Compulsive Dobermans: It's Genetic

Compulsive Dobermans: It's Genetic

Researchers fully decoded the dog genome about four years ago, and we have still only scratched the surface of what this means for the advancement for scientific knowledge.  Most recently, researchers have identified a particular gene as being the cause for compulsive behavior in dogs.

It must be stated up front that a lot of dogs who exhibit compulsive behavior come from challenging backgrounds.  Puppy mill dogs and dogs which have been abused often display strange compulsive behaviors.  The same can be said for dogs which are confined without enough exercise.  Dogs are meant to get exercise, and if you keep a dog cooped up day after day without regular walks and outdoor play sessions, they can slowly be driven insane.

However, a specific gene has been linked to a particular kind of compulsion, including sucking behavior in Dobermans and obsessive tail chasing in bull terriers.  It makes sense that these breed specific obsessions would have a genetic component, since each purebred dog comes from a very limited gene pool, even despite the best efforts of dog breeders to cross their dogs responsibly.  

Dobermans have long been known to frequently suffer from obsessive sucking behavior, which often begins with sucking on a blanket or favorite pillow.  It then commonly progresses to the dog curling up and sucking its own flanks for hours on end, typically to the point of developing broken skin and skin infections from the mechanical damage and from the skin being constantly moist and irritated.

Now that researchers have isolated the gene which is responsible for these breed specific stereotyped behaviors, there is a possibility that they could be fixed with gene therapy.  On a more organic level, if dog breeders can be made aware that this is a genetic disorder, they will hopefully cease breeding dogs which show these behaviors, and thus wean the genetic problem out of the breed's gene pool.

On a larger scale, many people are hopeful that this has a parallel in human biology.  That OCD and other anxiety related disorders may in fact be the result of genetic diseases.  However it should be noted that the behavior of dogs is far more genetically determined than our own.  Think of a Labrador retriever retrieving, or a German shorthaired pointer pointing.  Dog breeds are confined to a far smaller population of individual bloodlines compared to most humans (not counting people in very restricted geographic or social settings like the Pennsylvania Dutch or the British monarchy).

In the mean time, owners with dogs which suffer from obsessive behavior do have options.  There is a wide variety of medications available which can help curb the symptoms, and an experienced and understanding dog trainer can help you set up a routine of behavior modification.  And it bears repeating, over and over, that additional exercise alone is often enough to reduce and sometimes eliminate obsessive behavior in dogs.  In some cases the obsessive behavior can be brought about simply by too much time spent in confinement - think of a zoo animal pacing obsessively in its cage.

Creative Commons-licensed photo courtesy of Flickr user bfraz