By Dr. Becker
There are several reasons why people say dogs are man’s best friend. Canine companions want nothing more than to be with you, can listen to you sagely for hours without saying a word and have an uncanny way of knowing when you’re worried or sad, at which point they’ll attend to you with extra vigilance.
Some dogs are naturally friendlier than others, but when a dog is well-loved, it’s obvious how happy they are when you come home, and his or her greatest joy is when you spend time playing with them, petting them or generally acknowledging that they’re as important to you as you are to them. Dogs show their pleasure in your company in several different ways — jumping, licking you and wagging not just their tails but sometimes their whole bodies.
Now, however, scientists say they’ve found a link between friendlier-than-average people who have a behavioral trait called hypersociability and the way dogs were originally domesticated.1 While numerous studies conducted over the last decade have helped determine that dogs’ DNA can influence their personality, size and even the type of coats they have, very few have been done that tied on specific genes to personality traits.
Although he wasn’t involved in the study, behavioral geneticist Per Jensen from Sweden’s Linköping University says the genetics of dog behavior may have more relevance for understanding the genetics of human behavior than scientists realized.
Research Into Why Most Dogs Are so Friendly
In 2011, Oregon State Unversity, Corvallis animal behaviorist Monique Udell, Ph.D., who more specifically focused on canine behavior, and geneticist Bridgett vonHoldt, Ph.D., from Princeton University, collaborated with a research team to look at how dogs’ genes can influence their personalities. As the American Association for the Advancement of Science explains:
“Dogs are certainly more inclined to hang out with people than your average wolf, which the team confirmed this by comparing the behavior of 18 dogs — some purebreds, others mixed breeds — with 10 captive, hand-raised wolves at a research and education institute in Indiana.
As others had shown, the dogs were much friendlier than the wolves, even though the wolves had been raised by people. Both hand-raised wolves and dogs greet human visitors, but dogs continue to interact with people much longer than wolves do, even when visited by a stranger.”2
The scientists then examined the hypersociability developmental disorder in humans known as Williams-Beuren syndrome,3 which affects about 10,000 people and occurs when people lack segments of about 27 genes from their DNA. The syndrome makes such individuals very open, unreserved and trusting, socially, as well as causes physical traits such as “elfin” features, caused by the absence of chromosome 7.
The Los Angeles Times added that in addition, “People with Williams-Beuren syndrome form bonds quickly and show great interest in other people, including strangers. Other symptoms include developmental and learning disabilities as well as cardiovascular problems.”4
VonHoldt had previously ascertained that the area of DNA dealing with the missing chromosome in humans may correlate with chromosome 6 in dogs, which she thought might affect their evolution. She called it “a long shot,” but focused her research on the possibility that this particular DNA might explain why dogs are so much more approachable than wolves.
The research teams found that almost all the dogs’ DNA “varied widely,” as did the wolves’, “with parts inserted, deleted, or duplicated,” Science observed.5 But VonHoldt noticed that people with Williams-Beuren syndrome are similar in that they exhibit wide disparities of their DNA, which may have something to do with the severity of how the disease affects their personalities.
DNA, Chromosomes and the Differences Between Dogs and Wolves
One of the most interesting aspects of the study came with the observation that dogs with more hypersocial tendencies had more disruptions in their DNA compared to the most socially indifferent wolves. The “disruption” in DNA stemmed from a protein called GTF21, the “regulator” for the genes’ activity, in the most socially acclimated dogs. VonHoldt explained that it’s the scarcity of the gene that accounts for the “lone wolf” aloofness in wolves. According to studies, the same gene in mice initiates hypersocial behavior.
Brian Hare, Ph.D., an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University who described the research as exciting because it supports the “survival of the friendliest” in regard to dog domestication theory, also noted that “in ancient wolves with these gene disruptions, fear was replaced by friendliness and a new social partner was created.”6 Compared to wolves, dogs are much more predisposed to sticking close to humans, and they’re also much more apt to gaze into their eyes far longer.
Interestingly, when they’re around people, they seem to defer to the humans in problem-solving situations rather than behaving independently, and their reliance on and affection for humans remains as long as they live.
Udell also compared the behavior of dogs, who often behave in social situations with enthusiasm throughout their lives, as well, while wolves usually become more reserved and self-sufficient as they get older. She compared the behavior of these two types of canines to the difference between how young children greet people as opposed to teenagers.
Dogs Versus Wolves: Experimentation
In Udell’s previous studies, 18 dogs and 10 wolves who’d been socialized with humans underwent behavioral experiments, one of which involved a puzzle box with a sausage hidden inside. Among the dogs, only two were able to get the box open, regardless of the presence or absence of humans. The wolves did much better; eight of the 10 got the puzzle box open when humans were around, and nine of them did it when humans weren’t present.
Further, when humans were around, they spent about 10 percent of their time looking at the human and about 10 percent of their time pursuing the box, while the wolves, whether or not a human was present, gave nearly 100 percent of their attention to getting the sausage. Scientists call the dogs’ behavior “domestication syndrome,” also seen in other animals tamed by humans, but it’s still not clear how the changes take place.
In another experiment, researchers observed how close dogs and wolves got to humans in a series of situations: first, strangers who sat in a chair, neither speaking nor making eye contact with the animal, then a second round in which the stranger initiated social interaction. A similar set of situations involved the same behaviors on the part of humans who were familiar to the dogs and wolves.
The scientists found that when the animals’ caretakers were present, dogs spent an average of 93 percent of their time near the human, while the wolves approached only 36 percent of the time. With strangers, the percentages for both dogs and wolves were much smaller. The researchers also found it interesting that, among the dogs, one had a much more aloof, wolf-like behavior, and two of the wolves responded in dog-like displays of domesticity.
Testing revealed that the two gregarious wolves had more mutations in the three genes the scientists had pinpointed as the ones that made the difference, while the wolf-like dog had fewer. Scientists who examine both genetics and behavior of animals are calling for further experimentation in regard to canine social behavior and the possibility of a deeper relationship to humans.
Which Dog Breeds Are the Most Predisposed to Being Friendly?
While it’s something that interests the geneticists and canine behavioral experts, scientists aren’t yet sure how the personality variations might influence breed personalities.
It’s clear, though, that while different dog breeds have many varying propensities in areas such as agility, a penchant for digging and seemingly unending energy, some breeds are also more willing to buddy up to humans. Between Graphiq7 and Vetstreet,8 there are a lot of friendly dogs out there, but the top 20 friendliest dogs, in no particular order, might be:
Pembroke Welsh Corgi
West Highland White Terrier
Soft-coated Wheaten Terrier
Mom.me has this to say on the matter, “Dogs are technically a subspecies of wolves. Wolves, of course, are extremely social creatures that live in family packs. Our dogs similarly are hardwired to be social.”9
Most importantly, it’s important to remember that when there’s a dog in your life, the role you play in their life is very clear; you’re the most important person in the world. It’s your role in his life that makes him choose friendship with a human rather than running with the pack. Further, “he looks to you for guidance, approval, companionship and love, and will provide the same whenever possible.”10