Hunting is a survival skill that has united humans and dogs for about 17,000 years. During that time, people have bred dogs for specific traits to refine their hunting abilities, including searching for prey, pointing, flushing and retrieving. BGSU doctoral student Budhaditya Chowdhury is conducting the first-ever behavioral genetic study of the skills of hunting dogs. The project is a collaboration with Dr. Danika Bannasch of the Veterinary Genetics lab at the University of California - Davis.
Chowdhury chose to focus on searching strategies of bird dogs because searching behavior is perhaps most innate to dogs and “minimizes the training effect.” And because hunting dogs have been so highly bred, they make the ideal subject for a study of behavior and genetics, he said. “Their genomes are extremely similar yet offer enough diversity for us to study.”
Hunting is a perfect behavioral trait for comparative study because to different pointing dogs, the act of hunting means the same thing, unlike tricks they may be taught, Chowdhury said.
A recent morning found him in a field in nearby Tontogany with local dog trainers Steve Thompson and Dave Hagemeyer. The two have agreed to lend their German pointers to the experiment. Both they and the dogs are outfitted with GPS receivers that will render an image of their movements, recording the different hunting strategies, how effectively they use the wind, and how carefully they search.
After swabbing the dogs’ cheeks for a DNA sample, Chowdhury sets a cage of prey birds in the close-cut field. He records the wind speed and direction, temperature and humidity. Then a handler and a dog begin to walk the field. Each time out, Chowdhury changes the location of the prey birds in order to randomize the experiment’s design.
Hazel, a 13-year-old German pointer and experienced hunter, sets out in half circles, carefully covering ground. At one point she raises her head and closes her mouth to better catch scent on the wind. When she detects the presence of the prey birds she goes into the classic point posture: head down, tail out, one foot raised. “Each dog is different,” Thompson explains. “One might like to range out while another might like to work close.”
After the trials, the owners are rewarded with printouts and descriptions of their dogs’ behavior patterns, which they can use in training. Chowdhury will use the DNA from the cheek swab in his quest to match genes to behaviors.
“I can never remember a day in my life when I didn’t have a dog,” he said, which explains why, when his mentor, biologist Dr. Robert Huber, announced the possibility of working on a dog project with UC-Davis, he jumped at the chance. Both are part of BGSU’s J.P. Scott Center for Neuroscience, Mind and Behavior, where Chowdhury is a Fellow.
“During the ’60s, J. P. Scott did wonderful research in the genetics and social behavior of dogs, which is probably still the best behavioral genetics research ever conducted on dogs. He was one of the pioneers of behavioral genetics and conducted his research at BGSU. After so many years it is with great pride that we at BGSU embark on another behavioral genetic understanding of our four-legged friends,” Chowdhury said.