We’ve been living alongside dogs for thousands of years as they have become our companions and helpers. But what was it that meant dogs would become man’s best friend, while wolves remained aloof in the cold? It turns out that the answer could be buried in their genes.
A new study has attempted to answer the question of dog domestication by not just looking at the differences in sociality and cognitive abilities between dogs and wolves, but also the underlying genetics. Claiming to be the first study to combine both behavioral and DNA analysis, they found that dogs’ friendly nature way well be hard coded into them.
“The genetic basis for the behavioral divergence between dogs and wolves has been poorly understood, especially with regard to dogs’ success in human environments,” explained Monique Udell, who conducted the research published in Science Advances. “It was once thought that during domestication dogs had evolved an advanced form of social cognition that wolves lacked. This new evidence would suggest that dogs instead have a genetic condition that can lead to an exaggerated motivation to seek social contact compared to wolves.”
The researchers started by testing the ability of 18 domestic dogs and 10 hand-reared wolves to solve a task involving removing a sausage from a sealed lunchbox while a human was present. While the dogs looked to the person for help, the wolves got on with the task at hand and were more likely to solve it within the two-minute time limit.
This was followed by a second experiment, in which a human sat inside a circle, and either called the animal over and interacted, or sat silently looking at the ground. Predictably, regardless of what the person was doing, the dogs would come over and want to socialize, while the wolves would approach before quickly losing interest and wandering off.
Following up these trials with a DNA test, the researchers found some striking differences. They discovered that the domestic dogs had the same genetic markers in their DNA as people with a rare genetic condition called Williams syndrome. People who have this condition, in addition to having neurological and developmental issues, also display “hypersocial” behavior, and frequently have outgoing personalities.
The researcher’s claim that this suggests the friendly behavior of the woofers we live with might well be coded for in their DNA. The researchers explain that there have been plenty of experiments showing how both wolves and dogs perform equally well on cognition tasks, while the differences seem to appear only when they are tested in relation to how they react to humans.
Your four-legged friend, it seems, might not be able to do anything but like you.