Five genes could give dogs their unique human interaction — and they share four with us

A new study has identified five genes which researchers believe give dogs their unique ability to interact with humans in their unique way. Four of these genes also “show similarities to certain conditions in humans.”

Image credits Brian Tomlinson / Flickr.

The dog is a man’s best friend. It’s also man’s oldest domesticated animal companion, which has adapted over fifteen thousand years to live among us. That’s a lot of time during which they’ve evolved a unique bond and ability to communicate and cooperate with us. Compared to their wild ancestors, dogs are much more likely to call on a human’s help with a difficult task; a wolf, faced with the same problem, would just try and solve it itself. But exactly which piece of their genetic code drives them to seek companionship and familiarity with humans, or allow them to pick up on our facial and emotional cues, has so far remained a mystery.

“Our findings are the first to reveal genes that can have caused the extreme change in social behaviour, which has occurred in dogs since they were domesticated,” says Per Jensen, professor of ethology, who is the leader of the research group.

The team tested 500 beagles with a similar background of human interactions by presenting them with an unsolvable problem. The box-like device held three treats, but allowed the dogs to reach two of them and then made the third one inaccessible. The dogs were “all genotyped with an HD Canine SNP-chip,” and the team used video recordings to quantify how likely the animals were to turn to a human for help — most dogs did so, by gazing towards their owner’s eye region or through physical proximity and contact.

Using a method called GWAS (genome-wide association study), the team then looked at the genetic material of the dogs that turned for help, to identify if they shared some particular genetic variants. They found one strong and two suggestive associations in two different genes on their 26th chromosome. Three other potential candidates were found in one of the linkage blocks.

“We found a clear association with DNA-regions containing five different interesting genes,” says Mia Persson, PhD-student and main author of the paper.

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

Some of these genes have previously been found to play a part in human social impairments, suggesting that they play a role in such behavior across species.

“Interestingly, four of the five genes thus identified have previously been associated with social behavior disorders in humans, and therefore remain strong candidates for modifying human-directed behavior in dogs,” the team writes.

The full paper “Genomic Regions Associated With Interspecies Communication in Dogs Contain Genes Related to Human Social Disorders” has been published in the journal Scientific Report.


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