Thousands of years ago, humans began domesticating wolves; this would eventually pave the way for the modern-day house dogs we have today. One fundamental difference between dogs and wolves is how the latter aren’t as friendly or socially adept, and now we might finally know why.
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A new study published in the journal Science Advances by Oregon State University researchers reveals how a genetic component could be behind your dog’s kindness.
"The genetic basis for the behavioral divergence between dogs and wolves has been poorly understood, especially with regard to dogs' success in human environments," said study co-author Monique Udell.
"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."
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The research highlights certain genetic similarities between domestic dogs and humans with Williams-Beuren Syndrome, which is known to cause both developmental issues and hypersocial behavior. In other words, this could be the fundamental mechanism behind why dogs seek out human attention.
The researchers conducted two separate tests involving both dogs and wolves to compare their responses; one test was verbal and came with a human affection reward, while the other test was physical and came with a food reward. In both cases, the dogs spent more time seeking human attention while the wolves spent more time avoiding human attention.
Another critical point brought up in the research is how both dogs and wolves appear to have similar problem-solving skills, but wolves prefer to solve problems independently while dogs are more likely to enjoy having a human companion present.
"We've done a lot of research that shows that wolves and dogs can perform equally well on social cognition tasks," Udell continued. "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."
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While the testing pool was indeed limited, the impact that domestication had on wolves thousands of years ago now seems clear: today's house dogs, which evolved from these early ancestors, have become genetically hard-coded to seek both social approval and love and love from the humans that domesticated them long ago. Whether this was a direct result of domestication or from the genetic mutation itself is something that researchers still aspire to learn.
Perhaps future research will be able to probe the mysteries of dog behavior even further, using the results of this study as a springboard.