Dogs are loyal companions to many and perform a multitude of roles in our society; enabling the blind to regain their independence, helping our police on the frontline and even rescuing people stranded up mountains. But how did their bond with humans develop in the first place, and have we taken it too far?
A book published in 2019 by Dr Clive D.L. Wynne investigates dogs’ unique power to love. In the book, entitled Dog is Love, Dr Wynne touches on the work of scientists at Princeton University. In 2010, these scientists compared the DNA of dogs to that of wolves. It was found that although most of the genetic differences between these animals related to their appearance, there were also major differences in a gene scientifically named WBSCR17. Both dogs and wolves have this gene but in different forms. WBSCR17 is linked to a condition known as William-Beuren Syndrome in humans - the characteristics of this condition being delayed development, impaired thinking ability and, crucially in this case, significantly higher levels of sociability.
In a later study, the same team led by Bridgett vonHolt, compared the sociability of dogs and wolves raised by humans. They found dogs spent more time staring at, and interacting with, human strangers than their wolf counterparts - showing dogs to be the more sociable of the two creatures. Upon analysis of their DNA, and that of other dogs and wolves, it was found that three genes were linked to dogs’ increased social behaviour, all of which are also linked to Williams-Beuren Syndrome in humans.
These findings support the ‘survival of the friendliest’ approach used to describe dog-human relationships. This approach suggests that humans did not ‘create’ dogs, instead variation of the genes mentioned above naturally occurred in wolves. The wolves that had these variations and therefore were friendliest to humans, were more likely to survive as they had the help of humans. This meant they were also more likely to reproduce and pass on their ‘friendly genes’ to their pups. As a result these ‘friendly genes’ became more common in the population and, overtime and with the input of other natural variations, dogs evolved.
Although this all sounds idyllic, with species living harmoniously together and helping one another, the steps humans have taken since with regards to dog breeding are a source of controversy. In the late 1980s, Wally Conron crossed a labrador with a poodle to create the world’s first labradoodle. This was done with the intention of helping a blind man who was allergic to long dog fur. Conron wanted to create a dog with the working abilities of a labrador and the fur of a poodle so the man would not be allergic and could regain the independence he so desired.
Conron has since gone on to call this invention his ‘life’s regret’. This is because it paved the way for other, less compatible dog breeding combinations, some of which result in pups with severe health issues due to their peculiar genetic mix. Conron is concerned that breeders are no longer thinking about the health of the animals, instead focussing on the money they could make with their latest invention. A large proportion of dogs are now bred to have specific physical characteristics - long ears, short tails or flat faces, to name but a few.
Pugs are a notable example of such controversy. Pugs have been subject to selective breeding which has resulted in a severely flat and compact face shape. This means they have very short noses which contributes to the respiratory condition, Brachycephalic Airway Obstruction Syndrome (BAOS). According to the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare, the condition can cause episodes of respiratory distress, fear, disrupted sleeping and risk when exercising in hot weather. Ultimately, the condition can prove fatal. All pugs can be considered to have this condition to some degree which begs the question; is their ‘cute’ flat-faced look worth the health issues it causes?
Dogs and humans have had a strikingly close relationship for at least 14,000 years and many would argue this to be incredibly precious. Genetics has now begun to understand how this relationship originally developed, but it is up to society as a whole to decide where it is heading.
Welcome to the National Dog Search and Rescue Organisation - https://www.nsarda.org.uk/
These genes may be why dogs are so friendly - https://www.sciencenews.org/article/these-genes-may-be-why-dogs-are-so-friendly
Labradoodle creator says it’s his ‘life’s regret’ - https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/newsbeat-49826945
Genetic Welfare Problems of Companion Animals - https://www.ufaw.org.uk/dogs/pug-brachycephalic-airway-obstruction-syndrome
A long look at an old dog: Bonn-Oberkassel reconsidered: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0305440318300049