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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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They've recently started studying border collies with noise phobia, a disorder that can range from quirky to life-threatening. Some border collies react fearfully to certain odd noises, like a dog Jean Donaldson knew that looked terrified when he heard pita bread being broken. Others are scared of the typical big bangs, like gunfire, fireworks, and thunderstorms. Chang has friends in Maryland whose dog was driven crazy by the region's summer storm season. The dog tried to jump out windows during storms, so they began putting him in his crate when it got cloudy; then he broke all his teeth trying to get out of the crate. His owners finally put him to sleep, recognizing that he was no longer enjoying his life.

Chang has leveraged her knowledge of the border collie world for this study, recruiting research subjects at breed club events, sheep-herding trials, and on Internet newsgroups. The work has paid off; they now have DNA samples from many extended border collie families. On the wall of Hamilton's office, several sheets of paper piece together one family tree whose members are scattered across the East Coast. The sire was an accomplished working dog who reportedly freaked out during thunderstorms and went bonkers on the Fourth of July. He was bred to five different dams; sure enough, the litters were peppered with noise-phobic dogs.

Hamilton doesn't know which genes are involved with noise phobia, so he's taking the general approach, looking at the entire genomes of individual border collies, and comparing them. The trick comes in deciding which dogs to compare. He can take two related dogs, only one of which has noise phobia, and look for the places where their genomes differ. Or he can take two unrelated dogs that both have noise phobia, and look for where their genomes are similar. Hamilton expects that it will take about 18 months before they can point to specific genes that they think are involved in the disorder.

The project has occasionally brought scorn from his psychiatric colleagues. "They say, "Why should we care, or more importantly, why should we fund this?'" he explains. "We need to convince the [National Institutes of Health] that understanding the health of dogs will illuminate human health. A side benefit is that we'll help dogs lead happy lives."

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.

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.

About The Author

Eliza Strickland

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