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Many dog breeds are purely about appearance—think poodles and the Pekingese. But plenty of other breeds are devoted to specific tasks, like racing greyhounds. For many of these tasks, physical appearance isn't enough: behavior also matters. Things like herding by sheepdog breeds or fetching by various retrievers.
It's not surprising that many people ascribe these behaviors—and a wide variety of other, less useful ones—to their dog's breed and its underlying genetics. Now, a large team of US-based researchers has looked into whether this belief is accurate. And, with a few exceptions, they find that it's not. With a huge panel of volunteer dog owners, they show that the genetics of dog behavior is built from lots of small, weak influences, and every breed seems to have some members that just don't behave as we expect.
The work is based on a citizen science project called Darwin's Ark. Participants were asked to give details about their dog, including whether it belonged to an established breed (either certified or inferred). They were also asked to fill out short surveys that collectively asked about 117 different behaviors. Overall, they obtained data on some 18,000 dogs, about half of them from purebreds.
This information was combined with genetic data, including previously published genome sequences from more than 500 purebred dogs. The researchers of the new study added to the previous data by getting complete genome sequences for 27 mixed-breed dogs, collectively termed "Mendel's mutts." Less thorough genome sequencing was also done on 2,000 additional dogs with owners who filled out the behavioral surveys.
The genetic work showed that, as expected, individual breeds are mostly inbred (the significant exceptions were Tibetan mastiffs, which are distantly related to most modern dog breeds, and left out of these analyses). Despite the inbreeding, however, there was little in the way of genetic variants that are exclusive to a single breed. Out of nearly 17,000 individual variants tested, only 332 were found only in one breed.
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