Psycho Dogs

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

When Chang had stopped feeling sorry for herself and accepted that she had a "whacko dog," she started making phone calls, and eventually pieced together Solo's sad life story.

Solo was born at a shabby kennel in central Pennsylvania where the dogs, chained to the doghouses, wore muddy circles in the ground by pacing. He had eight weeks of happily squirming over his littermates before he was sold to a woman who kept a stable of purebred stud dogs; she made a nice profit by renting out their services. But the dogs weren't useful until they matured, so she locked Solo in a kennel in the backyard and left him there for a year. He got little or no training, exercise, or human affection. "He was basically veal for a year," Chang says.

Chang doesn't know why, but when Solo was 13 or 14 months old the owner of the stud farm started trying to sell him — but he kept getting returned, like a defective product. He went to a family that ran a day care in the house, but he herded the children, and got sent back. Another family said that he barked all day while he was tied up in the back yard. A third owner let Solo run loose on a farm, but couldn't stop him from chasing the horses.

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.

Solo's penultimate stop was a ranch in Maryland that trained working sheep dogs. The owners thought that even if Solo wasn't suitable as a pet, they might be able to train and sell him as a working dog. But he was afraid to go after the sheep. Chang speculates that he had been punished for chasing horses, which left him wary about the whole herding thing. "He flunked out of herding school," she says.

The man who gave Solo to Chang was the only border collie rescue volunteer who was willing to take him — and now he didn't want Solo back. Chang realized that she was the end of the line for the dog. Her friends thought he was a "hairy beast," and told her there was clearly something wrong with him. No one would have blamed her if she had brought him to a shelter to be euthanized. He would barely eat, and his ribs were sticking out. When he wasn't agitated, he was nearly catatonic: Chang would wave her hand in front of his glassy eyes, and he wouldn't even blink.

"Everybody who has a dog like this has the same story," Chang says. "You feel sorry for yourself at first. You think, there's this universe of perfect dogs out there, how the hell did I get stuck with this crazy one?"

Chang remembers the day she decided she had to keep the sad, scrambled dog. Sleep-deprived, she was rambling through a pet supply store, looking for dog food that Solo might actually eat. She looked from a bag of kibble to the animal at her knees, and saw a drooling, pathetic animal who looked like he was waiting for someone to kill him. It was too much for her kind heart to resist, and she dropped down to give him a hug.

"I didn't want to be the last person to give up on the dog," she says. "I thought, everybody else has let him down, and I just can't."

The dog study is a collaboration between Hamilton, who brings his expertise in human psychiatry and genetics, and Karen Overall, a veterinarian behaviorist at the University of Pennsylvania who pioneered the use of psychotropic medications in dogs. She vividly recalls the 1989 case that started her experiment. Spinner was a medium-sized mutt, your average city dog with some shepherd in him. His owners were despondent when they brought him in; they loved their dog, but had no idea what to do.

"This was a dog that couldn't stop staring at its feet and snapping at his feet," Overall explains. "And he would look around, and see a shadow, and he'd start to look worried, and he'd snap at the shadow. And then he'd look at his feet again, and try to pull his feet back, and then he'd spin in a circle."

Although the traditional method of treatment would be to ask about his environment and his training, Overall was convinced that the dog had a case of obsessive-compulsive disorder. "There was no way on God's Earth that people could have caused the dog to be like that," she says. So she marched over to the university's psychiatry department and sought out the department chair. She described her patient's symptoms, announced that she thought the dog should be treated with medication, and then braced herself for derision. Instead, she got a list of drugs and doses used to treat OCD in humans.

Overall called the drug company that made the human medication she wanted to try, and talked them into giving her a free supply. Then she began treatment, combining medication with behavior modification exercises — much the same way humans combine drugs and therapy. It did the trick. The medication didn't turn Spinner into a glassy-eyed zombie, as the owners feared, and it didn't instantly solve all his problems. But it calmed the dog down enough so that he could focus on something besides his own distress, which allowed the new training to take hold.

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