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The Dog Project: Researching Canine Behavioral Genetics

Participation consists of sending DNA acquired from a cheek swab of the dog and filling out a 25-page questionnaire about the dog’s behavior and any available pedigree information. Rather than ask, for example, if dogs bite people, the questionnaire is highly detailed, asking whether the dogs bite, whether the bites have broken the skin, how many bites there have been, and whether the bites are from the back, the front, or occur from any direction. The checklist about the dogs’ behavior after biting includes whether or not the dogs’ pupils are dilated, the dogs appear disoriented, dazed, tremulous, tense, or uneasy, whether they hoard objects, whether they are quick to recover, are light sensitive, their eyes appear glazed, whether they stare or are frozen in one position, whether they always hide in the same location, appear unaware of their own action, whether they react to benign motions such as raising an arm while reading the newspaper, and if there are any other post-bite reactions. The questionnaire is similarly detailed for separation anxiety, noise phobias and a host of aggressive contexts.

Canine Genes Rich in Information
When considering organisms destined for genetic study, fruit flies and peas initially spring to mind, but the domestic dog belongs at the top of the list. The dog has accidentally become the greatest genetic experiment in human history, and is thus the perfect system in which to address many genetic questions. Dogs display enormous variation in both morphology and behavior, both of which have been selected for intensively over many generations, yielding a one-of-a-kind opportunity to study morphological and behavioral variance. Researchers may be more likely to learn about the influence of genetics on components of behavior by studying dogs than by studying humans.

There are two general approaches to finding genes correlating to specific behavioral tendencies, and the Canine Behavioral Genetics Project uses both. The first approach entails looking at purebred dogs, which gives the researchers access to populations of dogs with limited genetic variation because they are all descended from a limited number of individuals. This low genetic variation makes it likely that at least most dogs within a breed with a particular trait are more likely than dogs from different breeds to share the same genetic variation. This fact significantly simplifies the search for genes related to the trait of interest, and reveals why the domestic dog is such a valuable research tool for geneticists. Families of purebred dogs are even more genetically similar. Therefore, if the researchers can find close relatives in which some dogs are affected by a behavioral disorder and other individuals are not affected, it is even easier to pinpoint where the dogs’ genetics differ.

The second approach is to study both behaviorally affected and unaffected dogs that are unrelated either within breeds or across breeds. Because unrelated dogs are not as similar genetically, the areas in which their DNA is similar is particularly interesting if correlations can be found with abnormal behavior. If a group of unrelated dogs with the same behavioral problem all have a particular variation in their genes, then that variation is worth investigating as a possible cause of the disorder.

Solo’s Lucky Day
Solo’s behavioral issues made him available, but Chang got Solo by luck. Early on, she thought it was bad luck. He was a hodgepodge of behavioral issues: fear, nervousness around strangers, noise phobia, separation anxiety, emitting distress vocalizations if Chang fell asleep, and on and on. For weeks, she could only stop him from pacing and howling at night by singing. Every time she fell asleep, he would start crying again and wake her up. Her feelings have changed so much that Chang now speaks about Solo the way couples in love talk about one another, but they certainly had a rocky start.

She had just lost a magical dog—a Pomeranian named Harley whom Chang could take anywhere because she was always good. Chang took her to classes she attended, to classes she taught, to her office, and with her when she went out. She sums up her grief by saying, “When you lose a dog, there’s a huge empty space, and in my case, it followed me around since I took her everywhere.”

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