By Greg Cima
Posted Oct. 11, 2017
Half of dogs that enter training to serve people with disabilities become service dogs.
Fewer than half of high-performance scent detection dogs succeed.
Information from the Theriogenology Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports education and research into animal reproduction, indicates those figures show a need for collaborative research that could accelerate selective breeding for working dogs.
Dr. Charles F. Franz, executive director of the foundation, estimates the multimillion-dollar Working Dog Project started by the organization this fall will last about seven years. The project is starting as a collaborative effort with the Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University to identify genetic loci associated with scenting and retrieval behaviors.
"What we would like to have is a genetic test that can look at the DNA of a puppy and be able to direct that puppy into the proper training route," Dr. Franz said.
That could also involve exclusion of a puppy from training programs, he said.
A white paper and video from the foundation indicate failures in dog training programs waste money, increase the prices of trained dogs, and delay delivery of needed service animals. These problems endure despite decades of pedigree analysis and selective breeding.
Understanding the genetics of behavior will require examining DNA of tens of thousands of dogs, foundation information states. Developing a test will require collaboration among working dog organizations, use of the open science model pioneered in human genetics, and DNA sequencing and analysis tools tailored to working dog characteristics.
The results will be available to all.
The project's first efforts will involve saliva sample analyses and behavioral assessments for 100 assistance dogs that are trained or are in training by the nonprofit National Education for Assistance Dog Services, DNA and performance evaluations for 140 dogs listed in a databank for the Canine Performance Sciences group at Auburn University, and genotype data for 600 dogs with owner-reported behavioral phenotypes in the Darwin's Dogs citizen science project.
The Working Dog Project will involve conducting full genome sequencing for all 840 dogs. Those sequences will be analyzed along with the professional and owner evaluations in efforts to find causal relationships between genetic variations and behaviors.
"Through this project, we will also seek to identify the first genetic variants significantly associated with working dog performance," the paper states. "However, this project alone will not yield a working toolset for predicting behavioral outcomes in dogs."
Dr. James Floyd, former director of and current adviser to the Auburn program, said identifying repeatable and measurable phenotypes will be the biggest challenge. And he said a dog's ability to fill working roles still will depend on a mix of training and genetic potential.
Dr. Floyd is a member of the Theriogenology Foundation Board of Directors.
The foundation has planned for three more pieces of the Working Dog Project: assembling a consortium to build a dog behavioral genomics databank, developing predictive tests for dog performance, and creating software, genomic tools, or both for working dog breeders.
Original article can be found @ AVMA at this link
The Working Dog Project: Investigating the genomics of working dog performance. Significance: The Working Dog Project will apply cutting-edge genomics to investigate how genetic variation influences two key working dog behaviors: scenting and retrieving. Through this new initiative, we propose to promote, and enable, large-scale, collaborative research into the genetics of dog behavior, with the goal of providing the working dog community with the new tools they need to accelerate the breeding and training of successful working dogs. Problem Statement: Dogs and people have lived side by side for tens of thousands of years in a mutually beneficial relationship, with humans selectively breeding dogs to perform useful jobs. Even today, working dogs fill critical roles in a wide range of fields, from ensuring public safety to easing anxiety. While demand for highly skilled animals is only growing, their availability is limited. Despite decades of pedigree analysis and focused breeding programs, the training success rate for service dogs hovers at only around 50%; for high-performing scent dogs, success rates are even lower. This leads to significant issues including wasted training dollars, puppies pushed into roles in which they cannot succeed, unmet client needs, and, in the military, dogs that cannot fulfill the elite requirements to protect and serve. Genetic tests focused on behavior or temperament would help solve the central challenge: accurate prediction at an early age of potential for successful training. They could help identify which dogs should be trained for particular jobs, and would support more successful breeding programs. Indeed, the potential power of behavioral genetics in dogs was a major factor motivating the Dog Genome Project, which led to the publication of a reference dog genome in 2005. Yet, despite this early enthusiasm, only a handful of genetic loci have been associated with canine behaviors in the last ten years.
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Our goal is to find the genetic loci associated with key behavioral traits of military and service dogs. While decades of selective breeding practices have shaped the canine genome, we now look to genetics to guide our selection of dogs for specific training and career paths.
The Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard was launched in 2004 to use genomics to advance science and human health. In 2005, Broad scientists led an international team to decode the DNA of Tasha, the first ever dog sequenced. Since then, scientists have compared the DNA of hundreds of dogs and found millions of differences. Hidden in this complexity are the genetic variants shaping each dog's behavior.
We have a unique opportunity today to apply cutting edge technology to identify the genes driving dog behavior. This is a first critical step. With the key genetic factors found, we can strategically select better working dogs, which saves time, energy and dollars.
Rarely do we have the opportunity to make such an impact for BOTH our national security and our disabled Americans. Please consider supporting the effort. Funding for The Working Dog Project has been provided by the Theriogenology Foundation.