Psycho Dogs

What makes canines go crazy? The answer is in their genes.

At four in the morning, Melanie Chang was sitting up in bed, singing along to Madonna's "Crazy for You." She stared at the dog crouching on the floor of her bedroom, a wild-eyed creature too scared to sleep. Melanie was not crazy for him. She was not even sure if she would keep him.

She met Solo a few weeks before, in September 2000. It was not love at first sight.

Solo was too big, and the wrong color, she thought — a rangy mess of reddish-brown and white fur. He didn't seem to think much of Chang, either. He found the grass at the dog park more interesting than her, and gave it a good sniffing.

At a local dog show, Steve Hamilton's team recruited purebred dogs for a genetics study.
Paolo Vescia
At a local dog show, Steve Hamilton's team recruited purebred dogs for a genetics study.
Rebecca Terrill scrapes off a few cells from this dog's cheek at the dog show.
Paolo Vescia
Rebecca Terrill scrapes off a few cells from this dog's cheek at the dog show.

She was in mourning for her wee puff of a Pomeranian, who had succumbed abruptly to cancer that summer. Dogless and confused, she signed up haphazardly with various purebred dog rescues, organizations that recycle dogs booted from their homes. She could have ended up with a Siberian husky or a basenji, an African hunting dog. She thought a Shiba Inu, a Japanese breed, might be fun. Instead, the first reply came from a man with a border collie.

Chang had never seen a border collie, though she knew a fair bit about them; as a kid she wasn't allowed to have a dog, so she read breed encyclopedias instead. She knew they were smart, demanding, and active. An average border collie is a lot to handle. Chang was about to meet a dog that would be a good candidate for a straightjacket.

The man wrote that he was trying to place a 16-month-old dog who had suffered through a traumatic puppyhood, and had been through at least four homes in the last two months. Expecting a casual and preliminary conversation, Chang met the man and the dog at a nearby park. Usually, getting a dog from a rescue organization requires a long application process, with references, home visits, the works. This was different.

"You want to give this a try?" asked the man. It was like he was anxious to get the dog off his hands.

"I did think to myself, "Something is not right here,'" remembers Chang. "But I actually heard this voice in my head that said, "Just let this happen.'"

The man handed her the leash, and Chang and Solo walked home together. Solo still hadn't deigned to notice her. Chang felt numb.

"A few hours later I realized he was cracked," she says.


Today, Solo is also known as No. 256; he's one of about 3,000 dogs whose DNA has been collected and analyzed at a lab at UCSF's Langley Porter Psychiatric Institute. Chang is at the lab, too, but as a researcher, not a subject. She wound up at the lab because of Solo's "issues."

Dr. Steve Hamilton runs the basement laboratory in a building on Parnassus Avenue, where he hoards doggy DNA in industrial-strength refrigerators and freezers.

Hamilton is a psychiatrist who wants to know what role genes play in the devilish list of mental disorders that plague human beings; his current work includes a genetic analysis of people with panic attacks, and a study of patients' varied responses to the antidepressant Celexa. Now, with an unusual project, he's turning to another species for insight into abnormal brains and behavior.

They call it the dog study — or, officially, the Canine Behavioral Genetics Project. Hamilton is recruiting dogs that hide under the bed during thunderstorms, dogs that get anxious or aggressive with strangers, dogs that obsessively chase their tails, and dogs that chew up shoes, pillows and couches when they're left alone for hours. Many people believe that such dogs are misbehaving; the classic "bad dogs." Hamilton essentially says that these dogs are mentally ill, and hypothesizes that the key to their behavior is in their genes.

Hamilton believes that dogs are natural models for the study of human mental illness, as there are clear parallels between the species. Veterinarians say they see dogs with anxiety and panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive disorder, separation anxiety, and phobias, all disorders that humans also suffer from. In dogs, these behavior disorders can be observed and measured easily. "When humans are anxious, there's a stereotypical constellation of symptoms — they're tremulous, they pace, they're withdrawn, they have an elevated heart rate," Hamilton says. "Dogs have similar symptoms that you can observe — they pant, salivate, defecate."

Still, why not cut to the chase and look for the genetic component of these disorders in humans? The answer has everything to do with the legendary zeal of dog fanciers, who have, over many generations, created well-defined breeds with very distinct genetic profiles. "Dogs are the grand genetics experiment that humans have carried out for the past 10,000 years," Hamilton says.

Humans have carefully tended to the canine breed stock, sometimes selecting for physical attributes, like a Dalmatian's spots or a poodle's tight curls. But in past eras, breeders tried to enhance behavioral traits, building border collies to herd sheep, golden retrievers to fetch game, and greyhounds to hunt rabbits. Humans have created breeds with incredibly specific behavior patterns — which means looking into their genomes offers an unprecedented view into what makes dogs act the way they do.

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