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The Dog Project: Researching Canine Behavioral Genetics

The helpfulness of the dog community has led to DNA samples from more than 3,000 dogs, and matching questionnaires for most of those. Almost 300 dogs are in the study of noise phobia involving Border Collies. Noise phobia is an example of a behavioral issue that occurs more commonly in certain breeds, including the Border Collie. McConnell notes, “It’s not always a problem in that surely, sound sensitivity is why a quiet whistle can get a Border Collie to lie down when he’s 500 yards away. However, the flip side of that can result in a dog who is thunder phobic or terrified on July Fourth.” McConnell’s experience with Border Collies and noise phobia goes beyond her professional life into her personal life. Several of her Border Collies have been uncomfortable during storms, and one, named Pip, was truly thunderstorm phobic. Pip was successfully treated/managed with a combination of counterconditioning, supplements, and body wraps. There’s little question in McConnell’s mind that she came with a genetic predisposition to be especially responsive to loud noises. Several other dogs in her lineage seemed to be particularly sensitive to loud noises.

The scientists working on the Dog Project are also interested in anxiety issues, panic, compulsive behaviors and aggression. They are especially interested in extreme forms of aggression in which dogs respond in a particularly reactive way, and PhD student Jennifer Yokohama is building a project focusing on these behavioral problems. According to Hamilton, “We’re looking for a disproportionate, out-of-the-blue aggressive response to a stimulus to which normal dogs even within the same breed do not react.” They are also looking for more typical, milder forms of aggression that may be a result of some of the same factors causing other, anxiety-based problems.

Not a Quick Fix
Researchers tend to be sensitive to the potential misuses of their research. Chang is uneasy that an unwanted effect might be people being more likely to want medication for their dogs as a quick fix. She emphasizes that medication is not a quick fix. It’s just a way to get some dogs receptive to the behavior modification that is needed. With research into the genetic influences of behavioral disorders, Zawistowski says, “There’s the possibility that someone will use the data to say that this gene is associated with aggression and dogs with this allele [gene form] should be euthanized because they pose a risk. It’s similar to breed-specific legislation because Pit Bulls pose a greater risk than Shih-Tzus. There’s always a risk for that type of issue.”

Chang hopes that when the results are presented, they will not be subject to that kind of misinterpretation. As far as she knows, there is no behavioral problem that is breed specific, and all breeds can exhibit behavioral problems. Hamilton comments that “The most extreme [misuse of the data] would be to overinterpret influence to ‘cause’ and use that information to make breeding decisions based on that or to make sweeping legislation about breeds or groups of breeds.” The researchers all adamantly oppose breed-specific legislation, and Karen Overall in particular has publicly voiced her opposition to it for years.

Despite people’s innate fascination with what drives their dogs’ behavior, until recently the answers to the questions posed by this project were not within reach. Zawistowski says, “I wanted to do behavior genetics with dogs for my PhD, but the systems were not in place for good, solid research. The dog genome work has changed that. At the same time, we’ve seen so much more interest in the behavior of domestic animals—long ignored by animal behaviorists. So this new work is really the culmination of two developments: better genetic methods, and more interest in dogs.”

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