“This is the job that Solo got me,” says Melanie Lee Chang, PhD, a biologist who got her doctorate in evolutionary biology and physical anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania and is currently working in canine molecular genetics. Solo is her eight-year-old Border Collie. The job is as a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) conducting research on the Canine Behavioral Genetics Project—commonly referred to as the Dog Project. The project’s primary purpose is to explore the relationship between genes and behavior, both normal and abnormal, in domestic dogs. The secondary purpose is to assess the amount and nature of genetic diversity in domestic dogs, both within and between breeds.
The Dog Project is a collaborative effort. Steve Hamilton, MD, PhD, is a psychiatrist and geneticist who has long been interested in the question of how genetics influences susceptibility to mental disorders in humans. Certified Veterinary Behaviorist Karen Overall, PhD, DACVB, a research associate in the Department of Psychiatry and Center for Neurobiology & Behavior at the University of Pennsylvania, emailed him about a paper he wrote on anxiety in humans. They soon realized they had a number of parallel interests. Dogs and humans have irrational fears and phobias that are similar biologically, in terms of treatment, and in their clinical manifestations. Dogs and children can both suffer from separation anxiety, and dogs exhibit obsessive-compulsive behavior similar to that seen in humans.
Hamilton hopes to be able to apply what is learned in this study to humans, but long before the research has an impact on people, the dog community will feel its effects. Among them, they could include influencing dog breeding and changing how dogs with behavioral issues are evaluated. A further understanding of the genetics of anxiety could even lead to insights about the very domestication of dogs.
A Hot Topic
Bringing up the potential for changes in breeding practices based on behavior and genetics is an exciting way to get a heated discussion going among researchers, behaviorists and breeders. There is no consensus. Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist Steve Zawistowski, who has a PhD in behavior genetics and works at the ASPCA as the head of national programs and science advisor, asks rhetorically, “If you are breeding Springers, wouldn’t it be nice to know if they are prone to Springer rage and breed accordingly?” As he points out, responsible breeders make decisions based on physical attributes; for example, they will only breed dogs with sound hips, passing over those individuals with hip dysplasia. So why should behavioral soundness be immune from these kinds of breeding decisions? His comments are in line with the beliefs of many behaviorists—in favor of breeding dogs with the goal of producing individuals that are least likely to develop the serious behavioral problems that result in suffering for both dogs and people.
In contrast, Hamilton believes that while “using such information may be crucial in cases where behavior disorders appear to cause intense suffering in dogs within a pedigree or breed, such information can be used prophylactically to signal which dogs warrant early intervention and treatment.” And Chang is concerned about the possibility of unwarranted oversimplification of the complexity of the links between genetics and behavior leading to inadvertent selection against behaviors that are desirable in certain breeds.
The Canine Behavioral Genetics Project does not breed dogs with behavioral issues. Rather, these researchers are analyzing the genes of existing dogs, and are recruiting dogs to participate (psych.ucsf.edu/K9BehavioralGenetics). Specifically, the researchers are looking for dogs who suffer from panic, fear, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive behaviors or aggression; unaffected close relatives of dogs with these issues; and dogs who do not have any of these behavioral issues or any known relatives who have them, either.