Scientists have found out why dogs are genetically predisposed to be the man’s best friend. Three genes in dogs made them friendly and socially inhibited, which makes them behave differently towards people than wolves do.

Dogs are terribly obsessed with being close to people. They are basically incredibly social wolves, thanks to these genes. However, according to scientists, the genes that make dogs super social can also be present in humans who have the Williams-Beuren syndrome. This study was published on July 19 in the journal Science Advances.

Image Credit: Karen B. London, PhD / The Bark
Image Credit: Karen B. London, PhD / The Bark

“Everyone wants to find the genes that make dogs different from wolves, and try to understand how domestication changed the genome,” said Bridgett von Holdt, who studies canine genetics at Princeton University.

Dogs have the domestication syndrome

Scientists from the Princeton University and Oregon State University wanted to find out what makes dogs and wolves behave that different. They chose 18 dogs and 10 gray wolves to make some behavioral tests, which included sociability and problem-solving exercises. They found out that dogs have a structural variation in 3 of the genes on chromosome 6 that could explain why dogs are so social and so fond of human beings.  These three genes are called GTF2I, GTF2IRD1, and WBSCR17. According to lead authors, similar social behaviors can be seen in mice.

VonHoldt said that dogs tend to look more at humans than wolves do. As well, dogs are less independent in problem-solving tests when they’re around humans. When they are close to a person, their affinity remains for the rest of their lives. It might be what scientists call the ‘domestication syndrome,’ which they have noticed in other animals. However, what astonishes scientists is how the genetic change occurs.

“Many dogs maintain their puppy-like enthusiasm for social interactions throughout their life, whereas wolves grow out of this behavior and engage in more mature, abbreviated greetings as they age,” said Monique Udell, who studies animal behavior at Oregon State University and co-authored the new study. “One might think of how a young child greets you versus a teenager or adult relative.”

Dogs get distracted by people

During the behavioral tests, dogs had to open a puzzle box that had a hidden sausage inside. Only 2 out of 18 dogs opened the box regardless of the presence of a human. Wolves did a better job. Eight of 10 wolves completed this task successfully when a human was there with them, and nine opened when they were alone.

On the other hand, when dogs were with a person, they spent more time looking at the person than looking at the puzzle box; but wolves didn’t mind about the person, they spent 100 percent of the time watching the box, forgetting that the human was there with them. Udell says that it was what they expected because dogs are distracted by social stimulation.

Wolves are rarely amused by people. Image Credit: DogsWolvesNMore / YouTube
Wolves are rarely amused by people. Image Credit: DogsWolvesNMore / YouTube

Another test consisted of evaluating how much time the animals spent within 1 meter from a person. This experiment was carried out in 4 phases. In the first, a stranger sat on a chair making no eye contact with the creatures. In the second one, the same stranger actively engaged with the canine. The third and the four rounds were almost the same as the two first; the difference was that the person who sat was the animal’s owner or caretaker, instead of a complete stranger.

According to the results, dogs and wolves prefer to be close to people they know. Dogs spent a median of 93 percent of their time near people while wolves spent only 3 percent of theirs. With the strangers, dogs spent 53 of the time close to them while wolves spent 28 percent. This difference is not that dramatic.

There is a chromosomal overlap between humans and dogs

Scientists also explain that dogs and humans could have similar genes. The same chromosomal mutation that makes a dog be so friendly and hyper social is linked to a rare disorder in humans, the Williams-Beuren Syndrome, or WBS. One of the symptoms of this condition is that people lack social inhibition making them terribly outgoing and trusting.

People with the Williams-Beuren Syndrome are also very social, and they tend to bond quickly with other people no matter if they are complete strangers. However, other symptoms include difficulty to learn and cardiovascular problems.

In fact, von Holdt started knowing this similarity between dogs and humans. On 2010, von Holdt had explained the entire genome of 225 gray wolves and 912 dogs from 85 breeds. There were clear differences between the genes of dogs and wolves, especially when it came to the WBS gene, WBSCR17. However, she wasn’t entirely clear about how affected the behavior of dogs.

Three years ago, she began working with Udell who had developed behavioral data of dogs. Then, putting together elements of both research they were able to find the missing link.

Source: Los Angeles Times