Heather Huson’s path to animal genetics happened by chance. Growing up racing sled dogs, she hoped to tie her interests in the sport into becoming a veterinarian. Her path was altered when she happened to land a job at a genetics lab at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. Working with a researcher to understand the genetics in sled dogs and wildlife, Huson was inspired to pursue a career as an animal geneticist.
When she’s not busy teaching genetics courses or working at the raptor barns with the Cornell Raptor Program, Huson leads a team of undergraduate students, graduate researchers and animal technicians who assist in her research at the Odyssey DNA Lab. The Lab’s mission is to understand the genetics of working dogs—sled dogs, guide dogs and detection dogs. These genetics are explored through the dogs’ health, behavior and physical traits, which all are indicators of their longevity and performance.
With each “class” of working dogs comes a different project and a team of student researchers. The sled dogs are a primary focus of Huson’s lab. Her Aging Project sees sled dogs as the model working dog, as these animals typically retire after six years when they are still healthy, and Huson has access to dogs with similar upbringing and genetic background.
“For the past five years, the project has focused on longevity, behavior and overall aging,” said Huson. “Seeing how these variables change over time and how these traits relate to the genome of the dog are both important to track.”
While the Aging Project is coming to an end, Huson and co-PI’s John Loftus and Joe Wakshlag are taking this opportunity to transition the study’s goals to focus on how canine nutrition affects the ways in which sled dogs age. The Aging Project utilized treadmill and behavior exercises, while the new canine nutrition study focuses primarily on behavior exercises.
On the treadmill, dogs run or walk at varying paces while researchers track their running speeds, and their heart rates and other vital signs. Dogs exercise on the treadmill a few times during the week, and researchers have been able to track the changes in each dog’s physical ability over time.
With the behavior exercises, Huson tracks dogs’ characteristics and overall behavioral changes every nine months. She and her fellow researchers monitor dog activity and their responsiveness to people and objects familiar and new to them. The team works to give each dog lots of play time outside of these exercises, and the welfare of each dog is carefully monitored.
Huson’s other classes of dogs are equally as important to her and her lab. Partnering with The Seeing Eye (the oldest established guide dog breeding association in the world), she studies guide dogs to create genomic breeding values. A breeding value estimates the value of the dog’s genetics and helps Huson and her collaborators understand a dog’s breeding potential.
“A partnership with The Seeing Eye means several different genetics projects,” Huson said. “I’m working to understand the breeding values of 37 different health traits and six different performance behavior type traits.”
With detection dogs, Huson seeks to understand what makes a dog good at detection. She has partnered with a researcher located in Africa who works with detection dogs that track down poachers. “A major trait we look at is heat tolerance,” she said. “How does the heat affect these dogs’ ability to track down poachers? It’s interesting to see the other traits that influence the dog’s focus and their speed to follow the scent or track they’ve picked up on.”
“I’m excited to figure out the trait underlying the drive of a working dog. Why does a herding dog herd? Why does a sled dog want to run?”
The more Huson learns about these different dogs, the more she realizes how similar the different types of working dogs truly are. “The traits between these different types of dogs are all related and carry over to one another,” she explained. “I’ve learned that gait and heat tolerance are factors seen in all three groups.”
Huson is inspired to keep working everyday by her team, the animals and her research. “I’m excited to figure out the trait underlying the drive of a working dog,” she said. “Why does a herding dog herd? Why does a sled dog want to run? Answering these questions is the future of my research.”
Ultimately, Huson would love to create a working dog center at Cornell, with a primary focus on research and education in behavior and genetics. “Already having the opportunity to work with such amazing people and animals is wonderful in itself,” she said. “It is truly because of my team that we are able to achieve these goals, and I can’t wait to continue making strides in animal genetics.”
Caroline Stamm ’24 is an animal science major and student writer for the Cornell CALS Department of Animal Science.
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