Man’s best friend: When and how did dogs achieve this prestigious role?
Dogs have been described as ‘man’s best friend’ for centuries and as you can tell from our post last week, the bond between animal and human seems to be stronger than ever as more people are treating their pets like ‘one of the family.’ Taking them on holiday, taking them to work, buying them Christmas and birthday pressies…
But how did it all start? When and how did dogs achieve this prestigious honour and why? If you’ve ever wondered how we ended up pretty much sharing our beds with tame wolves, then ponder no more! Researchers from Azabu University in Japan have discovered genetic clues that hint at how dogs became man’s best friend.
According to the study, mutations in the gene that’s involved in the production of cortisol (the stress hormone) may have played a role in dog’s domestication. Enabling them to develop skills that allowed them to communicate with people.
The team at Azabu, led by Miho Nagasawa focused on the interactions of 624 domestic dogs as they performed 2 separate tasks. The dogs were separated into 2 groups depending on their breed. An ‘ancient’ group which consisted of breeds which are clearly genetically closer to wolves, such as Siberian Huskies and Japanese Akitas. And a ‘general’ group, which comprised of ‘everything else’ i.e. other dog breeds that do not appear closely related to wolves.
In the first experiment, dogs had to decide which bowl had food hidden underneath it, based on cues given by humans including looking at the bowl, tapping it and pointing to it, in order to test their understanding of human gestures and communication.
The second experiment explored each dog’s social attachment to humans. They were all set a problem solving task, which involved figuring out how to open a container in order to obtain some food.
The researchers measured how long and how often the dog looked at them during the second task (asking for help or clues).
They found that the wolf-like dogs in the ‘ancient’ group did not look at the researchers as often during the problem-solving task, suggesting that they are less attached to humans and more independent. But they found no significant differences between the breeds in the first task. They were both able to read cues from humans and communicate with them easily.
The researchers then looked at the genes of these different breeds to see if they could see any differences in those genes related to human cognitive abilities.
They discovered two changes to the gene melanocortin 2 receptor (MC2R) that appeared to be associated with both groups of dog breed correctly interpreting gestures in the first task and the ‘general’ group gazing at the scientists more often in the problem solving task.
The findings suggest that the mutation of this gene may therefore have played a role in the how dogs became domesticated – perhaps by promoting lower levels of stress around humans. This is certainly supported by the research we mentioned on last week’s blog, where 51% of dog owners said they got a dog because it ‘makes them happy.’
Discussing the report in the journal Scientific Reports, the research team summarised their research:
“We tested 624 dogs and searched the candidate genes responsible for communication with humans, the MC2R gene was the most effective to the skill of dogs in two-way choice test and problem-solving task, indicating that this gene can be mutated in the early domestication process of dogs.”
Is your dog your best friend? Perhaps you’re more of a crazy cat lady (or cat man!) Now all we’d like to know is why diamonds are a girl’s best friend! Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below!