Dr. Karen Overall: Temperament vs. Genetics
Dr. Karen Overall, Senior Research scientist at the University of Pennsylvania
Temperament in purebred dogs plays a vital part in how the dogs fit into their families and society. Along with that comes the inevitable nature vs nurture argument. In other words, does separation anxiety, for example, have a genetic basis or is it caused by well-intentioned but misguided owners.
According to Dr. Karen Overall, it’s some of each.
“It was a lot more complex than what we thought’”
Research in purpose bred working dogs indicates that genetics are responsible for 30 percent of a dog’s behavior, with environment, at some level, responsible for the rest.
“When you look at a pedigree, if 50 percent of dogs in that family line have a variant of a certain condition, the chances are that there’s a genetic contribution to that,” Overall said, “especially if that condition has been identified in another species, if that model exists, chances are that pedigree is representative of an increased risk that’s genetic.”
Overall and the “Spinning Dog”
Overall’s work is the baseline for many in the field of behavioral medicine. Herand are used in clinics around the country. But she describes her work here as sort of an “accidental tourist.” She planned to work in strictly research until a residency in behavioral medicine introduced her to a dog who couldn’t quite spinning… for two and a half hours.
“That dog said to me, whoa, this is interesting, this looks like human OCD,” Overall said. “There’s a good chance it has a genetic basis. There are a number of clear cut behavioral concerns that look to have genetic predispositions.”
Overall has dedicated her career to researching and teaching owners of pets with behavior issues. “Education may not work, may not take,” Overall said. “But that doesn’t give you the option to not do it. Without it, guaranteed, what you have is ignorance.”
Behavior Modification Protocols
This dedication to behavior medicine has paid off for Overall. She has developed and promotes protocols which help clients address and overcome with behavior modification. And she has identified seven “risk genes” that approach significance in the field.
In all the instances Overall discusses, the genetic basis is polygenic and influenced by the environment. And she notes that frequently the phenotypical disease is not actually expressed due to the dog not experiencing a triggering environment.
“I think they’ll put it on my tombstone, ‘It was a lot more complex than what we thought”.
She added that many of what we as breeders and owners identify as behavioral issues are linked with performance and the jobs the dogs were designed to do.
“In those cases, there has been selection for the job, selection against the extremes of pathology, but not that midrange,” Overall noted. “There has been no ‘cost’ to enhancing the behavior.”
Amongst the tools Overall has provided to owners and breeders is this type of protocol for creating a “relaxed” dog in various situations. Please investigate the various links for more information on her amazing work. Enjoy today’s conversation, with valuable insight from one of the country’s foremost practitioners in behavioral medicine and research.