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Psycho Dogs 

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

Wednesday, Mar 7 2007
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In the next few years, the dog world will have to find its way through the dense, tangled nature-versus-nurture debates that tied human psychiatry in knots over the past decades. Dog owners will argue over whether psychotropic drugs are miracle cures or just shortcuts for the lazy owner; already veterinarians are seeing the dawning of Doggie Prozac Nation.

Hamilton expects that there will be fierce resistance to the idea that training is not the ultimate answer to bad behavior in dogs. "Have you seen the Dog Whisperer, on TV?" he asks. "The idea is, by force of will, you can always get a dog to do what you want. If you can't, then the owner must have done something wrong." Similarly, he says, human psychiatrists long refused to believe that some people were born with an inherited risk of developing mental illness, and blamed the patients' environments. "Stereotypically, the idea was, it's the mother's fault," Hamilton says. "In the dog world, the idea is that it's all the owner's fault. My vet colleague jokes that they're about 20 years behind us."


When Chang got ready for bed that first night, Solo got nervous; he began pacing around the bedroom and whining. Then she turned off the light, and he started to howl — a high-pitched scream, the sound of acute distress.

She turned the light back on, sat up, and looked at him. He stopped pacing and crying, and looked back. She turned off the light and lay down. He started to howl again. "Dear God!" thought Chang.

Soon she discovered that if she talked to Solo, he would settle down on the floor. But he wouldn't fall asleep, and he wouldn't let her stop talking. After about four hours, "I kind of ran out of things to talk about," she says, so she started singing to him. That's where Madonna came in. But he wouldn't let her stop singing: "He'd wake up and start howling, and then I'd sing something else — it just kept going like that all night," she says.

Chang would soon realize that her pup had full-blown separation anxiety, which explained his nighttime anxiety in a weird way. "He was afraid to be alone, and I guess when I went to sleep, it was like I was going away in his mind," says Chang.

The next day, she brought Solo to the University of Pennsylvania with her; she was a graduate student studying physical anthropology and evolutionary biology. Her little Pomeranian had gone to school every day, either waiting patiently in Chang's shared office or grinning and wagging through classes. Chang hoped Solo would do the same. She brought him to the office, introduced him to her office mate, and took off for class. "Five minutes later my adviser came to get me and said, "Your dog is wigging out!'" she says.

Over the following days, Chang began to understand the severity of Solo's problems. She set up a tape recorder in her apartment and left to see what happened in her absence: Solo started screaming 30 seconds after the door clicked shut, and didn't stop for the 45-minute duration of the tape. She skipped work to stay with him, and either skipped classes or brought him along — although that wasn't ideal, either, since he'd sometimes sit up and start howling for no obvious reason. "It was really disruptive to my graduate school career," she says wryly.

It was more than Chang had bargained for. She e-mailed the man who had passed Solo on to her. "This dog is crazy!" she wrote indignantly. The man wrote back making "the appropriate noises" about how much he hoped it would work out — but he didn't offer to take Solo back.

Meanwhile, advice was coming in from all sides. One common opinion was that Solo was just a bad dog. He was the wrong dog for her. There was something defective about him. He should be put to sleep. "You will get tons of positive reinforcement if you decide to kill your dog," Chang says. Another refrain was that she should find an "animal communicator" to get some insight into Solo's mental state, a suggestion that the science-minded Chang didn't take seriously. But she couldn't help wishing that a medium could whisper into Solo's ear, and get answers in return. "The first thing I would have asked is, "What the hell is the matter with you?'" she says.


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.

About The Author

Eliza Strickland

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