CORVALLIS, Oregon — Ever wonder why dogs are so naturally drawn to humans? It’s in their blood, literally. Researchers have found a genetic difference between dogs and wolves that explains why man’s best friend is so full of love.
Thousands of years ago, early humans tried to feed wild wolves to use them to hunt and for protection. Some of the wolves took the free food and became the ancestors of domesticated dogs. The wolves that spurned early humans’ food stayed wild.
The study by animal scientists at Oregon State University sheds more light on the differences in behavior between wolves and dogs. It’s the first to use genetic and behavioral data to try and understand how the domestication of wolves affected their genetics and shaped dogs’ behavior on a molecular level.
“The genetic basis for the behavioral divergence between dogs and wolves has been poorly understood, especially with regard to dogs’ success in human environments,” says lead author Monique Udell in a university release. “It was once thought that during domestication dogs had evolved an advanced form of social cognition that wolves lacked. This new evidence would suggest that dogs instead have a genetic condition that can lead to an exaggerated motivation to seek social contact compared to wolves.”
The study draws upon work by a team of geneticists and biologists working under Bridgett vonHoldt at Princeton University, which determined that dogs have some of the same genetic markers as those who have Williams-Beuren Syndrome, a developmental disorder that often causes people to show “hypersocial” behavior.
In behavioral tests led by Udall comparing 10 human-socialized gray wolves and 18 dogs, her team found that while both canines solved simple puzzles just as well with or without humans present, dogs had a particularly persistent habit of staring at the human with them. Wolves, on the other hand, kept their focus on the task — trying to open a box containing a sausage inside within two minutes — regardless of a human nearby.
“Where the real difference seems to lie is the dog’s persistent gazing at people and a desire to seek prolonged proximity to people, past the point where you expect an adult animal to engage in this behavior,” says Udall.
A second test had a human sit inside a circle on the floor with the dog or wolf in the room. In one part of the test, the person would deliberately try and summon or make contact with the animal from the circle. A second phase had the person ignore the animal and stare at the floor. While both dogs and wolves quickly approached the human, wolves were more likely to walk away a short time later. The dogs, however, continued to sit with the human.
So the next time you come upon a strange dog and wonder why it’s following you around when you just met — it might be your magnetic personality. Or it might simply be because the dog is wired that way.
The study was published in the journal Science Advances.