Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Who funds dog research?

As I move through my training and think ahead to my future career, I wonder: who will pay for all this research I want to do on dogs? I have so many questions to ask!
  • What changes happen in the canine brain as it enters, and then leaves, the socialization period?
  • How is the brain of a fearful dog different from that of a confident dog?
  • What are the genetic differences behind these variations?
  • How do environmental differences (prenatal stress, early learning, adult life) change the brain?
In other words, what are the mechanisms in the brain that differ in fearful dogs — receptors, neurotransmitters, synaptic wiring? And how can I learn about them without using invasive (painful and/or terminal) techniques?

Who are the caretakers of Dog, the species, who care about fearfulness? We as dog owners and lovers care, but dog owners and lovers aren’t the ones who are trained to heal unhealthy dogs, to perform research aimed at understanding them, and we (mostly) aren’t the ones who breed them. So who are the groups who are the caretakers of Dog, and what subsets of Dog do they care for?

Image: Who is my caretaker?


We (I am a veterinarian) are trained to heal sick dogs. Relatively few veterinarians perform research compared to those who engage solely in clinical practice. But some do perform research: most commonly as faculty at veterinary schools alongside a clinical practice, or less commonly as researchers without a clinical practice at research instititutions.

Veterinary research, as a result of this strong emphasis on healing the unhealthy, is focused on clinical results. Veterinarians most commonly perform research which asks questions about the effectiveness of particular techniques — medications, surgical approaches, new equipment. Veterinary research very rarely addresses root questions about mechanisms, particularly in the area of behavior. Rather than asking “How are the brains of fearful dogs different?”, veterinary research is more likely to ask how we could fix a fearful dog: “Does this medication make a fearful dog less fearful?”

In fact, as I pursue my mechanism-based questions, I am asked if I miss being a veterinarian. The perception is that because I am engaged in basic, rather than clinical, research, I am no longer working as a veterinarian.

Basic science researchers

If veterinarians do clinical research studies, then who does basic research biomedical studies, studies that look not at how to fix problems but at how the body works? Ph.D. researchers are more likely to do this sort of research, which is why I am currently engaged in obtaining a Ph.D.

Traditionally, Ph.D. researchers have not been interested in dogs. In fact, way back in 2004 when I was originally deciding between a Ph.D. and a D.V.M., I was told by a Ph.D. animal behaviorist, “Ph.D.s don’t study domesticated animals. Veterinarians study those.” (Actually, veterinarians mostly just try to fix unhealthy domesticated animals, not study the healthy ones.)

That perception has changed in a big way in the intervening eleven years. There are now multiple laboratories studying dogs. But where does their funding come from — who cares enough about dogs as dogs, not as models for human problems, to provide the impressive funding needed for a genomics study? (The work I am doing for my Ph.D., sequencing messenger RNA, costs around $45,000.)

The U.S. federal government

The traditional source of funding for basic research is the federal government: the National Institutes of Health for health-based research and the National Science Foundation for more basic research. But these two massive institutions are very much focused on human health — as they should be, as they are funded by the tax dollars of American citizens. The economy can’t support all the research American researchers would like to do, and getting an NIH or NSF grant is becoming more and more difficult as grant funding is cut. Funding to study dogs as models of human disease? Maybe, but isn’t it easier to study laboratory rodents (on which you can perform invasive studies) or work on humans directly? Funding to study dogs as dogs? Go lie down until it passes.

In my experience, the small number of laboratories directly studying dogs are either studying them as models for questions about human health or evolution, operate on a shoestring budget, or have great trouble obtaining funding for what they want to do.

Animal welfare organizations

So who cares about dogs? Animal welfare organizations, some of which are national in scope and do perform research. Some major players in this field are the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), the Center for Shelter Dogs (CSD), and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). I am most familiar with the research coming out of the ASPCA and the CSD, and it is exciting stuff. But it is again mostly focused on applied questions: how can we help the shelter dogs in our care?

I reviewed some of the research these two organizations have performed on how to identify and treat food aggression in shelter dogs in my story for the Bark on shelter behavioral assessments. This was ground-breaking research and I am really glad to see it published. But it doesn’t ask the basic (i.e., non-applied) research questions I am interested in: what is it about the brains of these dogs that differs from the brains of dogs without food aggression? That kind of research doesn’t have immediate applied benefit. You can’t take it to a shelter worker with a recommendation about whether or not to put a food aggressive dog on the adoption floor. It is incredibly impressive that these shelter-focused organizations perform any research at all, and it is absolutely appropriate that the research they perform should have a highly applied focus, with clear questions that, when answered, will provide guidance on how to improve the lives of shelter dogs, immediately. They do not have the resources to pursue these sort of mechanism questions that I want to ask, which do not have immediate applicability.

So who cares about understanding how dog brains work, with the hope that that information will provide a base for future applied research? Who cares about the whole species, not just the subset in shelters or the subset in hospitals?

Breed organizations

Breed organizations care very much about the health and welfare of dogs, and in fact have provided funding into the mechanisms behind health issues specific to their breed. A recent paper about associations between spay/neuter status and health issues in Golden Retrievers was partially funded by the American Kennel Club’s Canine Health Foundation (AKC/CHF), and a similar study on Vizslas was funded by the Vizsla Club of America Welfare Foundation. (I blogged about these studies elsewhere.)

These organizations can fund basic research on how and why particular diseases occur in their breeds, and may even be willing to fund expensive genetic studies, such as a recent one on the genetics of cancer in Golden Retrievers, supported in part by both the AKC/CHF and the Golden Retriever Foundation. However, their focus is very much on the problems of a particular breed. My questions are broader: why do dogs of all breeds have different personalities, some more or less fearful? These organizations are really the caretakers of breed subsets of Dog, not of Dog itself.

Who, then?

Who does that leave as a group willing to fund studies on Dog? On problems common to all breeds? On problems which may or may not provide good models for humans? If I hope to one day run a laboratory which studies these problems, who can I hope to help pay for the research?

I would be remiss if I did not mention Morris Animal Foundation here. While their important Golden Retriever Lifetime Study happens to focus on the health issues of a single breed, their mission is to fund research into studies of small animals (dogs and cats), livestock, and wild animals, with no breed limitations. This group is doing important work, and I applaud them.

But one organization is not enough for a laboratory to depend on for survival, especially in these times with research funding so hard to come by. And so I wonder: are we, the dog lovers of the world, the ones to start supporting research into what it is to be a dog? We, who own dogs of all breeds and mixes, with all sorts of problems, who know what problems most plague us as owners — not just medical problems, but behavioral ones?

And so I leave you with my dreams of crowdfunding, in which a researcher proposes a study and asks the public to support it through donations. Such an approach allows the dog community to take the task of answering basic questions about Dogness into their own hands. This direct connection between a researcher and the community affected by their research is a new benefit of this age of social media. Is this approach right for this particular problem? Time will tell.

Image: Will crowdfunding work?


  1. Excellent post, Jessica. I have always marveled at the excellent research and helpful information that is coming out of dog cognition labs around the world, that I know struggle tremendously with trying to get funding for their work. I imagine funding for basic research such as your work, is equally if not more difficult to find. Love, love the idea of crowd sourcing (Mike and I are huge fans and supporters of Kickstarter)! Sorry for being so out of touch recently - know you are speaking at APDT too - we have so much to chat about - up for a coffee soon? Linda

    1. Thanks, Linda! You rocked it with your recent rawhides post too. When my husband wakes up every morning he asks me "and what did you learn this morning?" as I always start the day by reading RSS feeds and journal articles. I replied "pork chews are more digestible than beef chews! Who knew!"

      Coffee soon would be lovely!

  2. I had a long comment for you, but somehow lost it. Essentially: Thank you for existing (I thought I was the only one who thought like this) and here's an organization you may not be aware of:

    1. You're welcome -- I am happy that I exist, too! :)

      I do know of SPARCS. Here's hoping that this year's conference is as great as the last two!