The Genetic Basis of Social Behaviors in Dogs and Wolves

Are There Social Genes That Dogs Share With Humans (But Wolves Don’t)?

A recent study done by researchers at Linköping University in Sweden, published last month in Scientific Reports, suggests that the social abilities of dogs may be affected by certain genes that also influence human behavior.

"Our findings are the first to reveal genes that [may] have caused the extreme change in social behavior, which has occurred in dogs since they were domesticated," according to Per Jensen, professor of ethology and leader of the research group.

The scientists found a relationship between five different genes and certain abilities dogs exhibit when they interact socially with humans. Four of these genes show a possible connection to certain behavioral tendencies in humans as well.

The study was done with nearly 500 beagles who’d all participated in earlier studies involving social interactions with humans. In this latest study, the dogs were given a task to open a container holding treats. However, the container had a tight lid making it very difficult, if not impossible, for the dogs to open. The scientists then measured the dogs’ abilities to “seek physical contact with a person in the room when the problem turned out to be too difficult.”

In other words, the dogs were expected to solicit help from humans. They’d been previously trained (or encouraged) to do so. And since these 500 hundred or so beagles were pre-selected for that very quality, their behavior does not necessarily fall under the model of a naturally-occurring, i.e., purely doggish, genetically-based behavior or set of behaviors.

Then there’s the problem of comparing dogs and wolves, based on bad science. The researchers write: “Different lines of evidence suggest a substantial genetic basis for these social skills. For example, even young puppies are able to read human communicative signals while socialised wolves largely lack the ability. Unlike wolves, dogs usually turn to a nearby human in a help-seeking manner when faced with difficult problem tasks.”

Unlike wolves? Who says so?

In a 2012 study, Monique Udell, one of the few real scientists in the field of canine cognition, showed that wolves and even coyotes are capable of following where humans point, something that at the time it was thought (according to Brian Hare) that only dogs could do.

Udell: “Human-socialized wolves are not only capable of responding to points made with the arm and hand, but are sensitive to a wide range of human gestures when given the opportunity to utilize such gestures in an object-choice task. Claims that domestic dogs are unique in their ability to respond to diverse novel stimuli may be in part due to the absence of data for the same range of gestures in other species. We also provide the first evidence that human-socialized coyotes have the capacity to utilize a human point to locate a target; further demonstrating that domestication is not a prerequisite for canid responsiveness to human actions, and that socialization and life experience are likely more important predictors of success. This suggests that the dog’s social instincts are not radically different from those of wolves. In fact, they’re probably derived from the wolf’s DNA.”

In a world of misinformation about the genetic components supporting the social nature of dogs (as promulgated by Brian Hare and others), this makes no sense. Of course dogs are more social than wolves. And they’re especially more social toward humans than wolves are. Yet Udell’s research stands that idea on its head.

Of course there are lots of differences between dogs and wolves. Yet one of the primary differences, one that’s as clear as glass, relates to the differences in morphology, or body size, shape, and color. Wolf morphology falls into a very narrow range while the differences in the size, shape, and color of various dog breeds is off the charts. And where do those differences come from, from differences between wolf and dog DNA?

No. In fact, the opposite is true. The morphological and behavioral diversity we see in dogs is essentially the result of two genetic factors: insertional mutations and random-repeat sequences, which are also found in wolves.

Insertional mutations are where DNA sequences leave one chromosomal location and insert themselves into a second. Should they happen to insert into a gene or a regulatory element, this modifies the encoded genetic information. Random-repeat sequences are where one bit of genetic code is repeated over and over, ad infinitum. When such regions are copied in the germ line, the copying enzymes tend to synthesize too many or too few repeats, generating ‘slippage mutations,’ inherited by offspring. This slippage rate is far higher in dogs than it is in most other carnivores, except wolves, coyotes, and other relatives of the domesticated dog.

So it seems to me that unless and until the Swedish researchers really do their homework, round up 500 or so enculturated wolves, and set up the same (or a similar) set of conditions to test them, and look at their DNA to see if the same “social genes” found in dogs are also found in wolves (which is very likely to be the case), there’s not much value, if any, in their research.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that there aren’t huge gaps in behavior and morphology between canis lupus and canis familiaris. What I am saying is that a dog’s propensities for social behavior is not purely the result of domestication. As Dr. Udell says, it’s inherited in dogs from the wolf’s DNA.


“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”

1) In a 2015 study, Udell found that while pet dogs and shelter dogs looked to humans for help in opening containers to get at a piece of sausage, wolves were less likely to do so. She said that all the test animals were capable of opening the container, but the wolves were just more persistent than the dogs were.

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© 2016 by Lee Charles Kelley.