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It started when two canine scientists decide to become pen pals in an era of digital media...

Monday, 26 September 2016

What’s Behind Our Lasting Relationships with Dogs? Researcher Seeks Help

Please welcome today's guest contributor, Karen Griffin, a PhD student at the University of Lincoln who is trying to figure what makes relationships with dogs work. Please read on, as she is hoping for your help!

Hi Mia & Julie,

I am currently working on a study to examine factors that affect successful dog relationships and placements.  I am using a new approach to do this, which involves dog owners and shelter/rescue staff assessing dogs using a set of game-like tests.

What makes some relationships work? Flickr Creative Commons
The abandonment of dogs is a problem that affects much of the world.  In the UK between 2014 and 2015, local authorities handled over 100,000 stray dogs.  In the US, the problem is even more monumental; recent estimates suggest that nearly four million dogs enter shelters nationally per year, and over one million of those are euthanized.  

These are frightening statistics, and science has taken notice in recent years, aiming to understand and help reduce this epidemic.  However, much of this research is narrow in focus and scope, by relying on the analysis of retrospective data, that’s collected by shelters when dogs are relinquished, or in the way it conceptualizes the dog-owner relationship.  In the case of the latter, the dog-human relationship is traditionally understood as a static, unchanging one (e.g. Prato-Previde et al., 2003; Marston et al., 2005).  At the same time, there are indications that our lifestyles and relationships with dogs are not fixed, but dynamic. 

Credit: Steve Benisty
This is where my PhD research steps in.  I have applied a very different approach, and have redefined the dog-owner relationship as a dynamic entity that changes over time.  Over the course of the relationship, conflict will inevitably arise, as it does in any close personal relationship, and it is the ability of one member of the party (i.e., the dog or the owner) to resolve the conflict. It is this conflict resolution that will determine if the relationship will continue and be successful or not.  The inability to resolve conflict could lead to the relationship failing and the dog being relinquished. 

So now the question is, what do we do about this?  How can we understand or predict which dogs and owners will be able to resolve conflict and thus which relationships will succeed?  My research has hypothesized that behavioural flexibility (i.e., adaptability) is central to this, so I am assessing this in both humans (i.e., long-term dog owners, dog adopters, and dog relinquishers) as well as dogs.  

Game time
This is where I need help!  I created a citizen science study that dog lovers worldwide can join.  I have developed a set of four game-like tests that assess behavioural flexibility in dogs:
  • L-Shaped Food Finding Test
  • Time Alone Test
  • Three-Toy Test
  • Pointing Test

About you
I am seeking help from people in these two groups:  
  1. Long-term dog owners to participate with their own dog(s) (i.e. people who have owned their dog for at least three years)
  2. Animal shelters, rescue centres, rehoming organizations to participate with dogs without a current home
Time commitment
The study should take approximately 10 minutes per test plus 10 minutes for set-up and background survey completion.  An hour should be sufficient for everything.  Please note, you do not have to complete all four tests to participate.

Please don't hesitate to contact me should you have any questions: Thank you for considering contributing to this study of what makes relationships stick!

University of Lincoln
School of Life Sciences

Thursday, 21 July 2016

The Dog Aging Project

Please welcome today's guest contributor, Dr. Silvan Urfer, a veterinarian with a background in population genetics. He is based at the University of Washington and currently working on the Dog Aging Project.

As a researcher working on the Dog Aging Project, I am glad to share some of our current work and results with the readers of this blog. Our project is based at the University of Washington in Seattle under the direction of Drs. Daniel Promislow and Matt Kaeberlein, and we are interested in studying aging in privately owned dogs – both descriptively and by testing interventions that we expect to increase healthy longevity in our four-legged friends. By following 10,000 companion dogs from homes throughout the United States over their lifetime, the Dog Aging Project aims to discover the genetic and environmental factors that determine whether a dog will live a long and healthy life. Moreover, through an intervention study we describe here, we will explore the potential to actually increase the likelihood that a dog will live a healthy long life. 

Meet Zeke, a canine citizen scientist in the Dog Aging Project
Aging is the single most important risk factor for a variety of diseases that affect both dogs and humans, such as cancer, heart disease, cognitive decline, arthritis, or kidney failure. Thus, addressing aging can be expected to result in a wide variety of potential health benefits: In fact, the potential benefits of targeting aging lead us to believe that this approach can be called “The Ultimate Preventive Medicine”, as it would have beneficial effects across the wide spectrum of otherwise unrelated diseases that share aging as their common risk factor.

Interestingly, the basic mechanisms of aging appear to be very similar across species, which has allowed scientists to identify risk factors and interventions in species with very short life spans, which can then be translated to longer-lived species. Thus far, this process has led from yeast through worms and flies to mice. We now argue that establishing the privately owned domestic dog as a model for human aging is the logical next step to take.

Dogs are a very interesting model in that they share our human environment, develop many of the same age-related diseases that we develop ourselves, and also receive comparable medical care, which we argue makes them an ideal model for aging in humans. In addition, the dog’s comparably shorter life span also means that it is better suited as a model for evaluating genetic and environmental risk factors as well as potentially beneficial interventions on healthy aging, seeing as the results will become apparent much more quickly than they would if such studies were to be performed in humans. With this in mind, our goal is to establish a generally accepted definition of what constitutes an aged dog, and then investigate the factors that contribute to that phenotype – be they genetic, epigenetic, metabolic, or environmental.

Apart from their usefulness as a model for human health, identifying interventions that have the potential to make our dogs live and stay healthy for longer would be a highly desirable goal all in itself, and there is also the aspect of keeping service and other working dogs healthy for longer, which has the potential to generate substantial financial savings.
Shadow, of the Dog Aging Project
One such potential intervention is a drug called rapamycin: It is the product of Streptomyces hygroscopicus, a bacterium that was originally discovered in the soil of Easter Island/Rapa Nui in the 70’s. Rapamycin has been FDA approved as an immune modulator since 1999 and has more recently been shown to increase longevity by 30% when given to mice that were biologically about as old as a 60-year-old human. We know that it achieves this effect by activating some of the same metabolic pathways that are activated by eating a low calorie diet, and we also know that feeding dogs a low calorie diet makes them live and stay healthy for longer. Based on this, it follows that giving rapamycin to dogs could be an interesting and potentially very valuable intervention to increase healthy lifespan in our dogs.

We recently completed a double-blind placebo-controlled pilot study on 24 privately owned middle-aged medium size dogs that received either rapamycin or placebo for 10 weeks. This being a pilot study, our main goal was to make sure there were no side effects at the doses we used. In addition to clinical evaluation, we also did bloodwork before, during and after the study, as well as heart ultrasound before and after because rapamycin has been reported to have positive effects on heart function in aging mice.

The results are now in, and we are pleased to report that rapamycin did not cause any clinical side effects in our study population at the doses we used. The bloodwork showed some changes that may indicate longer red blood cell survival and some changes in metabolism, but all blood parameters remained within normal limits in our population.

However, the most interesting part of our results – especially considering our relatively small sample size – is that rapamycin seems to have significant beneficial effects on heart function. Even more interestingly, those beneficial effects seem to be highly specific to the measures of heart function that we know are deteriorating with age, and they seem to apply to both the contraction (systole) and the relaxation (diastole) phases of heart function (Fractional Shortening and E/A Ratio). In short, rapamycin seems to be able to reverse some of the changes that are characteristic of an aging heart when given to dogs for 10 weeks, which is certainly encouraging within the context of improving healthy aging in our dogs.

We are currently seeking funding for a larger, longer term trial of rapamycin in privately owned dogs, which will allow us to determine whether it has a beneficial effect on life expectancy and healthy aging in them. We predict that rapamycin will not only allow the dogs to live longer, but will reduce their risk for several types of cancer, cognitive decline, kidney disease, and other age-associated disorders. For this study, we are planning to recruit several hundred dogs to study over a period of several years, which will allow us to collect more extensive data on health and mortality. More information on the project and how you can help can be found at our web site at

Dog Aging Project
University of Washington Medicine Pathology
1959 NE Pacific Street
Box 357705
Seattle, WA 98195
Waiting Wolfhounds. Credit: Silvan Urfer
Further Reading

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Italy: The Fifth Canine Science Forum is Here

Hello world!

It’s Mia and Julie, and we’re at the 5th Canine Science Forum in PADOVA, ITALY!! This is our third canine science forum together. Do You Believe in Dog? started in 2012 when we first met in Barcelona, Spain. Two years later we had a great conference in Lincoln, UK, and now we’re in Italy where the coffee is very, very, very good. We also like the canine science, but really, the coffee is fabulous.

What’s the Canine Science Forum?
You know when you come across a headline, “Study finds dogs do X!!” The Canine Science Forum (CSF) is where researchers behind the headlines come together to share and discuss their latest studies and theories about dogs, wolves and related canines. It’s a place to get a pulse on the field -- what’s going on, and what’s to come.

The CSF is also a reminder that when a headline states, “Study finds X…” that's typically an oversimplification of what was actually found. There's a lot of discussion of the nuances of dog behavior and cognition. And science is complicated, but each study brings to the table a piece of the puzzle that is understanding more about the wonderful (and also, the not so wonderful) dogs in our lives.

The conference consists of short talks, plenary talks, and poster sessions (and important espresso coffee shot breaks). Today we're presenting a poster about Do You Believe in Dog? and the importance of communicating our fields' findings to everyone. The blog will continue to be a space where researchers can share the findings of their research, helping it jump over the paywalls and without the stuffy scientific language, to help dogs everywhere. If you're a researcher and you'd like to know more, check out the contributors page!

Out poster about Science Communication!
Email if you want a copy: DoYouBelieveInDog @

The conference began earlier this week on Tuesday and concludes tomorrow (here is the entire program). Anyone can follow all conference-based tweets on Twitter at #CSFPadova as well as @DoUBelieveInDog. We of course want to tell you about talk after talk after talk, but space, time, you get the picture... so here are a few highlights:

Doggie brains
Giorgio Vallortigara began the conference looking at brain asymmetry. The dog’s tail offers a pretty nifty insight into the brain — dogs wag more to the right when seeing an owner (associated with left hemisphere activation which is historically associated with approach-type behaviors), whereas seeing a strange person or strange dog prompts more wagging to the left (i.e., right hemisphere activation typically associated with more retreat behavior). Vallortigara also explored why brain symmetry evolved looking at both benefits to the individual as well as on the population level.

Smelly dogs
Márta Gácsi did not discuss why dog feet sometimes smell like Fritos (maybe next time, Márta!). Instead, Gácsi and colleagues from the Family Dog Project devised a simple, new procedure — that requires no pre-training — to test Natural detection task olfaction in canids, both hand-raised wolves and dogs.

In the study, they placed food in a plastic box with a lid to control the amount of smell released, and then placed the container under a ceramic pot to avoid visual cues. They wondered whether dogs would attend to the location of the hidden food, even when the access to the food was made increasingly difficult (see picture above). They found this was a good way to identify dogs who were both motivated and good at scent detection. Scent breeds and wolves were generally better at finding the food then non-scent breeds and short-nosed dogs. But hey, on an individual level, a Hungarian greyhound and Whippet (non-scent breeds), scored very very high, as did a Boston terrier (short-nosed dog).

A wider view of dog domestication
Friederike Range of the Clever Dog Lab, Messerli - Research Institute University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna and Wolf Science Center reminded us that as dogs entered the human environment, it wasn't initially because they wanted to spend time with us, cuddle all night long, look into our eyes, and follow our gaze and gestures. Dogs entered the human environment for food and to scavenge and exploit our fabulous resources. She reminds researchers that dogs are adapted to the human environment as scavengers and this should be considered in terms of its consequences for dog behavior. Check out the Open Access article, Tracking the evolutionary origins of dog-human cooperation: the "Canine Cooperation Hypothesis" (Range & Virányi, 2015)   

Oxytocin. Don’t oversimplify me
Love? Affection? Come on, Anna Kis of the Family Dog Project would say. It’s way more complicated than that. Kis won the Early Career Scientist Award, and she discussed how oxytocin is being investigated in terms of human-directed social behaviors in dogs. She covered three main areas of research: measuring peripheral oxytocin levels using blood or urine, exploring single nucleotide polymorphisms in regulatory regions of the oxytocin receptor gene, and administering intranasal oxytocin. Julie covered her research on the oxytocin receptor gene in dogs here.

Stay in touch with the conference this week on Twitter at #CSFPadova

And drink a coffee with us!

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Can Therapy Dogs Help Students Handle Stress?

Please welcome today's guest contributor, Molly Crossman, a Graduate Student & Co-Director of the Innovative Interactions Lab in the Department of Psychology at Yale University. 

More than 925 colleges and universities have therapy animal programs for their students. The idea is that playing with a dog (or a cat, rabbit, bird, guinea pig, actual pig, llama, or rat—to name a few of the available options,) will help students cope with stress. But with record-high rates of anxiety and depression among students, can a few minutes with an animal really help? 

To answer this question, we did a randomized controlled trial (the gold standard for testing out new medical and psychological treatments). We randomly assigned 67 students and medical residents (who have especially high rates of distress), to either: 

  • Play with a therapy dog, 
  • View pictures of the same dog, or
  • Wait for a turn to play with the dog

Our participants ranged in age from 22 to 37 years old, and the majority (55%) were female. We used the State portion of the State/Trait Anxiety Inventory and the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule to assess participants’ subjective experiences of anxiety and mood before and after participating. Both questionnaires ask respondents to rate how they are feeling at the moment, and both are well-validated for this purpose. 

 Photo: John Curtis/Yale Medicine
Dog: Finn (DYBID has to add that he's just the cutest! Look at those eyebrows!)
We found that interaction with the dog did reduce anxiety and improve mood for our participants. Participants who spent their time with the dog improved more than those who viewed (but did not interact with) the dog, and more than those who waited. In other words, as important as it is to take breaks, and as great as cute animal pictures make us feel, getting to interact with an animal is even better. 

Our study corroborates what many dog owners experience—playing with a dog really can improve mental health. But this evidence gives us something that our own experiences cannot. Our findings show that it is not just our high expectations that make therapy animals seem effective. In our study, less than 10 minutes with a therapy dog produced improvement on measures of real clinical symptoms, and that change was not just about taking a break from work.  

The Role of Therapy Animals in Combating Student Stress 
Our findings are important because student stress has reached a crisis point. Over 50% of college students have symptoms of depression, and 11% have thoughts of suicide. Of course, I am not suggesting that therapy animals will ever replace counseling centers on college campuses. On the contrary, therapy animals have already carved out a niche all their own. Therapy animals are appealing and students expect that they will help, therapy animals do not require appointments or commitments, and therapy animals can help many students in a small amount of time at little to no financial cost. In other words, even though therapy animals do not necessarily have a huge impact on every student, they are exceptionally well suited to make some difference for an enormous number of students. 

Graduate Student & Co-Director of the Innovative Interactions Lab 
Department of Psychology, Yale University 
Twitter: @mollycrossman

Crossman, M.K., Kazdin, A.E. & Knudson, K. (2015). Brief unstructured interaction with a dog reduces stressAnthrozoös, 28, 649—659.

For more coverage of this research, check out the Psychology Today post by Hal Herzog, ‘Stress Relief in Seven Minutes: Doggie Style. Do programs using dogs to relieve anxiety in university students really work?’ Nov 19, 2015

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

What happens to your heart when you share time with dogs? #HeartsAligned

Most dog owners will tell you that their dogs are good for them. They don't need a scientist to tell them that. But if you ask those same owners "How is your dog good for you?", they might struggle to find the words to describe what underlies the feelings they have about their animal companions.

I recently helped out with a demonstration (organised by Pedigree) that measured the heart rates of dogs and their owners, while separated and when reunited. The idea was prompted by an observation made by Dr Rollin McCraty, who monitored his son and their dog. We used non-invasive heart rate monitors on three dogs and their owners, to measure their heart rate rhythms in real time. We set the owner up on a couch, in front of cameras and lights in a studio, and kept their dog on the other side of a screen, out of sight, for less than two minutes. We then reunited the dogs and owners and encouraged the owner to relax with their dog on the couch, as they would usually do at home. The results? Well - see for yourself, here:

If you had asked me before the demonstration, what to expect, I would have told you "a reduction in heart rates for both dogs and owners over time (maybe 3-5min or so), perhaps after an slight initial increase of reunion excitement". I would not have predicted the close coherence in patterns that we observed within 1min of the reunion. Even as a dog owner and canine science researcher, who knows my dog helps me lead a healthier, happier life, I was astonished!

I genuinely hope this phenomenon is an area of human-animal interaction that attracts more research attention.

So how do dogs help our health?
It's currently unclear what processes underlie the coherence of heart rate patterns we observed between dogs and their owners during the Hearts Aligned demonstration. It's fascinating and something I'd love to research further. Although this was a small case study of just three dogs, the results were striking. 

These Australian dogs and their owners were randomly recruited through a routine casting call to the general public. The data are authentic. It was a delight to witness the beautiful relationship that Glenn, Alice and Sienna enjoyed with their dogs, Lyric, Juno and Jake. It would be interesting to explore the closeness of pattern alignment with other validated measures such as attachment (a term used in psychology that describes the strength of the emotional bond) between people and their dogs.

Glenn & Lyric, Alice & Juno, Sienna & Jake
Existing research suggests that pet owners exercise more, which of course is beneficial for our health. Pets have also been shown to improve cardiovascular health in other ways. For example, patting your dog can release oxytocin that acts to reduce levels of stress hormones, resulting in  lower blood pressure and heart rate. Additionally, research shows us that heart attack survivors and people with serious heart related abnormalities who own dogs may live longer than people with the same problems who don't have pets. There are also many studies suggesting animal companions are good for boosting our social resilience and mental health too.

The Hearts Aligned demonstration shows us that perhaps something as simple as relaxing in the company of our dogs at the end of a day of work or school, might also help to reduce our heart rate and offer our bodies a break from the stresses of everyday life.

Speaking for myself, I feel more light-hearted when in the company of my dog. He distracts me from every day stresses, promotes me to get outside and exercise, makes me laugh every day with his antics and gives me company, even when other family members are away. I think I'm a fairly typical dog owner and that others share these feelings. Physically, these things probably result in a lower heart rate and blood pressure than I'd otherwise experience, and I suspect I feel less stressed than I otherwise would.

Luckily, I was able to enjoy the relaxing effect of patting the beautiful Millie when I was invited onto the Studio 10 program to talk about how dogs can help us stress less on national TV:

Hearts Aligned is also fundraising for the national rescue organisation, Pet Rescue, who support over 950 shelters across Australia. We hope the video inspires people to share their own dog photos using the official hashtag #HeartsAligned. Each post on Facebook will trigger a $1 donation from Pedigree to Pet Rescue, up to $20,000. 

That's certainly enough evidence to make my heart feel good!


Further reading:
Cutt, HE, Knuiman, MW, Giles-Corti, B, 2008, ‘Does getting a dog increase recreational walking?’, International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, vol. 5. pp. 17-27.

McConnell, AR, Brown, CM, Shoda, TM, Stayton, LE, Martin, CE, 2011, ‘Friends with benefits: on the positive consequences of pet ownership’, Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, vol.101, no.6, pp.1239-1252

Headey, B, Na, F, Grabka, M, & Zheung, R, ‘Pets and human health in Australia, China and Germany: Evidence from three continents’, 2004, International Association of Human Animal Interaction Organisations Conference, Glasgow.

Nagengast, SL, Baun, MM, Megel, M, and Leibowitz, JM, 1997,‘The effects of the presence of a companion animal on physiological arousal and behavioural distress in children, Journal of Pediatric Nursing, vol. 12, pp. 323-330.

Thompson, KL, & Gullone, E, ‘Prosocial and Antisocial Behaviours in Adolescents: An Investigation into Associations with Attachment and Empathy’, Anthrozoos, vol.21, no. 2, pp. 123-137.

Wood L, Martin K, Christian H, Nathan A, Lauritsen C, Houghton S, et al. (2015) The Pet Factor - Companion Animals as a Conduit for Getting to Know People, Friendship Formation and Social Support. PLoS ONE 10(4): e0122085. doi:10.1371/ journal.pone.0122085

© Mia Cobb || Do You Believe in Dog? 2016

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Dog Researchers Head to the City by the Bay: The Canine Science Symposium in San Francisco, CA

Hi Julie & Mia,

I wanted to write to the two of you about the Canine Science Symposium. It's happening this April 16 & 17 in San Francisco, and I thought you might be interested to hear all about it. I bet Julie remembers speaking about anthropomorphism at the very first CSS. Hopefully, we’ll be able to get her back to San Francisco for the next one!

This year's Symposium promises to be bigger and better with an extra half day of presentations, more speakers and new breakout sessions to dig deeper into the research. Three years later since that inaugural Symposium at Pawsitive Tails, we're now at the San Francisco SPCA where we’ve partnered with the organization’s Behavior & Training Department, brought on sponsors (such as the Karen Pyror Academy) and in all, expect well over 100 shelter staff and volunteers, trainers and dog enthusiasts to join us for this day and a half of canine science. We love coming to San Francisco in part because of the vibrant dog community there!

While many Symposium speakers continue to return each year to share their research, we ensure that the topics are new – and we’re real sticklers on the “applied” part of the research. We want those that come out to learn with us to be able to walk away with new techniques and approaches to try in their interactions with shelter dogs, dogs that they train and the dogs they live with. 

This year’s addition of breakout sessions will provide more advanced content (something we think the Symposium crowd is eager for) and live opportunities to discuss research and training ideas (and in some cases, as they’re happening!). We like sharing our enthusiasm for dogs, and the Symposium is our opportunity to make our research accessible.
Xephos running the maze at ASU.
Our CSS speakers for 2016 include Drs. Clive Wynne (Arizona State University), Erica Feuerbacher (Carroll College), Lindsay Mehrkam (Oregon State University), Sasha Protopopova  (Texas Tech University) and myself. This year, we have new additions to our speaking roster including Dr. Monique Udell from Oregon State University and post-doctoral scholar Dr. Nathan Hall from Arizona State University. Dr. Jeannine Berger, who heads up the SF/SPCA’s Behavior Resources, will be speaking too (in the past, she’s led our roundtable, but now she’s joining us at the podium).

While many of us are former or current students of Clive’s, our research interests are diverse as evidenced by this year’s topics. Our presentations include decoding dominance in dogs; canine sociability and attachment; using advanced behavioral principles in dog training; applying cognitive, behavioral and physiological measures to improve shelter dog welfare; using play as training and enrichment; understanding visitor behavior in shelters to increase adoptions; exploring canine olfaction and interpreting canine body language.

We’re excited to return to San Francisco this April and hope to see many in the dog training and behavior community at the Symposium! 

For those folks that are interested in attending, head on over to for all the details including speaker bios and presentation descriptions, and online registration (registration is at the waaaay bottom of the page).

Our early-bird registration ends March 2nd, so those that want to attend should sign up soon!  

Lisa Gunter 

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Understanding the Tame Fox: The Hunt for the Genetic Mechanisms of Fearfulness

Jessica Hekman meets friendly fox.
Guest post by: Dr Jessica Perry Hekman DVM MS

Hi Mia and Julie,

One of the things I love most about dogs is how friendly they are. What's the biggest difference between a dog and a wolf? The dog probably wants to come say hi to you. The wolf is scared of you, and may demonstrate that fear through aggression if you get too close. 

But not ALL dogs are friendly, right? If “friendliness” versus “fear” was on a spectrum, most dogs would be on the “friendly” end, but some would be down towards the “fear” end with the wolves. This is what I study: what is going on in the brain of fearful dogs to make them scared of things? What are the mechanisms that are different? I'm interested in the wiring in the brain, hormone differences, neurotransmitter differences, and more.

Right now, the way I'm studying fear in dogs is by studying fear in foxes. I know you know about the famous population of tame foxes at the Institute of Cytology and Genetics in Novosibirsk, Russia. I got to go meet these foxes recently! 

They have been bred for tameness for more than forty generations, and are a lot like dogs in their friendliness and lack of fear. In the lab where I work, we compare these foxes to another group of foxes that have been selected for fearfulness/aggression. Through comparing these very different groups, we to try to understand the biological mechanisms behind their personality differences. Foxes are evolutionarily close to dogs, and because these foxes have carefully controlled genetics and environments, they are easier to study than pet dogs are. (I still hope to transition to working directly with pet dogs some day, though.)

Hekman with friendly fox.
Over the years, much has been learned about the tame foxes: their stress response is very different from that of the aggressive foxes [1]; they have different levels of various neurotransmitters in their brains [1], and they even have differences in brain structure [2]. In the lab where I work, Kukekova Lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, we study the genetic differences between these groups of foxes. We hope that finding differences in their genes will help us learn more about mechanistic differences in their brains. Our lab recently published a new paper in PLoSONE [3] about some of our findings.

We are still very much at the stage of just trying to figure out where in the enormous genome (3.3 billion nucleotides!) the personality differences between tame and aggressive foxes come from. (By the way, various efforts looking at personality differences in humans are at the same stage.)

Our lab's approach in this paper was to look at the entire genomes of 40 foxes, 20 tame and 20 aggressive. First we found the places in their genomes in which at least one fox was different at the level of just one nucleotide. A single nucleotide differences is known as a single nucleotide polymorphism, or SNP. Unfortunately, while a SNP might be a pointer to an important difference, most SNPs mean absolutely nothing. The problem is telling which is which. And we found thousands of them – more than 100,000 of them, which we filtered down to 8,437 of them that we actually wanted to use. So how would we figure out which ones were pointing at real and important differences in the tame fox genome?

To answer this question, we looked for differences not just between individual foxes, but between the group of 20 tame foxes and the group of 20 aggressive foxes. With 8,437 SNPs you had better bet we used computers for this. It was a surprise to me when I got into modern genomics just how much of the work deals with complex computer algorithms to process the massive amounts of data we're dealing with!

Hekman with fox at the Institute of Cytology and Genetics.
We found several areas of the fox genome in which tame foxes tended to have one version of some SNPs, while aggressive foxes tended to have another version. To understand this, it can help to think of the genome as a big instruction manual, a book called “How to Build a Fox.” Mostly the instruction manuals for tame and aggressive foxes would be the same, but in a few cases single letters would be different. 

Imagine that the tame foxes all had, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” in their version of chapter two, but the aggressive foxes all had, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy doc” in their version. Basically, by finding places where the tame foxes all had one version, and the aggressive foxes all had a different version, we were finding places in the genome where we hoped to find important differences, changes that help cause the tame fox personality phenotype. We found 28 regions like this, but focused on three of them as the most interesting.

Next we looked at the genes that these changes might affect, because finding gene differences was the point of the whole exercise. Remember, we still don't know most of what most of the genes out there do! This is really dark side of the moon stuff, and everyone is still guessing about what's going on in the genome, human or fox. But here are some interesting genes we found. I'm including a “wild hypothesis” with some of them. These hypotheses are probably wrong, but I hope they help to show why these genes are so interesting to us...

Hand sniffing.

GRIN2B: this gene codes for a receptor for one of the major neurotransmitters in the brain, glutamate. Glutamate is involved in learning and memory. Wild hypothesis: maybe tame foxes are less afraid because of a difference in how they learn about what to fear.

GABARAPL1 (GEC1): this gene is involved with opioids, molecules in the brain that help us feel good. Wild hypothesis: maybe tame foxes are more friendly because social interactions feel different (better) to them.

COUP-TFII (NR2F2): this gene is important during embryonic brain development, especially in the amygdala, a part of the brain that tells us when to be afraid. This gene also influences expression of oxytocin, a neurotransmitter which functions in social bonding.

These genes are extremely interesting, but even more than that, this work helped our lab implicate specific regions of the genome in the differences between tame and aggressive foxes. That list of regions will prove invaluable as we do more work in the future, using different tools to examine the tame fox genome and seeing which tools point at the same regions.

Tame fox kisses to you both!


Dr. Jessica Perry Hekman graduated Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in 2012, where in addition to her DVM she received an MS for work on stress behavior and cortisol levels in hospitalized dogs. She completed a shelter medicine internship at the University of Florida in 2013, and is now a PhD student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she works at Kukekova Lab. Her research interests are in the biological mechanisms behind fearfulness in dogs. You can follow her at @dogzombieblog.

Images copyright Jessica Hekman.

[1] Trut, Lyudmila N., I. Z. Plyusnina, and I. N. Oskina. "An experiment on fox domestication and debatable issues of evolution of the dog." Russian Journal of Genetics 40.6 (2004): 644-655. 

[2] Huang, Shihhui, et al. "Selection for tameness, a key behavioral trait of domestication, increases adult hippocampal neurogenesis in foxes." Hippocampus (March 2015). 

[3] Johnson, Jennifer L. et al. "Genotyping-By-Sequencing (GBS) Detects Genetic Structure and Confirms Behavioral QTL in Tame and Aggressive Foxes (Vulpes vulpes)." PLoSONE (2015).

© 2015 Jessica Perry Hekman | Do You Believe in Dog?