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Meet the Dog Zombie, Dr. Jessica Hekman

Dr. Hekman is studying the brains of dogs to help us better understand the genomics of canine behavior.

Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA  |  Jan 14th 2016


Have you heard? A dog zombie exists!

Don’t worry, I’m not talking about an undead canine who craves brains, but about scientist Dr. Jessica Hekman, who studies dog brains and goes by the nickname The Dog Zombie. She is one of those rare, highly intelligent humans who has retained a sense of humor while obtaining degree after degree after degree.

Her first degree came from Harvard University. Next she enrolled in a five-year program to obtain her DVM and a master’s degree from Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, where she had an internal dialogue about focusing on clinical medicine or research. Her interest in research won the debate, and she has been looking at the most important decision-making apparatus in dogs: the brain. Dr. Hekman is now completing her Ph.D. at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, studying the genomics of dog behavior.

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Dr. Hekman getting a friendly hello from a 1-year-old male wolf at the Wolf Park in Battle Ground, Indiana. (Photo courtesy Dr. Jessica Hekman)

You can dial into her work by visiting her popular blog The Dog Zombie. Dr. Hekman is also currently offering a series of online classes that focus on molecular genetics through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants.

I interviewed Dr. Hekman because her work on the genomes of dogs is crucial to our understanding of canine behavior. What she is discovering in the lab will have a monumental effect on how we train dogs.

Dogster: Now that you have decided to go full throttle into researching the canine brain, what areas are you specifically focusing on?

Dr. Hekman: I’m really interested in the stress response – the release of hormones that happens when an animal is stressed. It’s both cause and effect – the hormones seem to make animals feel worse in some ways, but also are a way for us to measure their response to stressful situations. I chose to study hormones because they are so closely tied in to what the brain is doing, but you can study them in living animals, whereas it’s harder to study living brains!

Earlier in your career, you had an internship through the Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida. What were you studying in shelters?

The program was partly on campus at UF and partly in shelters. It was a fantastic experience. I learned a lot about how to manage shelter animals, both medically and behaviorally. It’s tough to keep animals behaviorally enriched at shelters; shelters can be very bare places where animals are stressed and bored. In this program, we did a lot of thinking about how to help shelters improve this situation. I also learned a lot about the perspectives of shelter staff and what their day-to-day challenges are.

Dr. Hekman's 6-year-old mixed breed Jenny on the lookout for squirrels. (Photo courtesy Dr. Jessica Hekman)

Dr. Hekman’s 6-year-old mixed breed Jenny on the lookout for squirrels. (Photo courtesy Dr. Jessica Hekman)

What does “shelter medicine” mean?

The kinds of medical problems you encounter in shelters are really different from the types of medical problems you encounter in general practice, and academic shelter medicine is a new veterinary specialty that focuses on how to deal with these particular issues. It takes a population approach – rather than focusing on how to fix one sick animal, it focuses on understanding why, for example, more animals are getting sick in a particular shelter than you might expect.

[Shelter medicine helps you] find out what the problem is. Poor cleaning protocols? Stressed out cats? Animals coming in from partner shelters already sick? And it focuses on how to deal with these problems – use a different cleaner that kills some tough-to-kill viruses? Give the cats a bit more legroom? Make sure partner shelters are using vaccinations appropriately?

These are the kinds of questions that a shelter veterinarian is dealing with.

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Dr. Hekman’s 15-year-old Golden Retriever, Jack, chilling on their back porch. (Photo courtesy Dr. Jessica Hekman)

What are you learning about stress in dogs?

Right now, I’m actually not studying dogs; I’m studying foxes. Foxes are about as similar to dogs as humans are to chimpanzees (our closest living relatives). In other words, not close enough to interbreed, but pretty similar! I study foxes from the Russian Fox Domestication Project – foxes in Siberia who have been bred over many generations to be very tame and friendly with humans.

What are the genetic differences between these foxes and foxes who haven’t been specially bred? Of course, we’re finding that the differences are extremely hard to describe genetically – behavior is almost always a very complex trait at the genetic level. The lab where I work has published some interesting stuff recently, though, and you can check out my summary of it.

Tell us about your work studying behavioral genetics. What are you learning about aggression in dogs? Can it be hereditary?

I’m studying the genetics of the stress response in the domesticated foxes. In the foxes, aggression absolutely can be hereditary, which is why they are so interesting to study. But remember that these foxes have been bred for particular behavioral traits over many, many generations. And they have been selected only for behavior, as opposed to dogs, who have typically been selected for a bunch of different things (behavior, looks, health …). So while it’s clear that aggression is influenced by genetics, environment has a huge influence too. So, how do we pick those two apart? It’s really tough.

Dr. Hekman with a platinum-colored fox in Siberia. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Jessica Hekman)

Dr. Hekman with a platinum-colored fox in Siberia last spring. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Jessica Hekman)

What do you see for the future in terms of genetic testing for diseases in dogs?

Things are changing fast in understanding the genetic basis of inherited diseases. Around 2006, when the dog genome was newly sequenced, we were hoping that we’d solve all the problems of inherited disease within a few years. Now we’re realizing that while some inherited diseases have simple-to-solve genetic backgrounds (“single gene” or “Mendelian” diseases), many others involve lots and lots of genes. Hip dysplasia and cancer are both great examples. They are both diseases we’d really like to find the genes for so that we can breed them out of quite a few breeds. But we come to find out that there are so many genes and such a large environmental influence that it’s hard to find the genes to select against.

However, some important new studies are tackling these tough questions. The Morris Animal Foundation Golden Retriever Lifetime Study is following 1,000-plus Golden Retrievers throughout their lifetime to find risks for diseases like cancer and will be looking at these dogs’ genetics. The new Darwin’s Dogs project is looking at the genetics of behavior and other traits in large numbers of dogs. The important thing in both these projects is that they are crowd sourced – they are studying pet dogs. The Golden Retriever Lifetime Study is closed for new dogs, but Darwin’s Dogs is open and would love to have you sign up and enroll your dog! Hopefully both of these projects (and others still to come) will help us enroll much larger numbers of dogs in studies to help us get over this hurdle of understanding genetic disorders with many genes.

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Dr. Hekman’s two lovely dogs at home. (Photo courtesy Dr. Jessica Hekman)

What are you learning about puppy brains and the extreme importance of proper puppy socialization?

Right now, I’m just learning that puppy brains are really hard to study! I’d like to be able to track differences in the stress response in very young puppies, but that’s awfully hard to do. You have to be able to stress the puppies out every week, but not too much (or they might grow up to be fearful) and not too little (or they might get used to the stressor and not show the stress response that we’d need to study).

I’m hoping that after I finish my Ph.D. program, I’ll be able to find a project that lets me work more with puppies. Puppy brains are so interesting. Scientists are learning more and more how important early environment is as it interacts with genetics, mostly by studying rats and humans. In order to understand the very complicated genetic differences between dogs with and without behavior problems, I think we’re going to have to understand a lot more about how the brain changes during the socialization period. But we have to find ways of doing that humanely, and it’s quite a challenge.

Learn more about the Dog Zombie here.

Read more by Annie Phenix:

About the author: Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA, is a force-free professional dog trainer enjoying her mountain-filled life in Colorado. She is a member of the Pet Professional Guild and the National Association of Canine Scent Work. She is also working on a book due out in spring of 2016: The Midnight Dog Walkers, about living with and training troubled dogs. Join Annie on her dog-training Facebook page.