Dogs really are our best friends. They like to be close to us, make eye contact and communicate with us – unusual behaviour between two different species – and it looks like some of those behaviours are written in their DNA.
A study led by Per Jensen at Linköping University in Sweden and published in Scientific Reports linked human interaction to dog genes.
“Even young puppies are able to read human communicative signals, while socialised wolves largely lack the ability,” they write.
Interestingly, the identified genes have also previously been linked to social disorders in human beings, including autism and bipolar disorder. This suggests our canine companions could shed some light on diversity within our own species.
For their study, the team tested human social interaction among a group of beagles, bred and raised in the laboratory. The dogs were assigned a task – to uncover treats by sliding back the lid on a device. But by the third instance, the lid was locked and they were unable to get in no matter how hard they tried.
“This caused most of the dogs, at some point, to turn to the nearby human and seek cooperation by gazing towards the eye region and through physical proximity and contact,” the paper states.
The team then compared the tendency to communicate with humans against the genomes of 190 beagles among the group, and found connections between the behaviour and two specific gene regions.
Within these regions, five different genes were identified as candidates for this behaviour – four of which have previously been associated with disorders in humans, such as the onset of bipolar disorder and the likelihood of children developing autism spectrum disorder.
The researchers believe these genetic tendencies probably developed through strong selection during our domestication of dogs, which has been going on for at least 15,000 years.
They claim theirs is the first study to report strong evidence for specific genes associated with social skills known to have developed during the domestication of dogs.
“The dogs were all raised under highly standardised conditions with similar experiences of human contact, which makes them particularly suitable for exploring the genetic basis of the behaviour.”
The team says the finding adds to a previous bank of research suggesting dogs as a good model for human psychology and behaviour.
“Dogs may be highly valuable for mapping behaviours and behavioural disorders specific to both the dog as a species and to particular breeds, as well as human psychological disorders such as anxiety, OCD and autism.”
Amy Middleton is a Melbourne-based journalist.