Tag Archives: dogs

Researchers identify a common underlying genetic basis for social behavior in dogs and humans

Dogs’ ability to communicate and interact with humans is one the most astonishing differences between them and their wild cousins, wolves. A new study published in the journal Science Advances identifies genetic changes that are linked to dogs’ human-directed social behaviors and suggests there is a common underlying genetic basis for hyper-social behavior in both dogs and humans.

An interdisciplinary team of researchers, including those from Princeton University, sequenced a region of chromosome 6 in dogs and found multiple sections of canine DNA that were associated with differences in social behavior. In many cases, unique genetic insertions called transposons on the Williams-Beuren syndrome critical region (WBSCR) were strongly associated with the tendency to seek out humans for physical contact, assistance and information.

In contrast, in humans, it is the deletion of genes from the counterpart of this region on the human genome, rather than insertions, that causes Williams-Beuren syndrome, a congenital disorder characterized by hyper-social traits such as exceptional gregariousness.

“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, an assistant professor in ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton and the study’s lead co-author.

Dogs ability to communicate

Dogs’ ability to communicate and interact with humans is one of the most astonishing differences between them and their wild cousins, wolves. Shown here, Lauren Brubaker, a graduate research assistant in the Department of Animal and Rangeland Sciences at Oregon State University and one of the study’s authors, interacts with a gray wolf. Photo by Monty Sloan

VonHoldt had identified the canine analog of the WBSCR in her publication in Nature in 2010. But it was Emily Shuldiner, a 2016 Princeton alumna and the study’s other lead co-author, who, as part of her senior thesis, pinpointed the commonalities in the genetic architecture of Williams-Beuren syndrome and canine tameness.

By analyzing behavioral and genetic data from dogs and gray wolves, vonHoldt, Shuldiner and their colleagues reported a strong genetic aspect to human-directed social behavior by dogs. Monique Udell, an assistant professor of animal and rangeland sciences at Oregon State University and the paper’s senior author, collected and analyzed the behavioral data for 18 domesticated dogs and 10 captive human-socialized wolves, as well as the biological samples used to sequence their genomes.

First, Udell quantified human-directed sociability traits in canines, 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.

Consistent with their hypothesis, the researchers confirmed that the domesticated dogs displayed more human-directed behavior and spent more time in proximity to humans than the wolves. The also discovered that some of these transposons on the WBSCR were only found in domestic dogs, and not in wolves at all.

VonHoldt’s findings suggest that only a few transposons on this region likely govern a complex set of social behaviors. “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,” she said.

Anna Kukekova, an assistant professor in the Department of Animal Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who is familiar with the research but had no role in it, said that the paper points to these genes as being evolutionarily conserved, or essentially unchanged throughout evolution. “The research provides evidence that there exist certain evolutionary conservative mechanisms that contribute to sociability across species,” she said. “That they have found that this region contributes to sociability in dogs is exciting.”

The researchers’ evidence also calls into question the role of domestication in the evolution of canine behavior. Most experts agree that the first domesticated dogs were wolves that ventured into early human settlements. These proto-dogs evolved not only in their looks, but also their behavior, a process likely influenced by the species’ cohabitation, according to vonHoldt.

However, unlike previous research which suggests that, during the process of domestication, dogs were selected for a set of cognitive abilities, particularly an ability to discern gesture and voice, vonHoldt and Shuldiner’s research posits that dogs were instead selected for their tendency to seek human companionship.

“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.

Source:  Princeton University media statement

Doggy quote of the month for February

“What dogs?  These are my children, little people with fur who make my heart open a little wider.”

– Oprah Winfrey, actress, writer, talk show host, philanthropist

Doggy quote of the month for December

“Children and dogs are as necessary to the welfare of the country as Wall Street and the railroads.”

– Harry S Truman, 33rd President of the United States

harry-truman

Doggy quote of the month for October

“Dogs are my favorite role models. I want to work like a dog, doing what I was born to do with joy and purpose. I want to play like a dog, with total, jolly abandon. I want to love like a dog, with unabashed devotion and complete lack of concern about what people do for a living, how much money they have, or how much they weigh. The fact that we still live with dogs, even when we don’t have to herd or hunt our dinner, gives me hope for humans and canines alike.”

– Oprah Winfrey, actress, writer, talk show host, philanthropist

oprah-winfrey-with-dogs

Gambling wolves take more risks than dogs

Would you rather get 100 euros for certain, or have a fifty-fifty chance of receiving either 200 euros or nothing? Most choose the first, as humans tend to be “risk-averse”, preferring a guaranteed pay-off over the possibility of a greater reward. It is thought that the human preference for “playing it safe” has evolved through natural selection: when you live precariously, like our remote ancestors, losing all your food reserves might be catastrophic, while adding to them might not make much difference to your chances of survival.

Wolf pups

Etu and Ela, two wolf pups at the Wolf Centre Photo credit: Rooobert Bayer

Here, in one of the first studies on risk preferences in animals other than primates, scientists show that wolves are consistently more prone to take risks when gambling for food than dogs. When faced with the choice between an insipid food pellet and a fifty-fifty chance of either tasty meat or an inedible stone, wolves nearly always choose the risky option, whereas dogs are more cautious.

“We compared the propensity to take risks in a foraging context between wolves and dogs that had been raised under the same conditions,” says Sarah Marshall-Pescini, a postdoctoral fellow at the Messerli Research Institute at the Veterinary University of Vienna and the Wolf Science Centre, Ernstbrunn, Austria, the study’s first author. “We found that wolves prefer the risky option significantly more often than dogs. This difference, which seems to be innate, is consistent with the hypothesis that risk preference evolves as a function of ecology.”

The study was done at the Wolf Science Centre, Ernstbrunn, Austria, a research institute where scientists study cognitive and behavioral differences and similarities between wolves and dogs. Here, wolves and dogs live in packs, under near-natural conditions within large enclosures.

Marshall-Pescini let each of 7 wolves and 7 dogs choose 80 times between two upside-down bowls, placed side-by-side on a movable table-top. The animals had been trained to indicate the bowl of their choice with their paw or muzzle, after which they would receive the item that was hidden beneath it.

The researchers had taught the wolves and dogs that beneath the first bowl, the “safe” option, was invariably an insipid food pellet, while beneath the second bowl, the “risky” option, was either an inedible item, a stone, in a random 50% of trials, and high-quality food, such as meat, sausage, or chicken, in the other 50%. As a control, the side for the “safe” and “risky” option changed between trials, but the animals were always shown which side corresponded to which option; whether they would get a stone or high-quality food if they chose the “risky” option was the only unknown. Rigorously designed control trials confirmed that the animals understood this rule, including the element of chance.

Wolves are much more prone to take risks than dogs, show the results. Wolves chose the risky option in 80% of trials, whereas dogs only did so in 58% of trials.

The researchers believe that dogs evolved a more cautious temperament after they underwent an evolutionary shift from their ancestral hunter lifestyle to their present scavenger lifestyle, which happened between 18,000 to 32,000 years ago when humans first domesticated dogs from wolves. Previous research has suggested that species that rely on patchily distributed, uncertain food sources are generally more risk-prone. For example, chimpanzees, which feed on fruit trees and hunt for monkeys, are more risk-prone than bonobos, which rely more on terrestrial vegetation, a temporally and spatially reliable food source.

“Wild wolves hunt large ungulates — a risky strategy, not only because hunts often fail, but also because these prey animals can be dangerous — whereas free-ranging dogs, which make up 80% of the world’s dog population, feed mostly by scavenging on human refuse, a ubiquitous, unlimited resource. So dogs no longer need to take risks when searching for food, and this may have selected for a preference to play if safe,” concludes Marshall-Pescini.

Source:  EurekAlert! media statement

The Olympic diving dogs of Farmers Insurance

The Olympics are in full swing, covered in all forms of media but especially television.  I have to say that the Olympic-themed commercials in New Zealand are pretty bland.

My hat goes off to Farmers Insurance for their Flooded House Diving Dogs Competition commercial series – a great use of dogs and the Olympic theme.  A group of unattended dogs accidentally flood their home and compete in their own diving competiton.

There are eight commercials in the series starting with the Intro.  Once the Intro plays, simply click on the next video.

Enjoy watching Tank, Bubbles, Nacho, Churchill, Toby, Oksana and Montana…

Kathleen Crisley, specialist in dog massage, rehabilitation and nutrition/food therapy, The Balanced Dog, Christchurch, New Zealand

 

Cancer sniffing dogs

I write frequently about special dogs and assistance dogs. But this post isn’t about research – it’s about real-life stories where common pet dogs have detected cancer in their owner.

For example, I have a client in my massage practice who said that her dog was acting differently towards her.  We initially attributed this to stress in the home – since they had recently moved house with all of the associated angst. And then came a diagnosis of bladder cancer and she’s now in the middle of aggressive treatment for it.. On reflection, I believe her dog, who is a sensitive boy, picked up on the scent of her cancer but he didn’t know how to tell her.

And then this week, I read about Banjo who lives in North Carolina with his owner, Tim Buckner.  Banjo acted strangely to a wart on his Tim’s arm…and when Tim went to get it checked by a dermatologist, he was diagnosed with melanoma.

We know that dogs have extremely sensitive noses.  And I include here the PBS NewsHour item about dogs and how they can detect cancer.  This piece opens with yet another dog owner telling the tale of how her dog detected her cancer.

Dogs continue to show us unique ways they can help us and our quality of life.  You may have saved your pet, but your pet could also save you.

Kathleen Crisley, specialist in dog massage, rehabilitation and nutrition/food therapy, The Balanced Dog, Christchurch, New Zealand