Psycho Dogs

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

At the Golden Gate Kennel Club's annual show in late January, thousands of people packed the Cow Palace to admire more than 130 varieties of dog-dom represented. Several halls were packed with vendors who took cutesy to a new, horrifying level: One shop offered throw pillows embroidered with pictures of corgis in tutus. Hamilton's booth stuck out; next to a booth full of pet portraits, all lolling tongues and wet eyes, Hamilton's team had hung enlarged copies of their scientific papers.

The Canine Behavioral Genetics Project's tent was stocked with questionnaires and little brushes used to scrape cells off the inside of a dog's cheek. Hamilton's team was looking for recruits to donate dog DNA. They talked up the importance of the project to every owner who paused in front of their display: Do it for science, do it for a better understanding of our canine companions. They explained to an owner that she won't get results back; she won't find out what her poodle's DNA looked like, or why he acts the way he does. Someday, if Hamilton's work goes well, vets will give dogs DNA tests and screen for behavior disorders, but that's years down the line.

Chang made a foray into the crowd to hand out kits to the owners and breeders showing border collies. The 25-page questionnaire has detailed inquiries about how the dog reacts to certain stimuli: When there's a thunderstorm, for example, how does the dog respond? Does he salivate, defecate, urinate, destroy things, try to escape, hide, tremble, howl, pace, or simply freeze? Owners fill out the form, dutifully scrape the inside of their dog's cheek, and send it all back. Hamilton's lab then extracts the DNA from the cheek cells and starts rummaging through the genomes of dogs that display certain traits.

Serious devotees of purebred dogs have grown accustomed to studies of dog genetics in the last two decades, as it became clear that inbreeding has had serious medical consequences. Breeders find inbreeding useful for bringing out desirable recessive traits; they'll sometimes mate closely related dogs in order to get a rare coat coloring, for example. Unfortunately, breeders may be selecting for less obvious recessive traits as well. It's common knowledge that they have inadvertently created Rottweilers prone to hip dysplasia, Dalmatians with kidney problems, narcoleptic Dobermans, and Portuguese water dogs at risk of blindness. Forward-thinking breed clubs have developed DNA databases to aid research into inherited diseases, sometimes even funding the studies.

But so far, breeders have been much more reluctant to study behavior disorders — just as in human society, there's stigma attached to mental illness. Some experts believe breeders are avoiding the subject because they don't want to be held responsible when a dog loses its marbles.

Jean Donaldson, an author and a dog trainer at the San Francisco SPCA, is one of the country's leading experts on dog behavior. She sees dogs with every conceivable behavior issue, and owners at the end of their ropes. Some dogs' problems she attributes to the immediate genetics of their family lines; like the Shar-Pei who had such severe separation anxiety that he broke his teeth and bloodied his paws trying to gnaw through the doorframe when his owners left. Donaldson says she usually recommends medication for such extreme cases. "You know, dogs are routinely euthanized for things like separation anxiety. So it seems to us that the lesser of two evils is to go ahead and medicate," she says.

Donaldson's office is crowded with two dogs, her own fluffy chow chow, Buffy, and a foster chow chow she's calling Buttercup. The foster dog was abandoned in the SPCA's parking lot, a shy, nervous mess with matted fur, skin problems, and a broken tooth. The city shelter deemed her "unhandleable," so Donaldson is trying to rehabilitate Buttercup and make her eligible for adoption. Buttercup's tangled fur has been shorn and she now wears a cozy pink coat, but she still cringes away from people. She had clearly been mistreated, which partially explains her anxiety, but Donaldson says that chows are known as a nervous breed; Buttercup got the one-two punch of nature plus nurture. Donaldson had made an appointment with the vet to discuss medication.

Most commonly, she sees dogs with aggression problems. While she's a fierce opponent of "breed bans" like the proposed outlawing of pit bulls that San Francisco debated two years ago, she believes it's undeniable that some breeds are predisposed to violence. Many breeds that were bred as guardians or fighting dogs were carefully designed to not like strangers, she says. She thinks it's disingenuous of breeders to further enhance this trait, and then expect owners to compensate with training.

"I think the biggest implication of genetics and behavior is that breeders are going to end up being implicated," she says. She mentions a chocolate Labrador with compulsive disorder, whom she's treating, that was bred from field trial champions. He compulsively fetches and guards household objects, and chewed at his tail until the owners were forced to amputate the tip. "It's a classic case of genetics kicking in, so predictably! Unbelievably predictably!" Donaldson says. "It's very frustrating to throw every med in the book at this dog, when somebody built him to be this way. Should we really be building dogs to have compulsive disorders?"


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