Dog DNA and Canada’s innovation plan

Swimming is for dogs: Research shows that the dog breed does not predict behavior, such as the desire for a doggie paddle.Credit: Kay MacCoubrey / Getty

Muttley crew: Dog breeds are about beauty, not behavior

Dog enthusiasts have long believed that a dog’s breed shapes their temperament. But a thorough study comparing the behavior and ancestry of more than 18,000 dogs finds that although ancestry affects behavior, the breed has far less to do with a dog’s personality than is generally thought.

“When you adopt a dog based on its breed, you get a dog that has a certain look,” says study co-author Elinor Karlsson, a computational biologist at the University of Massachusetts at Worcester. “But as far as the behavior is concerned, it’s kind of luck.”

For millennia, human efforts to model the appearance and behavior of dogs have focused on the working abilities of animals, such as how well they have raised livestock. Then dog enthusiasts in Victorian England began actively selecting canine traits they found aesthetically pleasing, leading to today’s breeds. Contemporary purebred dogs are defined by their appearance, but the breed is also thought to affect temperament.

To see how the breed affects behavior, Karlsson and his colleagues surveyed thousands of dog owners about their pets’ background and activities. The researchers then sequenced the DNA of a subsection of the survey dogs to see if ancestry could be linked to behavior (K. Morrill et al. Science 376, eabk0639; 2022).

The team found that some traits were more common in some breeds. For example, German Shepherds were more easily directed than a random dog; beagle, less. Genetic data revealed that mixed breed dogs with some ancestry were more likely to act in specific ways. Bastards with the Saint Bernard legacy, for example, were more affectionate; bastards descended from Chesapeake Bay retrievers had a penchant for demolishing doors.

But, on average, race accounted for only about 9 percent of the behavioral variation, a figure “much smaller than most people, myself included, would have expected,” says Karlsson. Particularly low was the link between breed and the likelihood of a dog showing aggression. This could have implications for how society treats “dangerous” dog breeds, says Evan MacLean, a comparative psychologist at the University of Arizona at Tucson who was not involved in the study.

Chrystia Freeland receives a standing ovation as she hands over the federal budget.

On April 7, Canadian Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland presented the country’s federal budget.Credit: Canadian Press / Shutterstock

Canada announces the innovation agency and is not modeled on DARPA

The Canadian government has announced that it will invest C $ 1 billion ($ 780 million) over the next five years to create a funding agency focused on innovation in science and technology. The unit will run counter to countries seeking to replicate the renowned US Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA); instead, it will be modeled on innovation agencies in Israel and Finland. But some critics say this strategy may not be right for Canada, which is looking to improve its poor track record of innovation.

The country ranks last in research and development (R&D) spending in the G7 group of nations. Canadian companies invest 0.8% of gross domestic product in research and development, compared to the G7 average of 1.6%. “This is a well-known and insidious Canadian problem,” Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland (pictured, center) said in her April 7 speech that set the federal budget for fiscal year 2022.

Canada’s latest experiment to foster innovation has created “superclusters”: five regional public-private partnerships that focus on specific areas, such as artificial intelligence.

Details of the new agency aren’t final yet, but it will differ from superclusters, says Dan Breznitz, co-director of the Innovation Policy Lab at the University of Toronto, which is advising the government on its design. The innovation agency will have a national focus and support many sectors, from high-tech start-ups to resource-based industries such as forestry. Breznitz envisions an agile and independent organization that deals with business. He says he should respond faster than government bureaucracy – similar to the Israeli Innovation Authority, which responds quickly to funding applications – and should be at a safe distance from the government so projects have room to fail.

The Finnish funding agency for technology and innovation represents another good model for the Canadian agency, Breznitz says, because 30 years ago the problems Finland faced were “eerily similar to Canada’s now.”

The Canadian government plans to announce more details on the agency later this year after consultations with stakeholders.

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