Dogs' social skills linked to oxytocin sensitivity

September 18, 2017, Linköping University
A golden retriever turns to his owner for help. Credit: Mia Persson

The tendency of dogs to seek contact with their owners is associated with genetic variations in sensitivity for the hormone oxytocin, according to a new study from Linköping University, Sweden. The results have been published in the scientific journal Hormones and Behavior and contribute to our knowledge of how dogs have changed during their development from wolf to household pet.

During their domestication from their the wolf to the pets we have today, have developed a unique ability to work together with humans. One aspect of this is their willingness to "ask for help" when faced with a problem that seems to be too difficult. There are, however, large differences between breeds, and between dogs of the same breed. A research group in Linköping, led by Professor Per Jensen, has discovered a possible explanation of why dogs differ in their willingness to collaborate with humans.

The researchers suspected that the was involved. It is well-known that oxytocin plays a role in social relationships between individuals, in both humans and animals. The effect of oxytocin depends on the function of the structure that it binds to, the receptor, in the cell. Previous studies have suggested, among other things, that differences in dogs' ability to communicate are associated with variations in the genetic material located close to the gene that codes for the oxytocin receptor. The researchers in the present study examined 60 golden retrievers as they attempted to solve an insoluble problem.

"The first step was to teach the dogs to open a lid, and in this way get hold of a treat. After this, they were given the same task with the lid firmly fixed in place, and thus impossible to open. We timed the dogs to see how long they attempted on their own, before turning to their owner and asking for help," says Mia Persson, PhD student at the Department of Physics, Chemistry and Biology, and principal author of the article.

Before the behavioural test, the researchers increased the levels of oxytocin in the dogs' blood by spraying the hormone into their nose. As a control, the dogs carried out the same test after having received a spray of neutral salt water in the same way. The researchers also collected DNA using a cotton swab inside the dogs' cheek, and determined which variant of the gene for the oxytocin receptor that each dog had.

The results showed that dogs with a particular genetic variant of the receptor reacted more strongly to the oxytocin spray than other dogs. The tendency to approach their owner for help increased when they received in their nose, compared with when they received the neutral salt water solution. The researchers suggest that these results help us understand how dogs have changed during the process of domestication. They analysed DNA also from 21 wolves, and found the same among them. This suggests that the genetic variation was already present when domestication of the dogs started, 15,000 years ago.

"The results lead us to surmise that people selected for domestication wolves with a particularly well-developed ability to collaborate, and then bred subsequent generations from these," says Mia Persson.

The genetic variations that the have studied do not affect the itself: they are markers used for practical reasons. Further research is necessary to determine in more detail which differences in the lie behind the effects.

Per Jensen points out that the study shows how social behaviour is to a large extent controlled by the same genetic factors in different species.

"Oxytocin is extremely important in the social interactions between people. And we also have similar variations in genes in this hormone system. This is why studying dog behaviour can help us understand ourselves, and may in the long term contribute to knowledge about various disturbances in social functioning," he says.

Explore further: Study shows oxytocin spray promotes social bonding behavior in dogs

More information: Mia E. Persson et al, Intranasal oxytocin and a polymorphism in the oxytocin receptor gene are associated with human-directed social behavior in golden retriever dogs, Hormones and Behavior (2017). DOI: 10.1016/j.yhbeh.2017.07.016

Related Stories

Genes underlying dogs' social ability revealed

September 29, 2016

The social ability of dogs is affected by genes that also seems to influence human behaviour, according to a new study from Linköping University in Sweden. The scientists have found a relationship between five different ...

Sensitivity to inequity is in wolves' and dogs' blood

June 8, 2017

Not only dogs but also wolves react to inequity - similar to humans or primates. This has been confirmed in a new study by comparative psychologists of the Messerli Research Institute of the University of Veterinary Medicine, ...

Recommended for you

How quinoa plants shed excess salt and thrive in saline soils

September 21, 2018

Barely heard of a couple of years ago, quinoa today is common on European supermarket shelves. The hardy plant thrives even in saline soils. Researchers from the University of Würzburg have now determined how the plant gets ...

Basking sharks can jump as high and as fast as great whites

September 20, 2018

A collaborative team of marine biologists has discovered that basking sharks, hundreds of which are found off the shores of Ireland, Cornwall, the Isle of Man and Scotland, can jump as fast and as high out of the water as ...

Decoding the structure of an RNA-based CRISPR system

September 20, 2018

Over the past several years, CRISPR-Cas9 has moved beyond the lab bench and into the public zeitgeist. This gene-editing tool CRISPR-Cas9 holds promise for correcting defects inside individual cells and potentially healing ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

rderkis
not rated yet Sep 18, 2017
I have grown up with dogs. I am now 70 and have lived and worked with a commercial kennel since the age of 9. I think researchers have it kind of wrong. A man becomes part of the pack but not necessarily the leader of the pack. As far as looking for help to someone smarter, one of my female dogs(black lab) was the smartest I ever had. She was the lowest in the pecking order of all the dogs. But when a problem occurred all the other dogs would look to her, to see how to solve the problem.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.