Genes are simply fascinating.
Think about it–how two black labs who mate end up having a litter of pups where all are golden? Genetics. You never seem to know just exactly what you may get.
Hoping to find out more about the genetics that differentiate domestic, socially interactive dogs from their non-engaging wolf ancestors, researchers out of Linkoping University in Sweden studied the behavior of about 500 dogs and found a commonality in genes of dogs deemed more social. Interestingly, this commonality was also found to exist with genes researchers believe influence human behavior as well.
To conduct the study, nearly 500 beagles who had similar, structured life experiences were presented with the opportunity to ‘solve problems,’ three times. The first two times were to allow the dog easy enough access to figure out what to do (retrieve a treat from a box) and the third time was to prove impossible, as the clear box encasing a treat was unopenable.
Researchers watched the reactions of the dogs as they tried to open the unopenable box, and chose 200 dogs to do further genetic study on. The 200 chosen were ones who seemed to turn to the human in the room with them, apparently looking for interaction and/or help in getting the treat, something their wolf counterparts would never do in the wild.
A genome-wide association study (GWAS) was then conducted and after examination, researchers found that the dogs who typically turned to humans when needing help all tended to carry certain variants in five specific genes. Even more interesting, four of the five bore resemblances to certain conditions like schizophrenia and autism in humans.
Dr. Per Jensen, a professor of ethology at Linkoping University, and lead researcher of the study, believes that if they are able to confirm associations they found with dog breeds other than just beagles, researchers everywhere will possible be able to use dog behaviors to help understand those and other specific human social disorders.
The next steps he and his team plan to take are to look at DNA of wolves, as well as other dog breeds, such as well-known friendly breeds like the Labrador or Golden Retriever. Analyzing the similarities and differences in the genetic make-up of those animals will continue to add more insight to not only how dogs are domesticated to be socially more interactive, but how the genetic variants affect humans differently, and what the implications of that mean.
So, the next time your dog seems like he just can’t get enough of you and insists on following you everywhere or being a lapdog, no matter his size, you can blame it on genes SEZ6L and ARVFC–the two specifically tied with dogs who seek close and direct human physical contact.
Lori Ennis is a wife, mama and friend to all animals. A self-confessed “Hot Mess,” she lives wherever the Marine Corps takes her husband. Currently, that’s Maryland with her very spoiled Labrador Retriever-mix rescue pups and a ton of saltwater fish just tanking around. Lori’s family has fostered dogs for years, mostly Golden Retrievers, and knows no home is complete without an animal buddy (or seven)!