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The science behind why we can form genuine friendships with dogs

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Dave Fawbert
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There’s no doubt about: humans and dogs are very firmly the best friends of all.

Oh, you want some evidence? Well OK then.

More? Fine, fine.

Right now we’ve established that’s definitely the case, then the question: why?

Well, scientists have identified genetic changes that are linked to dogs’ ability to communicate and interact with humans – and it suggests that there is a similar genetic basis in humans who exhibit hyper-social behaviour.

So, in a nutshell, we’re not so different, us and our doggo friends.

A study published in Science Advances explained how a team of scientists sequenced a region of chromosome 6 in dogs, and found multiple sections of DNA that were associated with differences in social behaviour; namely, that when genetic insertions called tranposons were found in a particular region, the dogs were more likely to seek out humans for physical contact and interaction. These tranposons were conspicuously absent in their non-human friendly cousins, wolves.

Similarly, in humans, the same region is associated with Williams-Beuren syndrome, a congenital disorder which is associated with people have ‘cocktail party’ style personalities; for example, having a lack of social inhibition and being highly verbal relative to their IQ. However, in humans, this occurs when there is a deletion of genes in this region.

Your two best mates

Bridgett von Holdt, an assistant professor in ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton, and the study's lead co-author, said: "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."

"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 added.

Reading the description of Williams-Beuren syndrome, it’s almost like reeling off a list of dog personality attributes: “Dykens and Rosner (1999) found that 100% of those with Williams syndrome were kind-spirited, 90% sought the company of others, 87% empathize with others' pain, 84% are caring, 83% are unselfish/forgiving, 75% never go unnoticed in a group, and 75% are happy when others do well.”

Another of their features, which can lead to problems in human life, is also very familiar from dog behaviour: “People with Williams syndrome are frequently very trusting and want more than anything to make friends, leading them to submit to requests that under normal circumstances would be rejected.”

For dogs, however, this ‘disorder’ has been a positive for them, with the study suggesting that, contrary to earlier research of the domestication of dogs, they were not selected to be companions for their cognitive abilities – i.e. their intelligence and ability to respond – but, more likely, for their tendency to seek out the company of humans.

So, really, man just wanted a friend, and some friendly dogs came along. And we never looked back.

Come here, let’s hug shall we?

(Image: iStock)

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Dave Fawbert

ShortList.com staff writer Dave’s primary passions are pop, prose, punning and power ballads (and alliteration). A lower division football enthusiast and long-suffering cricket fan, he is one of only 110 people followed on Twitter by Chas Hodges from Chas ‘n’ Dave. Follow Dave on Twitter like Chas: @davefawbert

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