Tail-wagging, face-licking, jump-in-your-lap friendliness is what dog lovers adore and cat people scorn. But like it or not, the incredible sociability of many — although not all — dogs is universally recognized. It sets dogs apart from their wild relatives.
Even the most socialized, friendly wolf is cold company compared with a Labrador retriever in full face-licking mode.
But what produces this social exuberance? A team of researchers reported on Wednesday in the journal Science Advances that the friendliness of dogs may share a genetic basis with a human disease called Williams-Beuren syndrome.
Humans with this developmental delay, caused by mutations in a region of genes, show a variety of symptoms that include intense and indiscriminate sociability.
The study is a first step in what has proved a difficult area of genetic research: finding the roots of complex behavior. “We struggle a lot with wanting to know genes that are linked to behavior,” Dr. vonHoldt said.
The new results, she added, are a hopeful sign for this area of research.
Adam Boyko, a biologist who studies dog genetics at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, called the work “truly interesting and important” and said it “may be one of the first studies to ever identify the specific genetic variants that were important for turning wolves into dogs.”
But, he said, it looks at a small number of animals, and although the genes it identifies are good candidates for producing hypersociability, more research on a larger and more diverse group of animals would be needed to confirm the results.
The research was born out of a conversation Dr. vonHoldt had with Monique Udell, an experimental psychologist at Oregon State University who studies the behavior of wolves and dogs. Dr. Udell was interested in behavioral parallels between dogs and people with Williams-Beuren syndrome.
Research in animals on behaviors that are similar to human disorders is common. Scientists have created strains of mice that show behaviors similar to human depression or autism. Similarly, one of the genes found in this study of dogs is related to hypersociability in mice. The assumption behind the research is that humans share so many genes with other animals that understanding a disease in animals may help treat it in humans. The current research is a bit different in that understanding the roots of a disorder in humans may help illuminate the evolution of new behaviors in animals.
People with Williams-Beuren syndrome face many health issues, but Dr. Udell was intrigued by several characteristic behaviors: excessively friendly behavior, sometimes treating strangers as friends, and even a lack of persistence on cognitive tests, which she has observed in experiments with dogs, compared with wolves.
She said the human disorder involves a developmental delay, and dog development is delayed compared with that of wolves: “The very things that make life challenging for a human may make dogs successful.”
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