Researcher discusses big dog data

Jameson Pitts

Researchers are sniffing out the truth about dogs by using big data.

Adam Boyko, a dog genomics researcher at Cornell University, discussed Friday how dog evolution and breeding has led to patterns of traits and behavior. 

“We’ve clearly bred dogs to perform different roles, and that includes breeding for shape and size as well as behavior,” Boyko said. “Sometimes, just by changing a dog’s size or shape, you actually change the way it behaves.”

Boyko’s research connected various physical traits to behavioral quirks. “Furnishings” like mustaches or eyebrows are associated with chasing shadows, dogs with big ears howl when left alone, and the strongest association was between nervousness around stairs and short legs, he said.

In addition to gathering data on more than 5,000 purebred dogs that visited the Cornell veterinary hospital, Boyko also traveled the world to collect genetic and physical data from populations of feral village dogs unaffected by generations of human breeding.

“Dogs are a great species to study because you show up, bring food, and they come to you,” Boyko said.

Findings on dog traits, the origin of dogs and dog diseases were made possible by the large worldwide dataset, which Boyko termed “big dog data.” 

UT’s Center for Computational Biology and Bioinformatics, which uses data and computation to solve problems in biology, hosted the event. Hans Hoffman, director of the center, said he invited Boyko to speak because he is a leading expert in the field. 

“Since the dog genome has been sequenced, the dog has emerged as a model system for understanding how variation in the genotype gives rise to variation in the phenotype,” Hoffman said. “Adam Boyko has been at the forefront of this in recent years.”

Biochemistry doctoral student Chris Schardon said he learned a lot from the presentation.

“I have a dog, I love dogs, and I thought it would be interesting to get a closer look at the genetics of dogs,” Schardon said. 

Pet dogs, clients of the Cornell hospital, played a crucial role in Boyko’s research. He said they can offer the scientific community a way to learn more about dog health in the future. 

“We’ve got 70 million pet dogs in the United States, and they’re really an untapped genetic resource for understanding dog health, dog evolution, and, in some cases, even being able to tell us about human health,” Boyko said.