Psycho Dogs

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

If Hamilton can identify genetic markers that signify an increased risk of noise phobia, anxiety, and other behavior disorders, it will be a great boon for the dog world. As part of routine checkups, vets could analyze blood samples and screen for dogs that are likely to develop behavior problems. They could then counsel the owners of vulnerable dogs to intervene early, with either meds or behavior modification training.

However, those are solutions for dogs who are already damaged, the results of centuries of breeding experiments carried out in ignorance of the possible consequences. Hamilton's work also points to a way to reverse this process. Responsible breeders could check their dogs' DNA, and refuse to breed those who have the genes associated with behavior problems. By removing vulnerable dogs from the gene pool, they might eventually be able to create happier, more stable breeds. That's what the SPCA's Donaldson is hoping for. "Dog breeders could probably put me out of the fear and aggression business in 20 generations," she says.

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.

Here's where human psychiatry and dog psychiatry finally diverge. Nobody with any moral sense would suggest that human mental illness should be eliminated by restricting who can reproduce. In dogs, it's a possibility that's fast approaching. Dogs, welcome to the Brave New World.

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