Genetic source of canine social behavior change identified

During thousands of years, dogs have adapted to life among humans and have developed unique abilities to communicate and cooperate with humans, including to solve difficult problems. Such adaptations may also have been triggered by a genetic basis, according to a new study.

Researchers from Linköping University in Sweden identified a relationship between five different genes and the ability of dogs to interact with humans. Four of them are also related to social disorders in humans, such as autism. 

The study was published in Scientific Reports on Sept. 29.

The researchers presented 500 beagles with a problem: to open a tight lid to obtain a treat. The scientists used video recordings to quantify the willingness of the dogs to seek physical contact with a person in the room when the problem turned out to be too difficult.

For more than 200 of the dogs, the DNA was also studied. By using a method called GWAS (genome-wide association study), the researchers examined a large number of genetic variants throughout the genome. GWAS can be used to find out if a particular genetic variant is more common among individuals with a particular trait, such as contact seeking behavior in this case. The contact-seeking dogs more often carried certain genetic variants.

“We found a clear association with DNA-regions containing five different interesting genes. Four of the genes are previously known from studies of social disorders in humans, for example, autism and ADHD,” said Mia Persson, a PhD student and lead study author. 

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