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Why dogs really are family - it's in their DNA
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Why dogs really are family – it’s in their DNA

For dog devotees, the human/canine relationship is beyond compare. A recent poll conducted by hi tech dog collar manufacturer Link AKC found that more than half of American dog owners admit to ducking out of social events to hang out with their pet. What’s more, six out of 10 said their dog takes care of them, reinforcing the important two-way relationship between dogs and humans.

Since evolving from a shared ancestor with wolves, domestic dogs have been our loyal, tail-wagging companions – helping us to find food and protecting us from becoming a hot lunch ourselves. Now, there’s hard science to prove that the special relationship between people and dogs, which some scientists estimate could date back 30,000 years, lies deep in a genetic code.

It’s all in the detail

A team at Princeton University, USA, looked at what differentiates a domesticated dog’s ability to communicate and socialise with humans, compared to wolves. Comparing data of various breeds ­­– including Dachshunds, Jack Russell Terriers and Bernese Mountain Dogs – with 10 wolves habituated to humans, they discovered that there is a region of chromosome present in dog DNA that is not found in their wild cousins.

It’s this genetic detail that is strongly associated with a dog’s desire to seek out humans for physical contact, assistance and information, which would explain why they behave differently to wolves and non-domesticated dogs.

The genetic link

The actual science behind the research is tricky to get a handle on unless you have a PhD in genetics. Essentially, there is a congenital disorder known as Williams-Beuren syndrome that is characterised by traits such as exceptional gregariousness in humans. This condition occurs when there is a deletion of certain genes from a region of the human genome. This suggests there is a common underlying genetic basis for hyper-social behaviour in both dogs and humans. Bridgett VonHoldt, co-author of the study commented: “It was the remarkable similarity between the behavioural presentation of Williams-Beuren syndrome and the friendliness of domesticated dogs that suggested to us that there may be similarities in the genetic architecture.”

The sausage in the box test

The scientists trained all of the animals to open a box that contained a piece of sausage. Then they asked the canines to open the box while in three separate situations: with a familiar human present; with an unfamiliar human; and alone, without a person at all. In all three scenarios, the wolves outperformed the dogs by a large margin. That margin got even bigger when the dogs had to open the box in the presence of people. “It’s not that they couldn’t solve the puzzle, they were just too busy looking at the human to do it,” said Bridgett VonHoldt, co-author of the study.

The survival of the friendliest

The findings also raised questions about why dogs first evolved to live peacefully alongside humans. Previous research suggested dogs were selected for cognitive abilities, particularly an ability to discern gesture and voice, but these new discoveries suggest they were chosen for their tendency to seek human companionship.

“If early humans came into contact with a wolf that had a personality of being interested in them, and only lived with and bred those ‘primitive dogs,’ they would have exaggerated the trait of being social,” said VonHoldt.

Did humans invent the dog?

While it’s incredibly interesting to think that early dogs actively sought humans out, Stanley Coren, a professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia's department of psychology and author of many books on canine behaviour, believes the reason that dogs are our best friend is because we’ve domesticated them to be that way.

Coren says: “We invented the dog and we invented it to fit in a certain niche in our lives. We’ve been creating an animal which understands our communications and we understand its communications and they have a bond with us.” For example, if a person points to something in a distance, a dog will look in the direction of the finger, just like a human, whereas a wolf would simply look at the finger. “We’ve sort of wired the dog to read our communications,” he adds.

According to VonHoldt, this is a process that continues to evolve. She says: “We’re actively changing dog behaviour every single year." The next challenge for scientists? Helping us humans to read dog communication better. Just imagine the ‘conversations’ future generations of human-canine families could be having...

Sources: eeb.princeton.edu, news.nationalgeographic.com, wideopenpets.com, health.usnews.com

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