MAN’S BEST FRIEND: THE SCIENCE BEHIND THIS WELL-KNOWN PHRASE

October 27, 2016
by Evelyn Syau

With their wagging tails, lolling tongues, and bright-eyed, trusting gazes, dogs have quickly adapted to life among humans. And unlike their wolf ancestors, dogs have an uncanny ability to communicate with humans; they are especially attuned the emotions of their owners, able to comprehend facial expressions and even express remorse when their owner is upset. When trapped in an uncomfortable situation, dogs will also often seek contact with a human and solicit help.1 But how much of this tendency is due to science, and what implications does this behavior have for humans?

Scientists at Linköping University have explored this behavior—dogs looking to humans when they need help—by presenting 190 beagles with three identical problems, one of which was unsolvable. The beagles were tasked with sliding a Plexiglas lid aside to obtain the treat in the container below, but one of the lids was sealed shut.2 A researcher, previously unknown to the dogs, sat on a stool around 1.5 meters away, and the dogs were recorded for three minutes. The scientists later observed that most of the dogs sought cooperation from the researcher through physical proximity and contact.2

The researchers then used GWAS (genome-wide association study) to examine the number of genetic variants in the dog genome. GWAS showed that a particular genetic variant is more common among individuals with a particular trait,1 and that contact seeking dogs were more likely to carry certain genetic variants. The scientists also analyzed the dogs’ genomes, and found 5 different genes that may modify human-directed behavior in dogs.1 One gene was involved with human contact seeking, while the other four genes were associated with schizophrenia and social disorders in humans.

Ultimately, the scientists at Linköping University were successful in identifying genes that are found in both dogs and humans. These results not only reveal more about the relationship between dogs and humans, but also posit dogs as a model from which we can better understand social disorders in humans.

References:

Genes Underlying Dogs’ Social Ability Revealed, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/09/160929092603.htm (accessed 10/11/16), part of ScienceDaily.
Persson, M.E. et al. Genomic Regions Associated With Interspecies Communication in Dogs Contain Genes Related to Human Social Disorders. Scientific Reports, 2016, 6, 1-9.
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