Project intended to improve working dog breeding

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Half of dogs that enter training to serve people with disabilities become service dogs.

Fewer than half of high-performance scent detection dogs succeed.

Dog in a training session at Auburn
A dog in a training session at Auburn University follows the scent of a moving object. Auburn, through its Canine Performance Sciences program, is among organizations providing genetic and performance information for the Theriogenology Foundation's Working Dog Project. (Courtesy of Auburn University)

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.