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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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"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.

"When something new happened, like there would be new people over for dinner, he would start to look all worried and begin to stare at his feet again," Overall says. But what once seemed pathological now seemed like a manageable behavior quirk. If his owners gave him some extra reassurance, Spinner would lift his gaze from those menacing toes, and sit calmly through dinner.

In the 18 years since then, Overall has seen a dramatic shift in what owners and veterinarians are willing to do for troubled dogs. Vets used to chuckle about "doggie psychiatrists," she says, but now she gets calls from vets begging her to make time for their clients.

The pharmacological revolution is well under way. There are several drugs already licensed specifically for dogs, and last month Eli Lilly announced a new form of Prozac to treat separation anxiety in dogs. The drug, sold under the name Reconcile, is part of the company's new "companion animal sector." Like human Prozac, the doggie drug increases the amount of a neurotransmitter, serotonin, in the brain. It can have similar side effects to the human medication as well, sometimes causing lethargy or poor appetite.

Chang and Solo have benefited from the new medicines available, as well as from Overall's expertise. Chang was getting her Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania, and as the fates would have it, Overall was her adviser's wife. Overall prescribed Solo's medication and taught Chang some training exercises to decrease Solo's fear of being left alone. A few years later, when Hamilton was looking for a post-doc to work on the Canine Behavioral Genetics Project, Chang was a natural fit. She moved west in 2005.

These days, Chang stuffs two "non-crazy pills" into Solo's mouth every morning; he's on low doses of both Prozac and Elavil. When they lived in Pennsylvania, he also had a prescription for Xanax, which she'd give him if there were thunderclouds in the sky, but in San Francisco the weather patterns have been friendlier to her dog. Solo still doesn't like it when she leaves him alone in the apartment; when she's getting ready to go, he sits by her and looks as cute and plaintive as he can. "But it's not to the point where it seems pathological anymore," she says.


At Hamilton's basement lab at UCSF, the dog DNA samples have been arriving faster than his team can process them. More than a dozen small plastic boxes sit waiting on a lab bench near Chang's workstation, which is decorated with glamour shots of Solo. Every box holds about 70 plastic vials, each of which contains a swab carrying cheek cells. Isolating the DNA in those cells is a labor-intensive process; the lab technicians spend hours squirting in reagents and sending the vials whizzing around the centrifuge to dissolve the cells and remove extra proteins. Only then can Hamilton's team get to the interesting work of analyzing the DNA.

About The Author

Eliza Strickland

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