Scientists Want You to Mail Them Your Dog’s Spit

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Photo: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

Being a dog owner means you never quite know what job you’re going to have to imitate on any given day. You’re a referee, intervening when he inexplicably starts barking at a much bigger dog nearby; you’re a gardener, filling in the holes that keep appearing in your backyard; you’re a particularly disgusting type of archaeologist, sifting through poop to find your wedding ring or that toy soldier or whatever it was that your canine pal thought it’d be fun to swallow a few days ago.

And now you have a chance to play geneticist. As Science News reported earlier this week, researchers at the University of Massachusetts are enlisting pet owners across the country in a citizen-science project called Darwin’s Dogs. The pitch: Send in your dog’s DNA, help them learn more about the genes that influence its behavior — and maybe also shed some light on human genetic diseases, too.

Dogs, as it turns out, are a valuable tool when it comes to understanding our own DNA. For one thing, they suffer from many of the same diseases, including narcolepsy, certain kidney and vision disorders, hemophilia, and muscular dystrophy. And a 2007 review paper on the subject, published in the journal Mammalian Genome, noted that unlike lab animals used for medical research, dogs “generally cohabitate with their human owners, minimizing different environmental effects … Thus, when modeling the causes and pathogenesis of human hereditary diseases, any environment-gene interactions are likely better studied in an animal that lives in the same environment.”

So far, Darwin’s Dogs has information from just under 8,000 animals. To contribute, head to the website to fill out questionnaires about your dog’s physical traits (like height and color), environment (how many hours does it spend in a kennel or crate? How many hours does it spend in dog parks? Where does it sleep?), and what the site calls “canine eccentricities” (how much time each day does it spend digging? Chasing its tail? Chewing on things?). Once the surveys are all complete, use a project-provided DNA kit — it’ll come in the mail — to swab your dog’s mouth and send the samples back. The trade: You get a genetic analysis of your pup; the researchers get one more data point to help them build a link between genes, health, and behavior.

“By finding the genetic factors that influence whether a dog has a particular trait or disease, the investigators aim to understand the underlying biological mechanisms and help advance medical research,” they wrote on the project website. “This is important to both dogs and to humans, as we share nearly all of the same genes and suffer from many of the same diseases.” Or, as project head Elinor Karlsson, a geneticist at the University of Massachusetts, put it to Science News: “It seemed to me that if we could understand how [changes in DNA] make a dog so excited about chasing a ball, we could learn something about how our brains work.”