SPARCS 2018 International Conference 

We're back!

Join us for the 4th SPARCS International Conference on Dog Behavior

The Real Dog: What We Know & What We Don’t (Yet)

Presented by 
The National Canine Research Council

  • Where Live streaming directly to you from New York's Hudson Valley (Eastern Daylight Time)
  • When June 1st - June 3rd

About The 2018 Conference

The Real Dog: What We Know & What We Don't (Yet)

The SPARCS Conference is a three-day scientific conference hosted by National Canine Research Council that blends the format of a traditional academic conference with a format that is welcoming, friendly, and engaging for all audiences. 

At SPARCS animal behavior scientists present, discuss and debate their findings. Six prestigious speakers will give in-depth talks pertaining to this year’s theme of canine behavioral genetics. They’ll talk about how they set up their research designs and what they discovered, and what they think should be investigated next. 

Each of the 3 days concludes with a panel discussion sparked by questions from the audience, both in the room and around the world, including many still open questions where the scientists may or may not agree. Viewers can use #SPARCS18 to ask questions on social media.

This conference puts the brightest minds and most ground-breaking information into one three day event and makes it accessible to everyone.

No more excuses about the cost of a good education.

Whether you are a researcher, a student, or simply a person who wants to better understand your own animal companions, the SPARCS experience gives you access to rigorous, cutting-edge science that addresses your questions for free.

Technology offers us the opportunity to bring you that knowledge. You can watch and listen to these brilliant scientists via any device that can stream. You can even listen from your car via your phone! 


How can I attend this year's conference? 

This year's conference is only accessible via live stream.

How much does the live stream cost? 

It's 100% free! 

What timezone is the conference taking place in?  

We'll be broadcasting live from New York, so EDT (Eastern Daylight Time). 

Do I need to register or download specific software to watch the live stream? 

No! You can access it right here on our website!

How can I engage with the presenters and ask questions? 

Our conference science hosts — Mia Cobb and Julie Hecht from Do You Believe in Dog? — will be live tweeting and fielding questions during the conference. Follow @doyoubelieveindog on Twitter and Facebook to stay connected!

I live in a different time zone and so cannot watch the live stream. Will the presentations be made available to watch after the conference? 

Yes! All presentations and panels will be recorded and posted here on the website in the week following the conference. 

Will the live stream be captioned?  

Unfortunately, we are unable to provide captions during the live stream. However, the recordings available on our website after the conference will be captioned. 

I was a SPARCS member — how do I log in to the website? 

SPARCS is no longer a membership organization, and so membership features have been disabled. It is now just a multi-audience educational conference provided by the NCRC, though we still provide archived video of conference presentations free of charge here on the website. 

I'd like to present at the conference. Do you still accept abstract submissions?

At this time we are not accepting abstracts. 

Who is National Canine Research Council (NCRC)? 

National Canine Research Council is a non-profit canine behavior science and policy think tank. Our mission is to underwrite, conduct and disseminate academically rigorous research that studies dogs in the context of human society. Read more about us here

Speaker & Bios

  • Adam Miklosi, PhD, DSc Adam Miklósi is a professor and the leader of the Department of Ethology at the Eötvös University in Budapest (Hungary). He is also the co-founder and leader of the Family Dog Project ( which aims to study human-dog interaction from an ethological perspective. Read more...
  • Jessica Hekman , DVM, PhD Jessica Hekman, DVM, PhD is a postdoctoral associate at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. Jessica received her Ph.D. in Animal Sciences (Genetics, Genomics, and Bioinformatics) in 2017 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she studied canid behavioral genetics. Read more...
  • Kristopher Irizarry, PhD Dr. Kristopher Irizarry received his PH.D. from the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at UCLA where he developed computational methods to identify functionally relevant genetic variations in the human genome. Read more...
  • Elinor Karlsson , PhD Elinor Karlsson is an assistant professor in bioinformatics and integrative biology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. She is also the director of the Vertebrate Genomics Group at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. Read more...
  • Claire Wade, PhD Claire Wade began her career in quantitative genetics before making the leap to genomics in 2002 when she began a position with the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The genomics group at the Whitehead later became one of the founding groups of what is now the Broad Institute. Read more...
  • Kelly Ballantyne, DVM, DACVB Dr. Kelly Ballantyne graduated from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in 2005. She started her career as a primary care veterinarian in the Chicago suburbs before joining the University of Illinois’ satellite veterinary practice in Chicago in 2009. Read more...
  • Julie Hecht, MSc Conference Science Host Julie Hecht has conducted dog behavior and cognition research with the Family Dog Project at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest and at the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College in NYC. She is a PhD candidate in Animal Behavior & Comparative Psychology at the Graduate Center, CUNY, and she holds a Masters in Applied Animal Behaviour & Animal Welfare from the University of Edinburgh... (read more!)
  • Mia Cobb, BSc(Hons) Conference Science Host Mia Cobb enjoys a diverse career as canine welfare researcher, consultant to industry, science communicator and educator. She has a unique combination of on-the-ground industry experience from over a decade working in animal shelter and working dog facilities, teamed with a keen enthusiasm for learning and sharing evidence-based best practice... (read more!)

Conference Schedule

Friday June 1st
Saturday June 2
Sunday June 3

Evolution and Genetics of a Close Friendship: More questions than answers

Adam Miklosi, PhD

Our main question used to be the following: How did dogs’ behavioral potential change during evolution that made them fit for the human (anthropogenic) environment? We have assumed that in the course of domestication dogs adopted specific potential to develop behavioral skills which increased their fitness when living with humans.

However, the first paper on evolutionary genetics in 1996 contradicted the generally accepted time of domestication determined by zooarcheologist. They argued for an over 100,000 years old relationship with humans, while dog remains were dated to be around 15,000 years old. Since that time there is a debate about the timing and location of dog domestication. What does this tell us about our parallel history? Should we not just look for the phylogeny but also at population genetics?

It is often thought that dogs and human co-evolve. Why? The fact to live alongside of the other, to allow dogs in our houses or flats or that dogs indeed represent a new species among canids is not enough to make such arguments. The knowledge of evolution theory and developmental genetics are important to clarify this issue.

Do genes cause behavior or rather they canalize certain tendencies? What does it mean that dogs and wolves differ genetically? How can we find some evidence for a genetic effect, and why one should be cautious with the interpretations?

Dogs lie certainly close to the heart of many people but after so much research it is still a mystery how our best friends evolved to be so different in their look and behavior but so similar in their genetics to wolves.

30,000 Years of Artificial Selection: What genomics tells us about canine domestication and the human animal bond

Kris Irizarry, PhD

The path from wild wolf to domestic dog represents the longest domestication event in human history. Dogs have been bred for specific social traits that exhibit "evidence" of selection in today's dogs' genomes. These traits enable a unique social bond between humans and dogs. Understanding the genetics and domestication history of our "best friend" offers clues as to the biological basis of the human animal bond.


Panel Discussion


Our panel of speakers discuss the day's science and take questions from the audience. 


New Research into the Genetics of Canine Behavior

Claire Wade, PhD

Behavioral differences between dog breeds are often commented upon. Several groups have used across-breed genetic mapping to identify genes with impact on breed characteristic behaviors (such as herding and pointing). But to date, positive results from this strategy have been a little elusive. Recognizing that not all breed characteristic behaviors are exhibited by all individuals within a breed, we have chosen a different approach. We instead use the statistical power afforded by within-dog breed gene mapping strategies to identify traits of importance in working dogs (herding and retrieving). We also make use of breed-splits to help us in our search. This strategy has yielded some exciting findings. By examining breed splits in two breeds (Kelpies and Labrador Retrievers) we have located genes that impact working success (Kelpie) and noise sensitivity (Retriever). Our work on mapping separation anxiety in Retrievers has yielded information on an important locus influencing fearfulness that appears to be predictive across breeds. This presentation will focus on research highlights from our recent work that will be of interest to everyone that loves working with dogs.


Citizen Science, Pet Dogs and the Complex Genomics of Behavior

Elinor Karlsson, PhD

Humans have exerted strong selective pressure on dogs for thousands of years, shaping behaviors like guarding, herding, pointing, and retrieving. Even with this unique history, however, behavior in dogs is still complex, influenced by hundreds of different genes, as well as environmental factors. Because of this complexity, finding the genes involved will requires tens of thousands of dogs. To achieve this, we’ve tapped into a huge population of dogs living in homes with observers of their behavior: our pets.  Our citizen science dog genetics project, “Darwin’s Dogs”, engages directly with dog owners to collect behavioral and genetic data. Our novel approach to dog genetics — enrolling any dog, regardless of breed ancestry — has allowed us to collect DNA samples from thousands of diverse dogs, each with detailed behavioral phenotypes, supporting statistically well-powered genomic studies of complex behaviors and behavioral disorders, including compulsive disorders, noise phobia, and anxiety. By understanding the underlying genetics, we hope to find new ways to treat behavioral disorders that could help both dogs and people.


Panel Discussion


Our panel of speakers discuss the day's science and take questions from the audience.


Impacts of Canine Behavioral Genetics on Human Canine Relationships

Kelly Ballantyne, DVM, DACVB

A review of the current science on whether genetics can dictate the relationships that people have with their dogs. What are realistic expectations for canine behavior?


Genetics is Not Predestination: The importance of experience from before birth through socialization

Jessica Hekman, DVM, PhD

The importance of very early life (in utero and birth through 8 weeks) in developing personality in dogs, and how that interacts with genetic influences.


Panel Discussion


Our panel of speakers discuss the day's science and take questions from the audience.