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Researchers say the hyper-friendliness of dogs results from gene mutation

Researchers say they have pinpointed a gene mutation that explains why dogs are so hyper-friendly — one they believe could have played a role in their domestication.

The scientists say they have isolated two genes, variations in which lead to the hyper-friendliness and tail-wagging sociability that most dogs exhibit.

When I read the headlines I had two reactions. First, I didn’t want to believe that the love dogs display resulted from something as stark sounding as a “mutation.” Second, I decided I wanted those genes, and those mutations, inside me — and all humans.

Imagine how much better a place the world would be if we all got so excited we nearly peed when we greeted each other, covered the faces of friends and strangers with licks, and had that unconditional love and loyalty that dogs possess.

Interestingly, though, similar variations in those same genes are already inside a small number of us. The genes at issue — GTF2I and GTF2IRD1 — are the same ones that have been associated with a human disease called Williams-Beuren Syndrome (WBS), which causes developmental disabilities and many other health issues.

The condition is characterized by mild to moderate intellectual disability, unusual facial features, cardiovascular problems and other health issues. But it also can often lead to affected individuals having highly outgoing, engaging personalities and extreme interest in other people.

Having written about people with developmental disabilities for eight years as a reporter, I met more than a few people like that — in institutions, group homes, and living with their families. They’d come up and hug a complete stranger. They’d follow me around, paying attention to everything I did and said. They seemed to indiscriminately love everybody. They were hard to say goodbye to.

I didn’t know it was a result of their Williams-Beuren syndrome, or that there even was a Williams-Beuren syndrome (this was the 1980’s), just that they possessed an innocence and trust uncommon in our species. I can’t remember if, at the time, I saw that behavior as “dog-like.”

But some researchers did.

vonholdtBridgett vonHoldt, an evolutionary geneticist at Princeton University, and Monique Udell, who studies animal behavior at Oregon State University, met three years ago and started talking about dogs.

In an earlier study, vonHoldt had identified a gene that’s mutated more often in dogs than wolves — one that possibly led to their domestication.

Together, Udell and vonHoldt decided to examine the social behavior of a group of dogs and a group of wolves and then analyze their DNA in the region that included the genes in question.

The study they co-authored, using a combination of genetic sequencing and behavioral tests, pinpointed a couple genetic differences that seem to track with friendliness.

Using 16 dogs and eight captive, socialized wolves, they were able to establish that the dogs showed a greater variation, or mutation, of those genes. Animals with these mutations appeared to pay more attention to the humans than those without, the researchers said.

“We find that hyper-sociability, a central feature of WBS, is also a core element of domestication that distinguishes dogs from wolves,” the study concluded.

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The findings, in addition to providing new insights into the human disorder, could explain a large part of what led wolves to become domesticated, and how dogs evolved to become man’s best friend.

To learn more about the study, check out these reports from the
Los Angeles Times, Science and Princeton University.

(Photos: At top, Bridgett vonHoldt, an assistant professor in ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton and the study’s lead co-author, cuddles with her Old English Sheepdog, Marla, by Chris Fascenelli, Princeton University Office of Communications; at bottom, Lauren Brubaker, a graduate research assistant in the Department of Animal and Rangeland Sciences at Oregon State University and one of the study’s authors, interacts with a gray wolf, by Monty Sloan, via Princeton University Office of Communications)

Inspired by Michael Phelps and that shark, I arrange an inter-species race of my own

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Some of you might have caught Michael Phelps in his dramatic and courageous race with that great white shark, shown in a Discovery Channel special the other night.

It was yet another inspiring moment in the career of the Olympian, who is a close personal (Facebook) friend of mine.

So inspiring it was that it led me to challenge some creatures from another species to a fully legitimate, no trick photography, race of our own.

Since I write about animals, and am a pretty major celebrity myself, it seemed worth doing, or at least as worth doing as your typical Discovery Channel, Learning Channel, History Channel program.

And humans racing animals has a long and stupid history. Jesse Owens raced a horse. Several athletes have tried to outrun cheetahs. Others have gone up against dogs and ostriches.

True, I am not exactly at my athletic peak these days. I’m still getting over having a kidney removed and, as a result, I’m moving a little more slowly and with a little more discomfort than usual.

satireBut — being a competitive soul (like Mike) — I wasn’t about to let that stop me. I carefully researched and chose the creatures I would competing against.

To capture the contest on video, I hired someone to film it. Being a little strapped for funds, what with hospital bills and all, my videographer was actually a wino I found downtown who, once he got the camera pointed the right way, seemed up to the task.

Unfortunately, he framed the shots in such a way that I don’t appear in them as I glide down the asphalt at what is now my full speed. Don’t let that make you doubt the authenticity of all this though, for my journalistic ethics are every bit as solid as the Discovery Channel, or for that matter, the History Channel, or the Learning Channel.

To further uphold the integrity of the event, I arranged for four judges with unimpeachable reputations to oversee the race — Ryan Lochte, D.B. Cooper, Yeti and Amelia Earhart.

I won’t put off the suspense any longer, because I know you are all dying to see it. Here is the footage:

While the snail broke out to an early lead, the slug managed to stay right behind it, and I was right behind the slug, though out of the camera’s frame.

Eventually I passed the slug — you’ll just have to take my word for it — and pulled even with the snail. I had opened up a pretty good lead when, realizing one of my sneakers had come untied, I bent over to re-tie it.

Before I was able to get upright, I was swallowed whole by a giant anaconda. I thought escape would be impossible, as if I was in Al Capone’s vault. But, a few minutes later, I managed to reach up and tickle his throat until he coughed me up.

By the time I was able to get back on my feet — not without a few groans — both the snail and the slug were way in front of me, leaving trails of slime behind them that made getting my footing difficult.

I reached deep down inside, near where my kidney used to be, and summoned up the strength for a final burst. Sadly, as I caught up with them, the camera still didn’t have me in the frame.

Now I could have played with the video, and used CGI, so you’d see all three of us in the race, but how honest would that be?

Documentaries should be honest, after all — a straight recounting of the facts with no misrepresentations, deceptions, schmaltzy staged reenactments or trick photography.

I am nothing if not honest, and far be it from me to manufacture drama where none really exists, or to drag out any suspense.

Suffice to say the results of that historic race — John vs. slug vs. snail — left many with their jaws dropped, their hearts pounding and the realization that they had seen something truly special. Some say it will become a legend for the ages. The winner was …

Fade to commercial.

To purchase the CD of John’s race with the snail and the slug, moderated by Morgan Freeman, send $89.99 to Phake Newz Documentaries, 8999 N. 8999th St., NY, NY. Do so in the next hour and you’ll also receive the envelope it comes in.

Oh yeah, you’re wondering who won. The truth — trust me — is that I pulled out a come-from-behind victory that left the thousands, no make that tens of thousands, of spectators all on the edge of their seats, cheering wildly, including a recently paroled O.J. Simpson, a contingent of leprechauns and more than 100 members of my mermaid fan club.

(Photo representation at top from The Washington Post; video from YouTube, posted by M77174)

Officer: “I’ve dispatched both of them;” Body cam: Maybe he fired too quickly

Body camera video released by Minneapolis police last week seems to confirm that the two pit bulls an officer encountered in a family’s backyard weren’t posing an immediate threat to him when he shot them both earlier this month.

“I’ve dispatched both of them,” officer Michael Mays can be heard saying on his radio after he shot one dog that approached him with tail wagging, and then fired multiple shots at a second one that ran in his direction.

The officer was responding to a security alarm that had been accidentally set off. One dog suffered a bullet wound to the jaw. The other was hit in the body by several shots. Both dogs survived and are receiving treatment.

The officer said in a report he filed after the shooting that both dogs were “charging” at him, but the body cam video — in addition to footage from the family’s security camera — have fueled complaints that he was not in imminent danger when he fired the shots.

After shooting the dogs, the officer climbs a fence out of the backyard and walks down an alley before going to the front door of the home to let the residents know he had shot their dogs.

The full video can be seen in this CBS Minnesota report.

Mays said the dogs barked and growled at him, but the earliest parts of the video are missing audio that would confirm that.

rockoThe body camera footage was released Thursday afternoon by Michael Padden, the attorney for the dogs’ owner, Jennifer LeMay, who says the animals are service dogs for her children.

The day after the shooting, LeMay posted surveillance video taken by a backyard camera to Facebook, where it went viral, garnering hundreds of thousands of views.

The body camera video shows Mays encountering LeMay’s daughter, who accidentally set off the alarm.

“I don’t like shooting no dogs,” the officer explains to 18-year-old Courtney Livingston before inquiring if the dogs are OK.

“I don’t know,” she answers. “I have blood all over my house and they’re both walking that I know of.”

Livingston accidentally tripped the alarm and was the only one home when the incident took place.

rockocirocandlemayAt the Thursday news conference where the video was released, Jennifer LeMay said both dogs — Rocko and Ciroc — are having difficult recoveries:

“Rocko, physically, is probably at 75 percent; emotionally and mentally, he’s not there.”

She said she doubted the dogs were behaving too aggressively when the officer shot them. Her lawyer questioned why there was no audio in the earliest portion of what was recorded. It does not come on until after the shots were fired.

Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau described the video as “difficult to watch,” offered to assist the family in paying vet bills and promised to start providing training to officers on dealing with dogs.

(First photo, a recovering Rocko, Facebook; second photo, Rocko and Ciroc with LeMay at home, Minneapolis Star Tribune)

Dachshund sign in San Pedro to be rescued in hopes of finding it a new forever home

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A dachshund that towers above an empty restaurant on a busy intersection of San Pedro, California, is coming down, but it has avoided being put down by a wrecking ball.

Instead, in hopes of finding it a new home, the sign has been rescued by a group seeking to preserve the gentrifying harbor town’s history.

The Daily Breeze reported yesterday that, rather than being destroyed as part of a redevelopment project that includes a new drive-thru Starbucks, the sign for Bonello’s New York Pizza has been procured by the local historical society.

The project’s developer agreed to sell the sign to the society for $1.

The sign has hung over Gaffey Street for 75 years, originally to beckon diners into The Hamburger Hut, one of San Pedro’s oldest burger joints when it closed almost 20 years ago.

hamburgerhut

Over the years, it has lost its neon outline, and the dachshund lost its tail, and the dog was painted the colors of the Italian flag when the business became home to Bonello’s New York Pizza.

The San Pedro Bay Historical Society will pay to have the sign carefully removed. It wants to refurbish it and put it on display someday in a hoped-for local museum.

“It’s the only sign that’s been hanging over Gaffey Street for like 70-plus years,” said Angela Romero, the historical society board member who led the effort to save the sign.

“The feeling was let’s get it before it goes away or leaves San Pedro,” said Mona Dallas-Roddick, president of the board. “I’m telling people it’s a preservation move right now — we don’t know if we could ever (raise) the money for restoration.”

The sign will make an appearance next weekend at a wine tasting benefit for the society at Muller House, an historic home in San Pedro.

The dachshund first appeared in 1941, atop a sign for The Hamburger Hut — we can only guess it sold hot dogs, too — and the establishment went on to become a hot spot for teenagers and a fixture for generations of residents.

After Hamburger Hut closed, neighboring Bonello’s New York Pizza expanded into the closed Hamburger Hut space and restyled the Hamburger Hut sign, keeping the dachshund but adding its own name and a distinctly Italian color scheme.

Bonello’s, still in business, recently moved to another building on the block to make room for the new development.

indian roomWith massive redevelopment projects underway along the harbor, in downtown San Pedro and on its outskirts, word that the dachshund sign was coming down prompted members of the historical society to vote to save it.

Many still lamented how another sign, the one from the Indian Room at the corner of 10th Street and Pacific Avenue, had vanished when that bar was gentrified.

It saddens me to see old school places disappear — even if they’ve become pretty worn around the edges. So I applaud any effort to hang on to pieces of the past, even if it’s just an old school sign, and especially if it’s a dog-themed old school sign.

No matter how shiny and Starbucky San Pedro becomes, its working class roots should remain within grasp — even if it’s a wiener dog who somehow ended up on a New York pizza place sign in Los Angeles.

(Top two photos from Pinterest; middle photo from That’ssoPedro.com; bottom photo from LAEastside.com)

Mom misses son’s wedding after church refuses to admit her PTSD service dog

A church in Michigan refused to admit the mother of the groom to his wedding, saying its rules prohibited dogs inside the church — even service dogs.

Mary Douglas says her PTSD service dog, Stella, wasn’t allowed into the Word of Life Outreach Center in Quincy, causing her to miss the ceremony.

According to its “statement of faith,” as presented on its website, the non-denominational church believes in “One True God” and “Divine Healing” and “speaking in tongues.”

But apparently it does not believe too strongly in the Americans with Disabilities Act.

As a result, Douglas was left saddened and angry about missing her son’s wedding.

“I’ve sacrificed as any single mom, any mom really, does for their children. For that not to be reciprocated, that honor not to be due to a mom on her son’s wedding day, it’s heartbreaking,” Douglas said.

Douglas has had the service dog for almost two years, and says she feared having a “relapse,” if she entered the church without Stella, according to WWMT in western Michigan, which first reported the story.

“I’ve cried a lot. It was a very sleepless night last night,” Douglas said.

Douglas has filed a civil rights complaint with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.

Pastor Robert Montgomery said the church tried to work with Douglas in the weeks leading up to the wedding, giving her “three options” to attend.

He didn’t specify what those options were, and neither did the news report.

It also didn’t address why the son and his bride-to-be held the wedding at the Word of Life Outreach Center, given in all likelihood they — or at least he — should have learned at some point that his mother would have difficulty attending.

Montgomery says the church has a “no animal policy” and that the policy that includes service dogs.

“The difficulty we find in letting animals in, so people know, if you have people that have a fear of animals or an allergy to animals, it makes it very difficult,” he said.

Chinese lab produces what it says is the world’s first “superdog” clone

longlong4

Chinese scientists say they have produced a “superdog” clone — and that the technology will enable them to mass produce dogs that are extra strong and extra fast.

And, unless you are a fan of the doggy version of eugenics, you might find that extra scary.

The beagle, named Long Long, was born in May, becoming one of China’s first canine clones and, the scientist’s maintain, the world’s first genetically modified canine clone.

“This is a breakthrough, marking China as only the second country in the world to independently master dog-somatic clone technology, after South Korea,” said Lai Liangxue, a researcher of Guangzhou Institute of Biological Medicine and Health with the Chinese Academy of Science.

The beagle puppy was genetically engineered by deleting a gene called myostatin, giving him double the muscle mass of a normal beagle.

longlongHe was one of 27 puppies created at Sino Gene, a biotech company based in Beijing — all clones of a laboratory research dog named Apple, according to published reports.

The researchers created 65 embryos through cloning, and genetically modified all of them.

Only Long Long had his myostatin deleted.

By combining genetic editing and cloning, scientists say they can produce “superbreeds” that are stronger and faster.

“With this technology, by selecting a certain gene of the dog, we can breed an animal with more muscles, better sense of smell and stronger running ability, which is good for hunting and police applications,” Lai said.

He also suggested that the gene-editing technology could be commercialized and further applied to create dogs with diseases such as autism, Parkinson’s and diabetes, for use in medical research.

It’s just the latest chapter in dog cloning, which has a frightening history and, potentially, an even scarier future.

Efforts to clone dog began in the U.S., with early research at Texas A&M funded by backers who saw cloning people’s pets — often sick, dying or even dead — as a profitable business enterprise.

Canine cloning wasn’t achieved until a few years later at Seoul National University in South Korea when Snuppy, the world’s first canine clone, was born in 2005.

The service would be offered to pet owners by several businesses, only one of which remains, Sooam Bioengineering Research Institute, the laboratory of controversial South Korean scientist Hwang Woo Suk.

longlong2Twelve years would pass before China became the second country to clone dogs — and clone them with a twist.

Lai says his team will be able to “batch produce” customized dogs through cloning and gene-editing, which in addition to possible military and law enforcement uses, would create an endless supply of dogs for use in laboratories by medical researchers.

The researcher has worked for years on genetically modifying dogs. By mastering cloning, and combining it with his gene-editing, he’s able to endlessly duplicate any successes he achieves.

As with Dolly the sheep and Snuppy the dog, Lai’s achievement is seen as ominous by some.

“It’s true that the more and more animals that are genetically engineered using these techniques brings us closer to the possibility of genetic engineering of humans,” David King, director of Human Genetics Alert, told the Express..

“That does set us on the road to eugenics,” King added. “I am very concerned with what I’m seeing.”

Me, too. Dog cloning raises some significant animal welfare concerns. Technology, especially when coupled with greed or ego, tends to run amok. Eugenics is a nightmarish pursuit, as is its canine version. Creating diseased dogs for medical research is just plain wrong.

On top of all that, this latest twist being touted by the Chinese researchers fails to recognize one simple fact:

Dogs are already super.

(Photos: Sino Gene)

Long Island dog pulls deer out of the sound

An English golden retriever out for a walk along the Long Island Sound saw something flailing in the water, swam out to it, and hauled a young deer back to shore by the scruff of its neck.

Mark Freeley was walking his two dogs, Storm and Sarah, when Storm sprang into action and pulled the fawn ashore.

Once on the sand the fawn got to its feet ran a few steps before collapsing. At that point, Storm layed down beside it, nudged it with his nose and began pawing it until it responded.

Freeley captured the incident on video (above), narrating as he filmed and shouting “Storm bring him in … Good boy Storm, bring him in.” He sounded 95 percent sure Storm’s intention was to rescue the young deer, and apparently it was.

Whether the deer wanted to be rescued was another question. After Storm had pulled the deer out of the water and a representative of a wildlife rescue organization arrived, the deer darted back into the water.

This time it went out even deeper, and the second rescue required two humans and some rope.

floridiaFreeley and Frank Floridia (at left) of Strong Island Rescue took part in phase two of the rescue, roping the deer and hauling it back to shore again.

A veterinarian called to the beach in Port Jefferson transported the deer to his office in his car.

The fawn is expected to make a full recovery before being released into the wild.

Freeley posted his video of Storm in action on Facebook Sunday.

“Storm just plunged into the water and started swimming out to the fawn, grabbed it by the neck, and started swimming to shore,” Freeley told CBS in New York.

“And then he started nudging it, and started paw it to make sure she was gonna be OK I guess,” he added.

The deer was one of two to make the news yesterday. In North Carolina, a deer broke into, of all places, a taxidermy shop in Walnut Cove. The deer crashed through the front door of the shop, which was closed for the night. There was some speculation that it went into the shop after seeing other deer — or at least their heads mounted on walls — inside.

(Video courtesy of Mark Freeley, photo of Frank Floridia supplied by Floridia, via New York Daily News)