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The Canine Behavioral Genetics Project

Narrator: The entire dog genome, a detailed map of dog genes, was sequenced in 2005. With this wealth of information available, researchers at the University of California , San Francisco and the University of Pennsylvania , launched the Canine Behavioral Genetics Project in an effort to identify and better understand the genetics behind panic and anxiety-disorders and aggression. Dr. Steve Hamilton, a human geneticist and psychiatrist at UC San Francisco, is co-leader of the project.

Hamilton V/O: It's basically a collaboration between geneticists and animal behaviorists trying to get at the genetic basis for complex behaviors. In the short term, what we would like to do is determine if there are genetic influences on dog behavior, like something like noise phobia. Is there an influence from a dog's gene?

Narrator: Behavioral disorders are one of the main reasons dog owners give up their pets - many end up abandoned, in shelters or are euthanized. Melanie Chang, a postdoctoral fellow with Hamilton 's lab group and a devoted dog advocate, helped one of her own rescued border collies get over issues with noise phobia. Chang's goal is to help owners keep their dogs.

Chang: A lot of times owners are very determined, but they don't really know what to do and if they don't understand the mechanism behind the problem that their dog is experiencing, then they can't effectively deal with it. And so I've known many people who, despite their best efforts and all of the help that they could receive at the time, were not able to make their relationships with their dog successful and keep the dog in the home because the problems were too complicated or beyond their means to treat. And so once we understand what's happening with all of these dogs, then we'll be able to more effectively keep the dogs in the homes and that's really what I would like to see out of this.

Narrator: In the long run, understanding behavioral disorders in dogs may also shed light on similar behavioral problems in humans.

Hamilton O/C and V/O: As a psychiatrist, I'm primarily interested in behaviors related to human psychopathology and that means something like anxiety and aggression. And so we're focusing on collecting dog and dog families in which these problems occur and then trying to use the genetic tools that are available to understand - "are there areas of the dog genome that may tell us something about these disorders in dogs?" And ultimately, they may also illuminate our understanding of the disorders in humans, which can be very similar.

Narrator: Hamilton says this study really underscores that dog is human's best friend.

Hamilton O/C: The dog has done so much for humans over the last ten thousand years in terms of companionship, working with us in the field, etc. And it's only fitting that now that the dog has come to help us in terms of understanding the basic mechanisms of disease, potentially leading to novel treatments and cures and diagnostics for human disease. And I hope what we can do is offer something back to the dog, in terms of helping dogs and dog owners come to grips with the diseases that they suffer from.

Narrator: For more information about the Canine Behavioral Genetics Project, please visit the web site listed on this page.