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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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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?"


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.

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.

About The Author

Eliza Strickland

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