Research published this week in the journal Science Advances discovered dogs share a genetic basis with people suffering from Williams-Beuren syndrome, a congenital disorder characterized by hyper-social traits such as exceptional gregariousness and a tendency to seek out physical contact, assistance and information. Its one of the first steps in our understanding of the genetic roots of behavior.
Dogs ability to communicate with humans so well is one of the main traits differentiating them from many other animals, even their close cousins the wolves.
The study combines expertise of Bridgett vonHoldt, an assistant professor in ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton and Monique Udell, an assistant professor of animal and rangeland sciences at Oregon State University, a dogs and wolves expert behaviorist.
First, Udell quantified human-directed sociability traits in dogs, such as to what extent they turned to a human in the room to seek assistance in trying to lift a puzzle box lid in order to get a sausage treat below or the degree to which they sought out social interactions with familiar and unfamiliar humans. Then, vonHoldt and Shuldiner sequenced the genome in vonHoldt’s lab and correlated their findings. They compared the sequenced DNA of people with Williams-Beuren syndrome. Surprisingly many similarities were identified suggesting there is a strong genetic component affecting this type of behavior.
“It was the remarkable similarity between the behavioral presentation of Williams-Beuren syndrome and the friendliness of domesticated dogs that suggested to us that there may be similarities in the genetic architecture of the two phenotypes,” said Bridgett vonHoldt.
It’s one of the first studies identifying certain genes that were changed when Wolves “evolved” into dogs. Anna Kukekova, an assistant professor in the Department of Animal Sciences at the University of Illinois said; “The research provides evidence that there exist certain evolutionary mechanisms that contribute to sociability across species,” she said. “That they have found that this region contributes to sociability in dogs is exciting.”
Our ability as humans to “select” wolves with “friendly genes” explains the genetic mechanism of how humans helped “domesticate” the dog and really lets us understand more how they evolved into the loving creatures that we so love today.