Dogs really mirror humans in many, many ways. Dogs get the same diseases we do, they live in the same environment we do, they're exposed to the same potential carcinogens  - they often eat the same food that we do. And they manifest diseases in a similar way to humans. So we know when we're studying dog diseases, that we're often studying really good models for particular human diseases. Dogs and humans share genes for a number of illnesses - blindness, epilepsy, and some cancers.” Elaine Ostrander, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, US

“Pedigree dog breeds are essentially like isolated human populations.They're a closed breeding pool. They have real advantages for studying some of the complex diseases that are hard to study in humans.”  Matthew Binns,  Animal Health Trust, UK

Plans to decode dogs - the dog may follow the mouse and us. The dog could be the next animal to have its genome deciphered. With the genetic sequences of humans and mice almost complete, the Human Genome Project is looking for new contenders. Officials in the United States have put dogs near the top of the list, after some vigorous debate among scientists. Reading the full genetic code of our animal relatives should shed light on human health and behaviour. But with so many comparative organisms to choose from, the US National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) called for submissions from scientists around the world. Matthew Binns of the Animal HealthTrust in Newmarket in the south of England helped put together a white paper calling for the dog genome to be sequenced. He is excited at the prospect…The dog sequencing lobby is led by researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the University of California, Berkeley, US. They say understanding the canine genome will allow for improved understanding of human health and behaviour. Dogs suffer from about 400 inherited diseases, most of which have homologous conditions in humans. "The dog can contribute to human health," Dr Binns told BBC News Online. "We think in the future it will increasingly do so." There are also potential benefits for dogs themselves, says DrJeff Sampson, canine genetics coordinator of the Kennel Club in the UK. There is "huge potential" for wiping out diseases in pedigree dogs, he says. "Within a matter of a few generations of rigorous DNA testing and selection of appropriate breeding mates you could very quickly remove the faulty gene from the breed's gene pool." Being on the priority list doesn't guarantee a slot on the world's biggest genome sequencing machines. But it means dogs should get a look in if lab time and funds become available. The task then will be to choose the breed. Likely candidates include the beagle, the doberman and the poodle - which has already been sequenced in part.’ BBC News

Dog 1

Like man, doves and swans,

the dog has developed love,

as the hurting oyster’s pearl,

through ruthless evolution -

unlikely alchemy of survival

to emotion, loyalty, beauty -

that began as advantage

and became culture, art;

honing that shiver of spirit

across the first bright water,

knitting the bones of light,

tending the fumbling heart

like an opening red flower -

its stuttering, bloody mirrors.

But the dog is now superior -

more like an uplooking child;

evolving a clearer, simpler, clean love,

uncluttered, unquestioned - wordless -

the shine of it highly cultured;

greatly polished in canine eyes.

‘Coded nuerons stream/ Into the backbone: Go towards the pines./ He twitches, bound to the landscape:/ Deciding and deciding.’ Peter Straub, Wolf on the Plains

‘Scientists have had a fast read through of the dog genome, the code that describes how man's best friend is put together. It is not a complete guide to canine genetics - that will come later - but the study has thrown up some interesting facts that will prove useful pointers for researchers looking into human and animal disease. One such nugget is the realisation that 75% of the genes we think are in humans also appear to be in dogs. It can be shown, for example, that the dog lineage was the first to diverge from the common ancestor of men, mice and dogs - although the human and the dog are much more similar to each other at the genetic level than to the mouse. "This is down to the differences in the mutation rates in the three species - the mouse's is much faster. So, in terms of time we are closer to the mouse; in terms of sequence we are closer to the dog," Tigr researcher Dr Kirkness said. The study also identified 974,400 of what are termed single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) in the dog. These are tiny genetic variations that are important in understanding the genes that contribute to diseases and traits among various breeds of dogs - and therein lies the driving force behind having a complete canine genome. Dogs are known to suffer from about 400 inherited diseases, most of which have homologous conditions in humans, and some of which are not represented in the laboratory mouse.’ BBC, 2003

Now we understand (1)

Now we understand -

our connection with the dog

is not just oiled with pathos,

our need for absolute loyalty,

uncomplicated child-like love;

but spun from strung DNA fibres

spidering through time - knotting

creatures everywhere. Bound,

our canine brothers we love -

will choose as our trusted companions,

even over people - obnoxious or not -

for our dog does not know how to wound

emotionally, hasn’t evolved cruelty there;

adapted abandonment, tiring of you -

minding your age, weight or income.

And now in his body, seeds of disease

that were planted first – so, examined

in the clearer canine slide, will reveal

our chains of illness, shared suffering -

he will show us, as ever, what love means;

even his cells record devotion - generosity.

‘We have shared our lives with dogs for thousands of years, and our relationship is only getting closer. The complete canine genome sequence, which was finished last summer, is helping scientists to track down genes that cause disease in both dogs and people. "We share our genes and we share our diseases," said Kerstin Lindblad-Toh, of the Whitehead Institute Center for Genome Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, US. Many researchers are hopeful that the dog genome will reveal important genes behind the cancers that afflict us and our closest companions. Bone cancer, skin cancer, and lymphoma are among the many types of cancers that are similar in humans and dogs. The genes that cause them will probably be easier to track down in the dog genome, however. Breeders have selected dogs for specific, homogeneous features, so each dog breed has very little diversity in its genes. Also, many breeds arose from just a few founder dogs, went through population bottlenecks, and experienced popular sire effects, when a particularly desirable dog fathered an excessive number of puppies. Because of these restricted gene pools, many dog traits, including cancers, are "being switched on by very few genes - maybe even just one - which exert a very large effect," according to geneticist Matthew Breen, of North Carolina State University in Raleigh. These analyses are difficult to do in humans, because geneticists need to look at DNA samples from many people in an affected family in order to pin down the gene's location. Most human families are too small - and have too few generations alive at the same time - for a sufficient number of samples. Dog families, on the other hand, have short generations and many offspring. Scientists have already had success locating a gene responsible for kidney cancer. "It turns out to be the same gene causing a very similar clinical presentation in both dogs and humans,” said Elaine Ostrander, chief of the Cancer Genetics Branch of the US National Human Genome Research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland. Using a large pedigree of German shepherds, Ostrander's group tracked down the cancer-causing gene on canine chromosome 5. When they looked in the comparable region of the human genome, they found a gene that had recently been implicated in human kidney cancer. These types of gene hunts have become easier with the recent completion of the entire dog genome sequence. The sequence was deposited into public databases in July and will be published, along with an analysis comparing it with the human sequence, sometime this spring. “Dogs' genome structure suggests that we can find the disease genes pretty quickly now that we have the genome", said Lindblad-Toh, who led the sequencing effort.’ BBC, 2005

“A couple of years ago, my lab cloned and sequenced the canine BRCA1 gene. And you may recall that the BRCA1 gene is the gene that was identified in humans that, when mutated, causes very strong susceptibility to breast cancer. And we were interested in seeing if dogs had that gene, and if so, how similar was it to the human gene. And in fact, when we cloned it and sequenced it, it was extraordinarily similar - something like 85% identical. So the sequence in dogs may well reveal how the disease takes hold in humans.” Elaine Ostrander, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, US.

‘Dr Ostrander's work has already provided an insight into one form of breast cancer.’ BBC

‘Scientists have identified a faulty gene that causes epilepsy in dogs. The finding has allowed the researchers to develop a test that could soon help owners breed out the disease. But the discovery should also aid the quest to understand the more severe human form of the condition, Lafora disease, and other similar afflictions. The latest development, reported in Science magazine, is an example of how the human and dog genome projects are expected to benefit both species. Researchers are comparing and contrasting the "life codes" of the two mammals with other animals to track down the genetic causes of ill-health…There is great hope that pure bred dogs, with their large litters and long pedigrees, will offer science the opportunity to rapidly locate faulty genes that in humans would be far more difficult to find because few family members may be alive to study their DNA. "Human clinicians are increasingly turning to pure bred canine populations because these will have similar, if not identical, diseases to us and the clinicians will identify the gene in the dog and that will then give them a handle to start looking in human populations," explained Dr Sampson.’ BBC, 2005

Dog Map

His atoms fell from Sirius,

the Dog Star, as befitting -

the brightest, most sparkling

star among vast competition;

crowning Canis Major,

doggy constellation -

keeping that starlight trapped

in canine DNA; us on a leash

of silver threads though time,

Evolution’s patient strategy -

to be torch seeds, illumination

as we hunt - the dog leading. 

Dog 2

Blurred fur - rippling

summer crop waves;

sniveling snaily nose -

cold, drippy coalskin.

Rough pink paddy-paddy toes,

clickety high-heel horn-click -

slippery witch’s nails -

skidding paws splayed.

Muddy ravelled ruff,

filthy, Elizabethan -

mouth-eye, eye-mouth,

speaking, kissing hands.

This water that has taken light

into its silver translucent belly,

known the light as love,

recognised, embraced,

cannot help but brew,

reflect - tail flag/ tail

wag/ tail banner/ tail high, or

amputees’ insane metronome.

Bath-burr glitter, explosive sparkle;

demented grinning, sudden-wolfish -

slobber/lick, lickety-lick/slobber,

uncouth drool and hyper-tongue - 

abandoned affection, innocent

tinselled spit, like a toddler’s

big sloppy kiss; how they adore,

only as a child remembers now.

No wonder we adore, feel love -

for this is love; personal, not just

universal love for leaf or crow,

or lemur, cow, preserved view -

how did they come to be so loved,

so loved up, loving – maybe God

bent down to that most appealing clay -

canine creature, already unable to resist

patting them on the silken head;

staring up, they filled their eyes

looking at that original light,

two bright sparks keep it lit.

I wish I could wag my tail just like you;

to show you also, how much I love you -

though perhaps you do understand English,

bounding cheerful, goofily through the door.

‘Another myth exploded is that the dog is man’s best friend. Yes, we have abandoned our devoted, adoring, face-licking chums in favour of - oh foul ingrates - the selfish, imperious, bottom-licking cat. Dogs have had their day as cats take over as the nation’s favourite pet, with the number of dogs falling by over 16% to 6 million in the last decade and cats rising by nearly 9% to 7.5 million. Our excuse is lifestyle – too busy working for walkies. Cats are seen as ‘low maintenance’, but then you might as well stroke a Mongolian wool cushion while watching TV, providing the same level of emotional engagement without the cat food burps.’ Gillian Ferguson, Columnist, Scotsman newspaper

‘With pets, the first cloned dog was produced. Called ‘Snuppy’ (after the Seoul National University puppy), it came from the South Korean team that has now been discredited over stem cell research (see below). US companies, such as Genetics Savings & Clone and Allerca, continue to push cloned and GM pets. Allerca presents its efforts to genetically modify cats to be non-allergenic as ‘developing lifestyle pets’ and ‘improving the ownership experience’. GS&C will offer dog cloning when it has developed an ‘efficient procedure’. There were 120 failed pregnancies and over 1,000 cloned embryos used to produce Snuppy.’ Genewatch, 2006

My name is Snuppy

My name is Snuppy

And I am a puppy –

Let me give you a little clue -

If you have a sense of déjà vu;

There’s been a doggie like me before,

And soon there may be even more…

I look the same in every way,

Like to cuddle, run and play,

But the cell that I call mother,

Isn’t strictly what you’d call ‘other’;

I am just the same as her -

Though she’s nothing, not even a blur;

I don’t mind, I feel the same

As other puppies in my game –

But they brought this little boy the other day;

Called me the wrong name, cried, went away.

‘Imagine if you popped down to the doctor’s for a diagnosis and instead of getting out a stethoscope or a swab, he got out a dog. Researchers in America claim to have trained a poodle to sniff signs of lung cancer in people’s breath, and now scientists at Cambridge University want to train diagnostic dogs after mounting anecdotal evidence here. It sounds barking mad, but just think of the saving to the NHS – doggy doctors could revolutionise health care. No more waiting lists or scary high tech machines, just an appointment at your local kennels to be given a thorough sniffing - or to blow into a poodle. The American poodle scored an 85% success rate – probably meaning a lot to poodlekind after being saddled with those ludicrous haircuts - so cheap screening could mean Labs, not labs. And the salaries savings – a few crates of Pal and a squeaky chop and your local Trust has hired a top dog... Being sniffed by people’s dogs when visiting used to be a social embarrassment, but perhaps we misjudged our furry chums – it’s probably just a quick privates checkup. The scientists have now documented several cases of dogs reacting strangely to an afflicted part of their owners’ bodies, with one consultant-level Chihuahua repeatedly pressing its paws on the site of an undiscovered breast tumour, and another dog even attempting surgery, trying to bite off a mole that proved malignant. He now expects to be called Mr Fido. The Cambridge research will be fun for the canine trainees too, capitalising on dogs’ more unappealing habit of enthusiastically sniffing widdle – it’s hoped they will thus identify prostate cancer. Though can we ever fully trust their powers of perception when they mistake a human leg, or polyester rug, for a canine of the opposite sex.’ Gillian Ferguson, Columnist, Scotsman newspaper 

Our Collie

In memory of Seonaid, died age 17-and-a-half

She had the eyes of a poet, our collie.

Seeing through skin -

even the face of stone, leaves,

earth’s wormy curtain,

to the undisguised word of things;

sussing ghosts of the living and the dead,

bloodless heart and hot red beat –

she could smell the soul of a person

on their hands, their nature.

Her eyes’ shining plastic -

these bright brown flowers -

wore a permanent mask of tears,

that was tenderness

grown like milk skin;

polished word-spirit,

stripped of letter-flesh,

breath, tongue sound;

looking like light -

two tiny twin stars.

She listened to our dramas,

quiet as a counsellor -

her whole warm head weighed on your knee,

eyes plugged into you like a socket -

I wanted to listen as well to people;

the answer was always love.

Her heart was a poster,

boldly shouting - ‘I would die for you’;

jittery black-and-white body shield

pressing my legs - thunder-ribs,

lightning teeth, vibrating

my bones and blood -

scary mini dog god.

Her chilly, glistening, sampling snout

pushed, snailing your hand,

tossing it onto her silkiest head -

could sniff wind feverish in trees

before the first leaf’s silver underbelly


was an eye reading the street,

and the history of the street.

Swivelling furry skin-dishes,

her nervy ears squirrel-twitching,

locating pibroch bleats -

hearing the lostness of lambs,

panic for milkblown mothers,

before even the patient ewes;

hearing the last flowers,

petals clinging on rusty brown hinges,

relucantly giving up their blooms

in autumn’s dismal game

of loves me, loves me not.

Even, she could round up grounded wild birds -

a broken seagull, furiously frothing,


throwing blunt yellow daggers,

shooting gold eye bullets everywhere -

anaesthetise injured wings with her eye;

calm deathly distress, species fear,

with snakely hypnosis,

cunning muscle spell

cast from the hunched shoulders,

where wings might spring to be -

invisible to us as landing lights on petals,

ultra-violet to hungry bees -

gathering with the crook of her will.

She could have persuaded flowers

into bouquets -

at her river,

she rounded up trembling fishermen

like Jesus.

By coaching wind she was possessed –

barley-wave blurring fur

flowing over her body’s fit wire -

black and white charge

shocking the green -

racing the spirit of herself

that could almost do the speed of light -

feet leaving the ground, all four,

tail feathering like a single wing -


in Jackson Pollock mud.

Like a short-sighted surgeon

she concentrated on sticks -

shot herself to fetch

from the quivering honed bow

of herself - sinew, energy, instinct;

laid slavery offerings

with coronary tremblings -

tongue a separate pink neurotic animal,

twitchy, dripping from its hole,

breathing faster than her -

metronome head watching tennis balls,

rapt as a Wimbledon Final crowd.

And when we children left home,

she could hear us through populations,

planet-crowds -

the telephone before it rang;

nesting the threshold

like an ever-shaggier draught excluder

until holiday bodies were safely home,


She seemed to be both mother and child.

How can I miss her still

when the home door opens -

that explosion of dog,

grinning black and white tumble,

tinselled with glistening dribble  -

only your own child

will ever be so pleased to see you again.

Our first dog. Our only dog.

A lesson in friendship;

perfect lesson in love.

She races in the space of my dreams,

legs re-sprung -

in the fenceless field of my dreams

where sticks keep flying like birds,

and the summer garden of my dreams,

where mown grass is always freshly bleeding -

daisies are stars that fell like snowflakes;

and we hold up our paws and hands again

to dance, laughing and barking madly.

In her woolly black and white shawl,

she has dug a hole in me

where her bone will not heal,

and flowers come something white like snowdrops,

there when you least expect them,

when it seems nothing will grow -

though even the very tough beauty of them

makes you cry because everything

is not like this.

Those who will not go away

are usually human,

but love - infinitely liberal -

refuses to tick a box for ‘Animal’.

I cannot risk another -

but look into the intelligent eyes of other collies;

startle to see her still

smiling there.

‘Similarly, why is there need for a Dangerous Dogs Act; why does anyone need to keep a dangerous dog? Princess Anne has been summoned to court under the act - the first senior royal to be summoned on a criminal charge since Charles 1st – (though presumably she will be hoping for a lighter sentence) - because of the alleged biting of two children by her English Bull Terrier. (Those plug ugly, pink-eyed baldy brutes that look like their faces are permanently stuffed in a lemon squeezer). These aggressive dogs were bred for bull baiting, not as pets. Yesterday, my husband requested a six stone woman being dragged round the park by a 12 stone beast the size of an ox stop the dog from further sniffing my small child like a screaming packed lunch – he’s already traumatised as the victim of a park squirrel sandwich mugging. Children simply shouldn’t be put in this danger. My heroic, if jellyish, human shield husband was told to ‘F-off’. Why not just ban the sale of new aggressive dogs and let them die out as man-made mistakes – it’s hardly letting red squirrels go extinct or wild birds, butterflies, flowers… Oops, we are prepared to do that.’ Gillian Ferguson, Columnist, Scotsman newspaper

‘What is more, pedigree dogs are highly defined. They are just like isolated human populations - a closed gene pool. "This, together with the fact that almost any two dogs can be bred to give a fertile offspring, makes the animal a very powerful tool to study genes that are responsible for diseases and traits," said Dr Kirkness. Throw in the high level of medical monitoring today's dogs enjoy and it is easy to see how probing the canine genome can have real spin-offs for the understanding of human health and behaviour. "Dogs get narcolepsy, for example," said Professor James Scott of the Genome Institute in the UK. "We found the gene for human narcolepsy by looking at Dobermans. "With Dobermans you can clap your hands and they will all fall asleep in a pile. It's rare but very curious and important for understanding sleep patterns”.’ BBC, 2003

Dog 3

Like children,

dogs keep warm,


the better aspects of human beings -

affection, devotion, loyalty, duty;

and above all,

unquestioning love

that keeps light burning in a life -

but terrifying too;

love that can be kicked and still not question,

almost children-in-fur,

our animal children.

Vulnerable, they lay out their body

and spirit,

in the art of devotion;

dogged pursuit of giving

and receiving love -

true disciples of love,

owed our iron responsibility;

the best of us,

please -

for the dog,

and children.

It may be the first thing ever to bring Skye terriers and their owners out on the streets, which should make the Countryside Alliance marchers look like students on the Left Bank in 1969. The Scottish re-make of Greyfriar’s Bobby is dogged by controversy as the Skye Terrier Club urges protest at cinemas. Sounds a better film plot than the original – ‘Dog Sits at Grave for a Long Time’. What was he waiting for anyway – his master to rise from the dead and throw a doggie choc? Anyway, the new film’s producer stands accused of casting the wrong sort of dog, a West Highland terrier instead of the less attractive Skye variety. Kind of Julia Roberts playing Ann Widdecombe. He says the Westie was preferred because the white coat showed at night, and its eyes would not be hidden by the Skye’s characteristic long fringe. “You cannot make a film about a dog without seeing their eyes,” he exclaims. After a word with RADA – the Royal Academy of Dog Actors –  it seems this is true. Eyes are responsible for some of the greatest canine performances – “Where would Lassie be if she’d worn sunglasses?” said one insider. Barking or sniffing fellow cast members only goes so far with artistic expression. The producer thinks he’d be in more doggie-do if he’d used a Skye and cut off its fringe. Maybe. However, the Skye Terrier Club says it’s not just about looks, but historical accuracy, and the Club’s ‘official historian’ – it’s true – says the real Bobby was a Skye, meaning “loyal, thinking and with a terrific memory”, whereas the cutesy West Highland terrier, temperamentally, would have “gone off with a new owner in a minute”! Mmmm. True, we wouldn’t have Dumbo playing an elephant in a BBC documentary. The trouble with a ‘Real Bobby Boycott’ though, is we’ll never get them away from in front of the cinema for the next 14 years.’ Gillian Ferguson, Column, Scotsman newspaper

‘Researchers have finished mapping the genome of the domestic dog. The results show among other things that dogs, mice, and humans share a core set of DNA….The comparison could help scientists find the genetic roots of dog behaviour and physiology and—perhaps most importantly—help them identify genes that cause diseases in both dogs and humans. The researchers obtained the gene data from Tasha, a female boxer…The geneticists sequenced the 2.4 billion "letters" of the dog's DNA code, representing 39 chromosome pairs…"The boxer genome sequence is big step towards the goal of having a complete reference sequence for a dog genome," said Ewen Kirkness, a molecular biologist at the Institute for Genomic Research in Rockville, Maryland, who led the 2003 poodle study and co-authored the new study….Significantly, the sequences that are conserved in all three species are virtually the same…The researchers have also found that many of the conserved sequences are clustered around developmental genes. "You could imagine these could be genes [that are] really important for body planning and development," Lindblad-Toh said. Dogs were the first animals to be domesticated some 15,000 years ago. They all originate from a single species, the wolf, but modern breeds display a wide diversity of traits…Dogs suffer from more than 350 genetic disorders, many of which resemble human conditions. The most common diseases among purebred dogs include cancer, epilepsy, heart disease, allergies, retinal disease, and cataracts. "[This research] increases the possibility of using dogs as a model for human disease," Ellegren said. The study could also help researchers identify genes that govern behavioural traits, such as aggressiveness or kindness.’ National Geographic News, 2005





Note from the author
exploring the project

    Gene Zoo
        Puffer Fish
        Also, Zebrafish
        Tyrannosaurus Rex
    Gene Garden
    Earth Poems

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