Hello to any new readers coming by here via Pharyngula! Welcome!
Today is our last day in Qatar, and we'll be spending it packing up and shipping samples home. Lucky for us, this leaves us some time to address some of the issues discussed in the comments here. Therefore, without further ado, Frequently Asked Questions:
1. Have you ever been bitten?
Nope. Neither of us has ever been bitten, nor has any of the assistants or dog owners who help with the project. While Ryan and I both have pre-exposure rabies shots as a precaution, it's never been an issue. Any dogs that aren't well-socialized pets, or any pets showing any signs of aggression, we muzzle. Ryan and I were both trained in how to do this safely and we have dog handling gloves (big thick un-bite-through-able gloves) for extreme cases. Ryan's pretty adept at getting a muzzle on just about any dog so long as no one gets in his way, but we like our 0 bites record more than we like a perfectly unbiased sample. We think first about keeping people safe, and then consider trying to get as interesting as a sample (ie, with both aggressive and calm dogs) as possible. So far, we have far more trouble getting blood from shy or skittish dogs than mean ones. A mean dog you can get behind with a muzzle--a shy dog is off and running before you even get out of the 4x4.
2. What about cats?
Alright, I know that no one was really asking this question over in the comments, but we actually get it a lot, particularly in Muslim countries, where dogs are considered bad luck or dirty. Cat domestication is in general pretty well understood to have occured in the Middle East, and there's a lot fewer questions that we're interested in that can be addressed with them in terms of shared history with human beings. Also, we're just not cat people.
3. What about the really interesting dogs I saw in [insert country here]?
Tell us about them! We're always fascinated by the diversity of pups we see around the world and are also interested in breed formation in general. Not only do we sample village dogs, we're also always on the look out for interesting "local breeds." Some places do have very distinct dogs, like the Armanti dogs from a village outside Luxor in Egypt, built like wire-haired afghan hounds with slightly furnished (ie, mustacioed) muzzles.
4. What about other ways of getting DNA?
Blood is particularly awesome, because it's pretty easy (you try cheek swabbing a pissed off village dog) and also managable to stabilize. We are banking this DNA for future study whenever possible, so stability is important.
5. Have you heard about the domestication experiements with silver foxes?
Yes, we have! This was actually one of the studies that got Ryan and I interested in domestication in the first place. In fact, because of this study, we pay particular attention to pedomorphic traits like floppy ears and indicators of domestication like white patches of hair on the forehead and chest.
6. Have you heard about testing dogs for breeds using DNA?
Yes, and use similar methodology to ensure that we don't wind up looking at dogs whose genes have gone through a breed bottleneck.
7. How do you get the dogs?
It depends on the country. In Uganda and Namibia, we pulled up to random villages, had translators explain what we were trying to do, and people came out of the woodwork with their dogs. It's apparently quite a spectacle to see a dog weighed in a goat sling on a fish scale. In Egypt and Qatar, we worked mainly with local animal welfare organizations. These are great places to work, as they have very enthusiastic staff used to dealing with animals and the animals themselves are often better socialized than most pariah dogs. In Luxor, Egypt, we worked with Animal Care in Egypt (ACE), a charity that provides free veterinary care to animals of all shapes and sizes, but particularly the horses and donkeys that work in Luxor's tourist industry. In Qatar we've been working with Qatar Animal Welfare Society (QAWS), a great organization that houses a really ridiculous number of dogs and cats. Both of these organizations are incredibly supportive of animal welfare under really tough conditions, and have also been really supportive of our science. The people at ACE and QAWS all work their butts off every day of the week, and they took time to help out a couple of random grad student researchers on top of their already very full schedules. They more than deserve any support anyone can throw their way, and we're proud to have been able to donate to them through this project.
Okay. I think that's enough for now. Other questions, such as the ever important "How did you guys wind up doing this?" will be addressed in later posts.
As a final note, while we would be quite jealous of us if we weren't doing this with our summer, really, we're not trying to brag about what we do. We're proud of our ability to do it, but mostly we're just really grateful that our wonderful collaborators have given us this opportunity, and really, really, really excited to be able to travel the world and meet loads of amazing dogs and even more amazing people.