Dog’s are man’s (and woman’s!) best friend. They have been for thousands of years, and there’s nothing like the special bond we have with our four-legged friends. Dogs seem to just love people, and recent DNA testing has suggested that dogs don’t need extra convincing to befriend humans.
So what is the real factor that goes into creating personable dog behavior? We all know the feeling when you meet a new dog and it’s like having an instant new best friend. Well, science says that two genes, GTF2I and GTF2IRD1 are responsible for this behavior. For those that haven’t studied science since high school, these genes are actually share a genetic basis with a human disease called Williams-Beuren syndrome. In people, this disease causes a variety of symptoms including intense and indiscriminate sociability.
The experiment was conducted by a group of scientists from Princeton, Oregon State University, and other institutions, and combined behavioral and genetic studies of 16 dogs and eight captive, socialized wolves to investigate changes in the two genes. Both genes are on a region of one chromosome that is associated with hyperfriendliness in dogs.
Bridgett M. VonHoldt is the an evolutionary biologist at Princeton University and also the author of the study. She and her colleagues studied a stretch of DNA that includes around 29 genes in dogs. In people, deletion of part or all of this section seems to cause the human syndrome. Dr. vonHoldt’s team investigated structural changes in the genes, like deletions or transposition of DNA. Since genes can express themselves in many different ways even with minor alterations, it’s important to see if any changes have occurred, regardless of size.
What’s most exciting about this study is that in the past, there has been difficulty identifying the genes associated with complex behavior. If we can find the genes associated with these behaviors, it brings us closer to the root of why our dogs act the way they do. According to Time, Adam Boyko, a biologist who studies dog genetics at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, says that the work “may be one of the first studies to ever identify the specific genetic variants that were important for turning wolves into dogs.” The long debated mystery of how our adorable puppies came into being might be one step closer to being solved. Because after all, wolves do not display the warmth and affection that puppies do (at least not wild wolves!) and scientists have been trying to figure this out for years.
Still, as exciting as this study is, it uses a really small sample size (the number of dogs that were studied) and thus, the results are limited in their scope. More research needs to be done to really unravel this mystery and it might even help us understand the Williams-Beuren syndrome in people. But perhaps the most interesting finding is that although Williams-Beuren causes problems for humans, the omission of GTF2I and GTF2IRD1 genes actually helps our dogs to thrive and be the sociable four legged friends that we know and have loved for years. Monique Udell, an experimental psychologist at Oregon State University who studies the behavior of wolves and dogs puts it this way, “The very things that make life challenging for a human may make dogs successful.”