vonHoldt Lab

Evolutionary Genomics and Ecological Epigenomics

Genetics of canine hyper-sociability


My research group, in collaboration with Dr. Monique Udell at Oregon State University, is exploring the molecular mechanisms that influence human-directed hyper-sociability in dogs and wolves. We work extensively with Drs. Elaine Ostrander at NIH/NHGRI, Janet Sinsheimer at UCLA, and Clive Wynne at Arizona State University to integrate genomics and behavioral data gathered from wolves and domestic dogs of any variety, breed, and ancestry. We recently identified mutations in a handful of genes that are associated with increased human-directed social behaviors (vonHoldt et al. 2017). Interestingly, when many of these genes are deleted in humans, they are known to cause a behavioral syndrome called Williams Beuren Syndrome (WBS). Among a number of central traits, WBS is often identified by extreme friendliness and lacking a fear of strangers. This work has been reported in many media venues (e.g. National Geographic) as well as on Princeton's homepage.

If you you to help keep this research going, there are two ways that you can donate! One is for donating data on your canine companion (see below). The other way is to donate financial support (visit my Benefunder profile).

Are you interested in participating in our ongoing canine research of genetics and social behavior?

See the FAQs below for more information on how to participate. We are continuing with this very exciting opportunity to explore how the same genes involved in WBS may shape behavior of dogs. Also, please read this flier for a brief summary recruitment summary!

Frequently Asked Questions!


Question: Hi! I just saw your ad/flier/website and I would like to how can I participate?
Answer: How exciting to hear that you would like to participate! I like to think of your participation as progressing through three stages.

Stage 1: Basic data collection. This stage consists of completing three forms. The first is the consent form is your acknowledgement that your involvement is voluntary and that you have been made aware of any risk involved. Princeton University (including myself) does not offer reimbursement for any costs accrued. This form will need to be signed and dated before your data and sample can be used in this study. The second is to collect demographic information on each individual dog. This contains standard questions about your dog’s birthdate, age, sex, breed, and a few minor health-related questions. The final form is a short 42-question behavioral assessment called the C-BARQ that is to be completed for each individual dog.

All forms can be found on the project’s website (Documents #1-3 below) and will be kept confidential. If you own multiple dogs that you would like to include, please fill out each form separately for each dog! Completed forms can be returned to me via email (vonholdt@princeton.edu), and name the scanned file as "LastName_firstName.pdf". The subject line must include "WBS participation" or else my filter may discard it. Alternatively, you can use the U.S. Postal Service. My mailing address is: Bridgett vonHoldt, 106A Guyot Hall, Princeton University EEB, Princeton, NJ 08544.

Stage 2:Behavioral video data collection. This stage consists of two short behavioral tests you can conduct at home with your dog! Each test needs to be video-recorded in order for us to conduct a behavioral analysis. An iPhone video is just fine, with submission via a shared private YouTube link, or other free file transfer methods (I like to use www.wetransfer.com for files up to 2GB in size). The first behavioral test is called a sociability test, which measures how socially interested your dog is in strangers. The second behavioral test is called a problem solving test, which measures if your dog completes the puzzle in 2 minutes or less (owners, no helping them!). Instructions for the setup and completion of each test are provided on the project’s website (Documents #4 and 5 below).

Stage 3: Genetic sample donation. Upon receiving items from both previous stages, if you wish to also donate a non-invasive genetic sample, I will send the collection supplies needed. I must have received all documents and files from Stages 1 and 2 in order to ship you genetic sample collection supplies. This can become incredibly costly and to ensure a high return rate, the previous stages must be first completed. Once completed, you may decide to collect a genetic sample to be included in the study! The collection procedure is simple, involving a non-invasive cheek swab that will collect cells from your dog’s mouth. You can complete this yourself and in the comfort of your own home, without the need of a vet visit. Though the project website provides two possible types of genetic sample collection (cheek versus blood), I am only looking for cheek cell sample donations at this time. The protocol for this is straightforward, and found on the project website (Document #6). Briefly, a swab is gently rubbed on the inside part of your dog’s cheek, placed swab-end first into the reagent solution collection tube, sealed with a screw top lid, placed in a ziplock bag, and mailed to me via the U.S. Post Office.

Question: I live outside of the United States. Can I still participate?
Answer: My short answer is "yes"! I'm setting out to determine the methods of shipment. Do not despair and hopefully soon I can have a simple suggestion to tackle this question. At the very least, all paperwork and videos can easily be sent via email.

Question: Are there results that I can/will receive? How long before I know anything about my dog?
Answer: The reality is that this is a long-term study at an academic institution. My research relies heavily upon obtaining financial support from external agencies (e.g. federal government) or private marketplaces that match philanthropists with research they would like to fund (see my Benefunder profile!). Also remembering that I have many other duties and services (e.g. educational, committees, outreach) that demand my attention, along with the mentoring of my own students and, of course, publishing. I will work with all resources that I have to provide you a short report on the number and type of gene variants your dog carries. However, these is simply a qualitative report. Behavior is influenced by many molecular and environmental factors. As such, a brief report can be provided upon request (I would like to make this a routine deliverable as the study gains momentum). At the moment, the timeline will be hard to estimate. Absolutely consider this ambiguity when deciding if you should participate or not!

Documents for participants

Here is a collection of documents needed for each dog and owner that wants to donate a genetic sample with demographics and behavioral data. Each document is presented with a short description and a link to the PDF form you can download and complete, following their respective instructions.

1. Consent form. This is the Princeton University consent form that provides you, the dog owner, information regarding the benefits and risks of participating in this study. This form discloses what each of us are responsible for, and requires your signature/date to participate in this study.

2. Demographics. This is a simple data collection form that captures the most general demographics of your dog (e.g. birthdate, name, etc). This form ensures me that I can link dog data to a human's email address for any correspondance that is needed. This form also helps me keep all data types linked to an individual dog.

3. C-BARQ questionnaire. To better understand the general personality of your canine companion, you will also be asked to complete this short 42-question survey to assess your dog’s level of excitability, fear, anxiety, aggression, and sociability. This is similar to a human personality assessment, and provides an overall picture of your dog's typical behavior.

4. Sociability test. This document provides the instructions for an at-home behavioral survey that measures how social your dog is with humans. This requires the ability to video-record the behavioral trial which consists of four treatments, 2 minutes each. The treatments include either a familiar or unfamiliar person, speaking or not speaking to the dog. I provide instructions for submitting the video file to me.

5. Problem solving test. This document provides the instructions for an at-home behavioral survey that measures your dog's dedication to solving a puzzle box in this problem solving task. This requires the ability to video-record the behavioral trial with a duration of 2 minutes. However, you will need to construct this simple puzzle box for your canine, and instructions are included. I again provide instructions for submitting the video file to me.

6. Sample collection protocols. This document lists two protocols. First are the details of how to collect a cheek/buccal swab from your dog, a non-invasive procedure that can be done at home, at your convenience. The second protocol is if you volunteer to donate blood from your dog. This can typically be completed during your dog's annual exam at the vet clinic. Blood needs to be collected by a licensed veterinarian. I will supply the blood collection tube(s) that you would take to your vet at the time of the dog's appointment. You are welcome to speak with your vet ahead of time to ensure they can comply with this request.