Dogs that are extra friendly share certain genetic similarities with people who are born with a developmental disorder sometimes called the “opposite of autism,” which makes them hyper social, researchers said on Wednesday.
The report in the journal Science Advances pinpointed changes in two genes that are related to extreme social behavior in dogs, and also in people who are born with Williams-Beuren Syndrome. People with this condition tend to be highly outgoing, gregarious, empathetic, interested in prolonged eye contact, prone to anxiety and may have mild to moderate learning disabilities and intellectual impairment.
The findings offer new insights into how dogs became domesticated and split paths from their wolf ancestors thousands of years ago. “It was once thought that during domestication dogs had evolved an advanced form of social cognition that wolves lacked,” said co-author Monique Udell, an animal scientist at Oregon State University. “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.”
Researchers studied 18 domesticated dogs and 10 captive gray wolves to see how social they were toward people and how they performed on problem-solving tasks. Given the task of lifting a puzzle box lid to get a sausage treat, the canines were rated on how much they turned to a human in the room for help.
The wolves were more likely to figure out how to get the treat than dogs. The dogs were more likely to stare longingly at the nearby people. “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,” said Udell.
Then, researchers took blood samples and to see how the wolves’ and dogs’ genetic traits lined up with their personalities. They found variations in two genes—GTF21 and GTF2IRD1—“appeared to be connected to dog hyper sociability, a core element of domestication that distinguishes them from wolves,” said the report. These genes have previously implicated in the hyper social behaviors of humans with William-Beuren Syndrome.
The changes weren’t identical in humans and dogs. For instance, in dogs, unique genetic insertions called transposons in these genetic regions were linked to a strong tendency to seek out human contact. Some of these transposons “were only found in domestic dogs, and not in wolves at all,” said the report.
In people, the deletion of genes from this region in the human genome is linked to Williams-Beuren syndrome. “We haven’t found a ‘social gene,’ but rather an important [genetic] component that shapes animal personality and assisted the process of domesticating a wild wolf into a tame dog,” said a statement by co-author Bridgett vonHoldt, an assistant professor in ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University.
Adam Boyko, an assistant professor at Cornell University and expert in dog genetics, called the study “truly interesting and important.”
“It may be one of the first studies to ever identify the specific genetic variants that were important for turning wolves into dogs,” he said in an email. “That said, the overall sample size in the study is small, so validating the association of these variants in a much larger cohort of diverse dogs would be needed to prove that these are, in fact, the variants in the region driving both the association and the signature of positive selection.”
The topic of just when and how dogs become domesticated thousands of years ago is a subject of much debate in the scientific community. A separate study out earlier this week in Nature Communications suggested dogs first split from wolves about 40,000 years ago.
It’s unlikely that humans sought out to tame wild wolves. Rather, the process would have started with the animals approaching hunter-gatherer camps in search of food, researchers said. “Those wolves that were tamer and less aggressive would have been more successful at this” and more likely to befriend humans, explained the report.
The research by Udell and vonHoldt lines up with this theory—that sociability, rather than smarts, drove dogs to become man’s best friend. “If early humans came into contact with a wolf that had a personality of being interested in them, and only lived with and bred those ‘primitive dogs,’ they would have exaggerated the trait of being social,” vonHoldt said.