in dog size, fur type, length and color, ear shape and position, and shape of the nose is controlled by just a few dozen gene regions.
In other species, the genetic control of traits such as size and shape is much more complex. For comparison, human height is controlled by around 200 gene regions. Until it was investigated, researchers assumed that underlying the incredible diversity of canine appearances was a corresponding genetic diversity, but it’s just not so. The more we learn about dogs, the more fascinating they become.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Scientists have only recently caught on that canines are not just a fertile subject for their particular specialties — psychology, anthropology, zoology, ethology and more — but also a topic that the publishing world seems eager to promote.
This trend has been a long time developing. Nobel Prize–winner and ethology’s co-founder, Konrad Lorenz, wrote Man Meets Dog (1950), breaking ground that lay dormant until anthropologist Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s bestseller, The Hidden Life of Dogs (1993), reintroduced the genre of dog studies to the non-scientist reader. A few years later, journalist Mark Derr followed up with Dog’s Best Friend (1997), a book that grew out of his Atlantic Monthly investigative piece about the AKC and the dog-show world. Another dry spell was finally broken by psychology professor Alexandra Horowitz’s Inside of a Dog (2009), which garnered an extraordinary amount of well-earned praise. At long last, it seems that the (overly) popular dog-memoir craze has given way to illuminating and well-researched books that explore the science behind our favorite species, written for the general public.
For example, in the May issue of Bark, we reviewed Dog Sense, a fascinating book by British anthrozoologist John Bradshaw, in which the author provides a compendium of current research (both his own and others’) into dogs’ origins and behavior. More specifically, he details their evolution from a wolf-like ancestor into proto-dogs and then the first domesticated species; he also investigates how this very long-term relationship has affected both canines and humans. He goes on to clearly explain how today’s dogs differ behaviorally and culturally from wolves, and why the dominance/ pack paradigm put forth by many trainers (including Cesar Millan) is not only the wrong way to understand dogs but has also done them a great disservice. It makes for engrossing and thought-provoking reading.
Paleoanthropologist Pat Shipman takes a similar synoptic approach in her engaging new book, The Animal Connection: A New Perspective on What Makes Us Human, and adds valuable insights into the dog’s evolutionary story. She combs through research in her own field as well as in archeology to test her hypothesis that animals (dogs among them) have shaped our species’ evolution. As she says, “I believe that a defining trait of the human species has been a connection with animals…. Defining traits are what make humans human … and they are partially or wholly encoded in our genes.” She does a rigorous investigation — every bit as compelling as a forensic TV drama — into the three big advances that contributed to our modernity: tool-making, language and symbolic behavior, and the domestication of other species to support this position.
In the chapter, “The Wolf at the Door,” Shipman suggests how domestication might have happened. As importantly, she refutes other theorists, such as Raymond Coppinger and his “protodog- as-village-pests” model. She writes about Belgian researcher Mietje Germonpré, whose work recently dated a proto-dog fossil skull to 31,680 BP — proving that dogs were domesticated long before humans congregated in settlements. (It was an amazing 20,000 years before the next species, the goat, was domesticated.) Shipman questions why so few representations of wolves/dogs (as well as human figures) appear in prehistoric art, and incorporates anthropologist Anne Pike-Tay’s suggestion that if domesticated dogs were helping us hunt, they were “perhaps placed in a completely different symbolic category from other animals,” adding, “dogs might have been put into the human family category as an extension of the hunter.” All of which attests to the fact that dogs have been a part of the human family since our own prehistory — an extremely long time.
All of these books, the classics and the current crop, should be read by dog lovers. Not only do they contribute to our understanding of our first friends, they also have the potential to improve dogs’ welfare by educating us as to what we can and can’t expect from them. We owe it to dogs to learn more so this age-old relationship can grow even stronger. Here’s hoping this trend continues and more groundbreaking books are on the way.
Avery Publishing, 320 pp., 2010; $26.00
After the birth of Snuppy, the world’s first cloned dog, a handful of biotech entrepreneurs envisioned a thriving business that would provide grieving dog lovers with genetically identical clones of their deceased pets. In Dog Inc., Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist John Woestendiek exposes the grave folly behind those science-fiction dreams.
Woestendiek travels between the United States and South Korea, following the companies looking to cash in on cloning technology, and their clients, who hope cloning really will approximate resurrection.
Although much of the book focuses on the salacious story of Bernann McKinney, a woman obsessed with cloning her Pit Bull, the strength of Dog Inc. is in Woestendiek’s ability to lay out the science and laboratory politics in a way that’s both accessible and engaging. Readers will understand the X-inactivation process that made the first cloned cat so physically distinct from her progenitor — and, consequently, such a public relations failure — as well as the allegations of scientific fraud levied against Woo Suk Hwang, one of the pioneers of canine cloning.
Woestendiek never outright condemns canine cloning, but the details leave little question as to where he falls in the debate. He shines light on the poor treatment of the laboratory dogs used in cloning, the cloned puppies who do not survive the process and the heartbreaking fate of Snuppy himself. As for the actual clones, Dog Inc. tracks kittens, puppies and even a bull cloned at great financial and biological cost, only to prove physically and behaviorally distinct from their genetic parents.
The book serves as a valuable reminder that, like people, our pets are far more than the sum of their DNA.
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