These genes may be why dogs are so friendly

DNA differences among dogs and wolves hints at how canines came to live with humans

DNA might reveal how dogs became man’s best friend.

A new study shows that some of the same genes linked to the behavior of extremely social people can also make dogs friendlier. The result, published July 19 in Science Advances, suggests that dogs’ domestication may be the result of just a few genetic changes rather than hundreds or thousands of them.

“It is great to see initial genetic evidence supporting the self-domestication hypothesis or ‘survival of the friendliest,’” says evolutionary anthropologist Brian Hare of Duke University, who studies how dogs think and learn. “This is another piece of the puzzle suggesting that humans did not create dogs intentionally, but instead wolves that were friendliest toward humans were at an evolutionary advantage as our two species began to interact.”

Not much is known about the underlying genetics of how dogs became domesticated. In 2010, evolutionary geneticist Bridgett vonHoldt of Princeton University and colleagues published a study comparing dogs’ and wolves’ DNA. The biggest genetic differences gave clues to why dogs and wolves don’t look the same. But major differences were also found in WBSCR17, a gene linked to Williams-Beuren syndrome in humans.

Williams-Beuren syndrome leads to delayed development, impaired thinking ability and hypersociability. VonHoldt and colleagues wondered if changes to the same gene in dogs would make the animals more social than wolves, and whether that might have influenced dogs’ domestication.

In the new study, vonHoldt and colleagues compared the sociability of domestic dogs with that of wolves raised by humans. Dogs typically spent more time than wolves staring at and interacting with a human stranger nearby, showing the dogs were more social than the wolves. Analyzing the genetic blueprint of those dogs and wolves, along with DNA data of other wolves and dogs, showed variations in three genes associated with the social behaviors directed at humans: WBSCR17, GTF2I and GTF2IRD1. All three are tied to Williams-Beuren syndrome in humans.