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The Dog Project: Researching Canine Behavioral Genetics

After she lost Harley, Chang got connected to an independent rescue group, but something did not seem right to her at the arranged meeting with Solo. The man who brought Solo didn’t ask her much about herself, he didn’t check any references, and he seemed in a huge hurry to hand Solo off. Even though the whole situation seemed wrong, and she felt sure this was not how rescue was supposed to work, she obeyed the voice in her head saying, “Just let this happen.”

Chang realized immediately that Solo was nothing like Harley. She brought Solo to school, partly because it was apparent after just one night with him that he could not tolerate being alone. She left Solo in her office in the company of two female classmates and went to class. Five minutes later, her advisor, Art Dunham, came to get her because Solo was screaming his head off. Not only could her advisor recognize the seriousness of the problem, but he was fortuitously married to veterinary behaviorist Karen Overall. Dunham told her, “Karen can see you Saturday.”

Overall diagnosed Solo with generalized anxiety as well as separation anxiety. He was alternately agitated/panicky, pacing, scanning, panting, drooling or catatonic. When he was catatonic, he would lie on the floor with his eyes open, drooling, and he didn’t blink even if a hand was waved in front of his face. When Chang left him alone (even to take out the garbage) he would fly into a blind panic and cry at full volume. Solo immediately began to take anti-anxiety medication, and Chang began behavior modification that incorporated deference, relaxation, and desensitization to arrivals and departures. A combination of medication (Solo is taking Elavil and Prozac and used to take Alprazolam, drugs also used to treat human mood and anxiety disorders) and lots of practice has resulted in an extraordinary change in Solo’s behavior and quality of life.

Solo lives a full and basically normal life—he’s taken part in rally obedience, agility, stock work, and has appeared in instructional videos. While he does not want to be petted by strangers on the street and hates July Fourth, in most circumstances his behavior is completely unremarkable, which Chang considers his greatest accomplishment. Chang gratefully says, “I wouldn’t still have my dog if it weren’t for Karen Overall.” Years after this appointment, when Overall and Hamilton were looking for a biologist who was also knowledgeable about dogs to work on the Canine Behavioral Genetics Project, Chang was a natural choice.

Chang has gotten used to the idea that Solo will be on medication for the rest of his life. “If giving him drugs makes his world look safer and more normal to him, then I think it would be cruel not to give them to him.” Solo’s environment is also hugely influential on his behavior. Like many people whose dogs have behavioral issues, Chang is hyperaware of her environment and protects Solo as much as possible from things that upset him. Sheepherding has been a godsend for both Solo and Chang, who says, “I started working him on sheep because he was weird, and it was the only place where I got to pretend I had a normal dog. The more he sees sheep, the better he is.”

Community-Based Study
Solo is one of many participants in the Dog Project. The dog community has really stepped up to take part. People’s eagerness to participate no doubt stems in part from the study’s lack of harm to any animals. As Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist Patricia McConnell, PhD, comments, “I’m gratified to hear that the researchers are avoiding breeding for conditions that could cause suffering in the dogs that have them and are using existing dogs to help us understand both dogs and humans who suffer from genetically-mediated behavior problems.” Chang adds that, “One of the major advantages of a community-based study is that the dogs are living in their normal environmental context, the one that they must be able to cope with, so we are looking at in-context behavior rather than behavior in an artificial lab environment.”

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