29 September 2016

The social ability of dogs is affected by genes that also appear to influence human behaviour, according to a new study by scientists at Linköping University in Sweden. The scientists found a relationship where five different genes influence dogs’ ability to interact with humans. Four of them are also related to social disorders in humans, for example autism.

Photo credit: AleksandarNakic

Photo credit: Gran Billeson“Our findings are the first to reveal genes that might have caused the extreme change in social behaviour that has occurred in dogs since they were domesticated,” says Per Jensen, professor of ethology and leader of the research group.

The dog is the oldest domesticated animal and over thousands of years it has adapted to a life among humans. During this period it has developed unique abilities to communicate and collaborate with us. In this respect dogs are far superior to their wild ancestors, the wolves. When faced with a difficult task, most dogs seek contact with a human, apparently to get help. Wolves in similar situations attempt to solve the problem themselves.

In the new study, published in “Scientific Reports”, the scientists studied the behaviour of the dogs by presenting them with an unsolvable problem. The task was to open a tight lid, to get to a treat. Almost 500 beagles with similar earlier experiences of human interaction were part of the behavioural studies. The scientists used video recordings to quantify the dogs’ willingness to seek physical contact with a person in the room when the problem turned out to be too difficult.

Additionally, the scientists studied the DNA of more than 200 of the dogs. Using a method called GWAS (genome-wide association study), they examined a large number of genetic variants throughout the genome. GWAS can be used to determine if a particular genetic variant is more common among individuals with a particular trait – in this case, contact-seeking behaviour. It turned out that the contact-seeking dogs more often carried certain genetic variants.

Photo credit: Mattias Nordh“We found a clear association with DNA regions that contain five different genes of interest. Four of the genes are previously known from studies of social disorders in humans, for instance autism and ADHD,” says Mia Persson, doctoral student and main author of the paper.

ADHD, autism and similar neuropsychiatric disorders are associated with difficulties with social interactions with other humans.

“If the associations we have found can be confirmed in other dog breeds, it’s possible that dog behaviour can help us to better understand social disorders in humans,” says Professor Jensen.

The research was funded in part by the European Research Council, ERC.

Photo credit: Picasa/Mia PerssonPublication: Genomic regions associated with interspecies communication in dogs contain genes related to human social disorders. Persson, M.E., Wright, D., Roth, L.S.V., Batakis, P. and Jensen, P. (2016) Scientific Reports 6, 33439; doi:10.1038/srep33349