Friday, March 9, 2007

Psycho Dogs, Their Cure, and the Demise of Dog Rescue - San Francisco's Dog Blog

This week's SF Weekly has a Cujo-sounding cover story, simply entitled "Psycho Dogs." Inside, the rag describes an experiment to find the genetic roots of behavior disorders in dogs. The article explains that UCSF's Langley Porter Psychiatric Institute is conducting a fairly laborious experiment to examine the dog genome and find the genetic traits that cause compulsive behavior.

This raises an interesting ethical dilemma: what then? Once we know of these genes, are we obligated to breed them out? If not morally obligated, should we anyway?

And most importantly: will the power to design a dog's genome from the ground up make people less likely to rescue mutts they haven't created?

In some ways, wielding this information will be nothing new: dog breeders have been defining desirable characteristics in their canine companions for centuries, and then selectively breeding dogs to enhance these desirable qualities.

Moreover, these kinds of projects will almost certainly discover some DNA combinations that are so deleterious that leaving them in the dog genome would be morally unacceptable.

But at the same time, something more is going on here. This genetic information has the capacity to eliminate chance, experimentation, even innovation in dog breeding, by giving breeders perfect control over the genetic content of every dog born. And because the power is not being used simply for physical ailments--but as the SF Weekly article explains, also to cure behavioral problems--we will be wielding this power in an area where human subjectivity can be pointed and dangerous.

No doubt we have an obligation to ensure that our dogs have an opportunity to begin their lives without genetic impairment, particularly since most of these impairments are caused by humans and our inexact attempts to shape our dogs.

But behavioral problems are not always so clear-cut. Indeed, the dog with the strong prey drive that makes it unsuitable for dog parks makes it precisely the dog needed for certain types of field research. If we eliminate this gene from the dog's code, will we risk losing more than we expected?

Indeed, we might even lose many more of the mutts we currently rescue, because inexorably tied to the power to remove bad genes is the power to create dogs from basic genetic building blocks. It will not be long until this power is harnessed by the market to design dogs for prospective pet owners. To be sure, the claims will be modest at first as the technology develops--guaranteed separation anxiety free, etc.--but in theory at least, dogs could be made to order like a build-a-bear. Will this opportunity lead to a decline in interest in rescuing mutts from shelters, dogs that don't come with the personalized design and guarantee?