As most of you will already know, dogs are incredibly warm animals that love to please their owners. But have you ever wondered why they’re so much friendlier than the other members of the Canidae family? Well, a group of experts came together to look into the matter – and they discovered that genetics could be the answer.
The report itself was featured in the Science Advances journal and was the work of 12 individuals. They came from a number of different places – including Oregon State University and Princeton University. So as you can see, there was a nice mix of academic backgrounds. How did it come about, though?
Well, it all stemmed from a seemingly innocuous discussion between a couple of the researchers, according to The New York Times newspaper. One of them was evolutionary biologist Dr. Bridgett vonHoldt, who operated out of Princeton, while the other person was a lady named Monique Udell.
Udell was from Oregon State University, where she worked as an experimental psychologist. Specifically, she held an interest in how dogs and wolves behaved. While the academic was speaking with vonHoldt, she touched upon something that had been fascinating her. And it tied back to her canine work at the college.
You see, Udell believed that the mental conduct of dogs was pretty similar to humans who suffered from a certain genetic disorder. Though vonHoldt’s curiosity was evidently piqued too, and soon enough the project was underway. By the end, their team drew up some truly incredible results. You might not look at your pooch the same way again!
By analyzing the dog genes, vonHoldt and company could see why the canines were so amiable. But how did this all start to develop? Was there a catalyst behind it? To answer those questions, we need to look at a very specific point in time. Namely, the period when man and pooch began to mix with each other.
Here’s the thing, though. It’s often been disputed as to when that mixing began. For instance, some experts believe that people took a liking to dogs around 130,000 years ago. Then again, other experts claim that the domestication didn’t happen that far back. Clearly, it’s quite the debate!
The BBC News website noted that humans and dogs have been tied together for up to 40,000 years. Meanwhile, different individuals say the connection has existed for no more than 15,000 years. But regardless of who you think is correct, one query remains – what sparked the interspecies friendship?
Well, as per BBC News, it all started in campsites that housed hunters. While they were there, certain wolves would creep into the area to eat any leftover food. You see, not all of them were wary of people at that time. And that’s why they braved the somewhat hazardous surroundings.
The website reported that these curious wolves were slowly domesticated as the years went on. So yes, it could be suggested that present-day dogs wouldn’t exist if that connection hadn’t have been made. It doesn’t bear thinking about, right?! But while that clears up the catalyst, you might have something else on your mind, too.
Namely, how long have humans and dogs been taking walks together? Is it only a recent activity? To answer that question, a group of excavators made a fascinating discovery in England back in 2016. At that time, an old canine tooth was unearthed a short distance away from the iconic Stonehenge landmark.
The denticle itself was said to be around 7,500 years old. But here’s where it gets interesting. As researchers started to study the tooth in detail, they realized that the dog wasn’t local to the Wiltshire region. Instead, it was determined that the Vale of York was its true home.
So why is the dog’s original home significant? Well, there’s nearly 250 miles between the Vale of York and Wiltshire. Given the incredible distance, it’s thought that the pooch could’ve only made that trip if it was with a group of people coming down from the north. Talk about an epic journey! We can only imagine how long that took them.
The Daily Mail newspaper also raised a remarkable point following the discovery. This was apparently one of the earliest examples of dog-walking on record. It may dwarf what we’d consider a normal stroll today, but it still counts! So, the activity is indeed thousands of years old as well.
It’s incredible to think that we’ve been linked with dogs for that long, isn’t it? At the same time, though, it might explain some of the pooches’ more fascinating behaviors. We’re referring to their penchant to imitate certain human traits here. After all, if you’ve been around someone for a lengthy period, it makes sense that you’d start to take their mannerisms on board.
Laurie Santos talked about how dogs imitate humans in an interview with the National Geographic website in July 2015. The Yale Comparative Cognition Laboratory’s director noted that the door was opened by “paying attention to us, getting along with us, [and] tolerating us.” To give you a better idea of this, here’s an example to consider.
The Animal Behavior journal shared an intriguing paper in August 2015. Over the course of that project, the five authors looked to see if dogs would “socially eavesdrop” on their masters. To pull that off, they recruited more than 50 canines that were subsequently broken up into three categories.
Those categories were referred to as helper, non-helper and control. You see, all of the dogs were made to observe their respective masters while they tried to grab some tape out of a box. Now the first group of pooches looked on as their loved ones asked for assistance in the task.
With the helper dogs, an individual would step in and aid the dog’s carer. As for the second grouping, the same scenario played out but they’d be ignored instead and face the back of the non-helper group. Meanwhile, the control group of canines watched a similar scene – though their master didn’t request assistance.
Throughout this test, a neutral person was seated in the space too. So once it was all done, they brought out doggie treats – as did the helper and non-helper. Regarding the latter, the pooches seemed to ignore them and race towards the unaffiliated individual. Yet the pets from the first grouping didn’t show any favoritism.
Simply put, the experiment appeared to suggest that the dogs had the ability to read the room. By blanking the non-helpers, they looked to be taking a stand for their loved ones. Sounds pretty human, right? After all, no one likes to see a friend or family member treated badly!
But that’s not the only thing that researchers have been looking into regarding people and dogs down the years. The subject of memory is under the microscope, too. You see, when we’re younger, our short-term recollections tend to be be very strong – just like our ability to rationalize the situations around us.
As we grow older, though, those mental powers start to fade a little – in some more than others. It’s an unfortunate side-effect to the process of reaching our senior years. So experts have tried to see if canines go through the same thing as they develop from puppies to full-blown dogs.
Projects from the past seemed to indicate that dogs did struggle with their short-term memories once they reached a certain age. Yet their long-term recollections had been shrouded in mystery. On that note, a student from Austria’s Messerli Research Institute called Lisa Wallis ran an interesting test in 2015.
The experiment was essentially a memory test, as Wallis and her team looked to see if older dogs could recall particular tasks months after the fact. To serve as a contrast, younger pooches were included, too. She believed that the senior canines were capable of retaining the information – although it’d be difficult.
So yes, just as an older person can remember – or struggle to recall – specific things that they did months before, dogs could be much the same. It goes to show that the aging process doesn’t just affect us humans! But while that’s certainly fascinating, we’re still left with a burning question.
But what is the scientific explanation behind a dog’s friendly attitude towards humans? Well, that brings us back to the project that Bridgett vonHoldt and company completed in July 2017. During their work together, the team of experts looked at 16 normal canines and eight wolves that had been living in captivity.
On the practical side of things, the two sets of animals took part in certain activities to see how they’d react. So for example, the researchers would leave bits of meat inside a container. Once the dogs and wolves were let loose, they both shared a troubleshooting ability to recover the food.
Yet the differences between the dogs and wolves quickly became apparent when people entered the mix. As you can probably guess, the domesticated canines were drawn to them – looking to get their attention. Though the wolves were nowhere near as interested, and they kept their distance.
Back in the lab, though, vonHoldt and the other experts looked to examine why the animals are so different in that respect. As per The New York Times, the team compared a couple of their genes from a single chromosome. The genetic codes in question are referred to as “GTF2I” and “GTF2IRD1.” Nice and easy to remember, then!
Anyway, the aforementioned genes appeared to have gone through an alteration within the dogs when compared to the wolves. And that chromosome we just mentioned? It’s linked to behavior. But while these results are eye-opening to say the least, vonHoldt wanted to make something very clear to the American newspaper.
As it turned out, the road to get to that point was far from easy. Talking to The New York Times, vonHoldt said, “We struggle a lot with wanting to know genes that are linked to behavior.” Although the evolutionary biologist didn’t let those issues cloud her excitement when she spoke to BBC News in July 2017.
“Our finding of genetic variation in both dogs and wolves provides a possible insight into animal personality,” vonHoldt explained. “And [it] may even suggest similar genes have roles in other domestic species. Maybe cats even.” We’re sure feline lovers would welcome that research! After all, they can be pretty enigmatic when it comes to their conduct.
Another expert also weighed in with their opinion on the results to The New York Times. His name is Adam Boyko, and he worked out of the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. He plied his trade as a biologist there, with a real focus on dog genetics. So these findings were right up Boyko’s alley.
Boyko gushed, “[The research is] truly interesting and important. [It] may be one of the first studies to ever identify the specific genetic variants that were important for turning wolves into dogs.” But the findings weren’t just vital on that front. Remember that initial conversation that we touched upon earlier between vonHoldt and Monique Udell?
Well, the genetic condition that Udell and vonHoldt were discussing is known as Williams-Beuren syndrome. According to the National Organization for Rare Disorders website, it’s an uncommon ailment that can affect people in numerous ways. For instance, some people with it have heart issues – while others might have problems with their bones or teeth.
Either way, one symptom is particularly prevalent – a highly sociable personality. Sound familiar to a certain four-legged friend? So vonHoldt and the team took a closer look at a line of genetic code from the dogs. They realized that Williams-Beuren syndrome can be sparked in people by clearing away segments of that DNA strand.
Simply put, the changes to GTF2I and GTF2IRD1 in dogs are similar to the genetic alterations that lead to Williams-Beuren syndrome. Both of them seem to encourage overly amiable manners – even if the canines or people don’t know you personally. Unsurprisingly, the authors of the project were enthused by what they found.
One of the study authors was Dr. Elaine Ostrander, who was from the National Institutes of Health. She told BBC News, “This exciting observation highlights the utility of the dog as a genetic system informative for studies of human disease. It shows how minor variants in critical genes in dogs result in major syndromic effects in humans.”
Yet the last word on this project went to Udell. As she noted, the genetic changes cause developmental delays in both people and dogs – with different results. The psychologist told The New York Times, “The very things that make life challenging for a human may make dogs successful.” And it might be worth remembering that when you pet your excited pooch.