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Is Your 4-Legged Pet More Human Than Dog?

dogs turn to humans for help

Story at-a-glance -

  • Researchers in Sweden have discovered that dogs’ social skills are determined by the same genes that influence human behavior
  • The study results showed that dogs who sought contact with humans when faced with an unsolvable problem carry certain genetic variants
  • These study results are the first to identify genes that have caused what the researchers call the “extreme change in social behavior” that has occurred in domesticated dogs
  • Whereas wolves are more independent and persistent in trying to solve problems, dogs are much more likely to look to humans for a “social cognitive solution”

By Dr. Becker

Dogs are the oldest domesticated animals on earth, and as such have adapted remarkably well to life with and among people. Along the way, they’ve developed a singular ability to socialize, communicate and cooperate with humans that isn’t present in their wild ancestor, the wolf.

You may not give it much thought because it’s so commonplace, but when your dog needs to tackle a confusing or difficult task, nine times out of ten he’ll look to you for help or encouragement.

By contrast, it doesn’t even occur to wolves, including those hand-raised by people, to seek cooperation from a human to help solve a problem. This is one of the primary behavioral differences between wolves (canis lupus) and domestic dogs (canis lupus familiaris).

Dogs Turn to Humans for Help Solving Problems

A recent study from Sweden has revealed that dogs’ social skills are determined by the same genes that influence human behavior.1

The researchers were able to establish a relationship between five different genes and the ability of dogs to interact with humans. Interestingly, four of those genes also happen to be similar to the genes found in humans with certain social behavior disorders.

According to study lead author Per Jensen of Linköping University, these findings are the first to identify genes that have caused the “extreme change in social behavior” that has occurred in domesticated dogs.2

The dogs used in the study were (sadly) several hundred laboratory Beagles raised in identical circumstances and with similar experiences interacting with humans. (On a happier note, according to Jensen the kennel that bred the dogs went out of business, and all the Beagles found homes.)

For their experiment, the researchers presented the dogs with three bowls with clear plastic lids. Each bowl contained a treat. The lids on the first two bowls were easily removed, but the lid on the third bowl was impossible to get off and represented what the researchers called an “unsolvable problem” for the dogs.

The dogs were videotaped trying to remove the third lid so the researchers could evaluate their willingness to seek physical contact with a person in the room when they realized they couldn’t get to the treat inside the bowl.

The unsolvable problem, said Jensen, “… caused most of the dogs, at some point, to turn to the nearby human and seek cooperation by gazing towards the eye region and through physical proximity and contact.”3

Contact-Seeking Behavior in Dogs: It’s in the Genes

The research team also studied the DNA of over 200 of the Beagles using a method called GWAS (genome-wide association study). GWAS makes it possible to determine if a specific genetic variant is present in individuals with a particular behavioral trait, in this case, contact-seeking behavior.

Jensen and his colleagues discovered that indeed, the contact-seeking dogs more often carried certain genetic variants.

“We found a clear association with DNA-regions containing five different interesting genes,” study co-author Mia Persson told ScienceDaily. “Four of the genes are known from studies of social disorders in humans, for example, autism and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).”4

The research team believes that if their results can be confirmed in other dog breeds, it can open the door to a better understanding of social disorders in humans.

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Are Dogs Smarter Than Wolves?

It’s thought that modern dogs have one common ancestor — the Eurasian grey wolf. Tens of thousand of years ago (the exact timeframe is hotly contested), a subspecies of wolf likely began interacting with humans, perhaps as the animals searched for food at human settlements.

Interactions between wolves and people ultimately led to domesticated dogs who are able to recognize and respond to human communication cues. This skill is not present in wolves. When faced with an unsolvable task, wolves typically just stay at it until they eventually give up.

“People tend to think that dogs are clever because they recognize when a problem is unsolvable, whereas wolves don’t seem to understand this,” Monique Udell, Ph.D., an animal behaviorist at Oregon State University, Corvallis, told Science Magazine.5

It could be, however, that the different strategies used by dogs and wolves are not indicators of intelligence, but rather a result of how domestic dogs are raised.

Dogs Look to Humans for a ‘Social Cognitive Solution’

One 2015 study evaluated 10 pet dogs, 10 shelter dogs and 10 wolves who were given three opportunities to open a puzzle box (a covered plastic container containing a bit of sausage, with a rope that would open the box when pulled).6

The animals were given access to the puzzle boxes under different scenarios. In one test, they were left alone with the box for two minutes, during which time eight of the wolves opened the box, compared to just one shelter dog and no pet dogs.

In the next test, they were given access to the puzzle with a person standing nearby. The results were nearly identical: eight wolves and one pet dog succeeded in opening the box, but this time no shelter dogs solved the puzzle. The dogs spent much more time gazing at the human than the wolves did.

Next, the dogs who failed the earlier tests were given another chance, during which a human used gestures and spoke positively to encourage the dogs to keep trying. This time, four of the shelter dogs and one pet dog solved the puzzle, and all the dogs spent much more time trying to solve the puzzle than they had previously.

While the wolves are persistent and independent, working hard to solve the problem on their own with little notice or expectation of help from humans, dogs “prefer a social cognitive solution,” Udell said, meaning they prefer to get help from their owner.

This is partly our fault, since we so often tell our dogs what and what not to do. According to Udell:

“It’s not that dogs can’t do it … But they don’t even try unless they’re socially motivated … We tell them not to do things, so they learn to inhibit their actions and to wait for directions from us …

The pet dogs seem to err on the side of caution, even though solving the problem independently would be fine, and their owner is telling them that it’s okay.”7