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Background: Working dog handlers and breeders have strong opinions on characteristics that are desirable in the breeds that they use to handle stock. Most of these characteristics are related to conformation or behaviour. This study explored whether the genetics underlying desirable working behaviour traits might be identified by selective sweep analysis; a method that identifies long regions of strong homozygosity combined with allelic divergence from a comparison group. For this analysis, we compared genomic haplotype architecture in two breeds derived from common founder stock but subjected to divergent selective pressures. The breeds studied were the Australian Kelpie, which is registered with the Australian National Kennel Council, and the Australian Working Kelpie, which is registered with the Working Kelpie Council.

Results: A selective sweep spanning 3 megabases on chromosome 3 was identified in the Australian Working Kelpie. This region is the location of genes related to fear-memory formation and pain perception. Selective sweep loci of similar magnitude were observed in the Australian Kelpie. On chromosome 8 is a locus which may be related to behavioural excitability and on chromosome 30 is a smaller locus which most likely is related to morphology.

Conclusions: Active working stock dogs of the Australian Working Kelpie breed have been bred primarily for gene loci influencing pain perception and fear memory formation. By contrast Australian Kelpies are commonly maintained in urban environments where these characteristics are not required and have been affected by selection for conformation and coat colour. The identified loci may aid in the identification of superior working dogs.