love of dogs

Are Your Genes Behind Your Love of Dogs?

It is universally accepted that we are a nation of dog lovers. That love may be fostered when we are very young and grow up with dogs or we could be influenced by our parents.

But research in to your genes, dna and your love of dogs now suggests that it may indeed go deeper and be connected to our genes.

The Research

Data was examined from 85,000 twins registered in the Swedish twin registry. The reason twins are of interest to genetic scientists and are often used in DNA research is that identical twins share the same DNA, fraternal twins share 50% of the same DNA. So, working with twins can help scientists discover what is DNA influenced and what is more likely to be influenced by other factors like environment.

Sweden was a good place to carry out the research as it is legal in Sweden to officially register your dog with the Swedish board of agriculture. Of the 85,542 twins in the research 8,503 were dog owners. Swedish and British scientists were involved in the research. The findings of the research were that genetics seemed to predict dog ownership more than any environmental factors. In fact, genetic factors contributed to 51% dog ownership in men and 57% in women. Researchers found that rates of dog ownership were much larger in identical twins than non-identical twins supporting the view that genetics could play a part.

What Is The Relevance of This Research?

Understanding how our genes influence us is always of interest to geneticists and those of us fascinated by DNA. But there is more to it than that. Whilst the research doesn’t indicate which gene or genes are involved in causing us to love or not love dogs the research may help scientists understand more about how and when dogs became domesticated and so closely intertwined with humans. It is also of interest from a health perspective as we know that owning a dog can bring positive benefits to our health and this in turn may be defined in our genes.

The Health Benefits Of Owning A Dog

Research suggests that owning a dog does give us significant health benefits. The biggest is probably our cardiovascular health. This is because of both the need to walk our dog but also the social support you get in owning a dog. Some research has also looked at particular breeds and heart disease. It seems that owning a traditional hunting breed of dog-terriers, retrievers and scent hounds are associated with lower risk of cardiovascular disease. It is also proven that owning a dog changes the type of bacteria found in a person’s microbiome which in turn impacts positively upon a person’s health.

Can DNA Explain Why Dogs Love Us?

As well as DNA helping to explain why some of us love dogs the converse may also be true. Scientists have been puzzled for years as to why dogs have evolved from their wolf ancestors to not only like humans but to want to live alongside us so intimately. 

The theory is that tens of thousands of years ago wolves followed humans around to try and scavenge from our kills. Over time these wolves evolved into dogs. But the genetic blueprint behind this evolution is still unknown. However, scientists from Princeton University and Oregon State University have looked into how dogs differ in their makeup from wolves which may help understand the evolution that took place.

Using genetic sequencing and behavioural tests the scientists were able to look at what the genetic differences are between dogs and wolves. Wolves and dogs were also given a number of tasks to perform involving humans. In all cases the dogs desperately wanted to interact with the human rather than just performing the task, unlike the wolf whose aim seemed to be more transactional. In observations the wolves wanted to just perform the task and were not interested in developing any relationship with the human in the room.

Furthermore, a gene has been identified that has mutated more often in dogs than in wolves and this gene interestingly has also been identified in humans who are seen to be very friendly and social. So, it seems as if some humans and dogs share a similar’ social’ gene. Further research found mutations that seem to interfere with the functions of the genes GTF21 and GTF21RD1. Animals with these mutations seem to want to pay more attention to humans than those without. Even in studies involving mice they were more friendly if they had experienced this mutation.

This research therefore helps us to understand what may have happened in DNA terms to explain how wolves evolved into domesticated dogs. The research does however also explain that environment may also play a role in the behaviour of dogs from that of their wolf ancestors.

Dog DNA Testing

In the field of animal DNA testing dog testing is very well advanced when we compare it with testing of cats for example. There are a number of dog test providers in the market and a wide amount of data that can be found.

One of the main reasons dog owners or dog breeders may do a DNA test is to clarify the breed composition of their dog. It is often the case that whilst you think you may have a pure breed dog, that isn’t necessarily the case. Knowing what your dogs breed is can help you to understand their behaviours but also the future health risks associated with that breed. Some dog shows also require you to prove the breeds of both parents. In addition, you will discover if your dog carries any specific diseases or could suffer from any in the future. This could influence whether you breed from them but could also help you to take positive action.

Many dog owners who buy rescue dogs also find DNA testing really helpful for the simple reason that so little is actually known about their dog’s background.

Many dog owners are put off dog DNA tests because they think it will be difficult to obtain their dogs DNA. It is however pretty straightforward; many test providers have videos online and will also provide you with a number of different swabs should you fail first time. For most dogs a simple cheek swab test is all you need. 

Why Wouldn’t You DNA Test Your Dog?

In some ways the answer to this is the same as home DNA testing for humans.  The main concern here is that you may get bad news about diseases that your dog could be predisposed to. But maybe the answer to this is that if you fully understand what awaits your dog you can take measures to alleviate it.

Dog DNA Banks

The Skye Terrier is a dog breed that is under threat of extinction so much so that it is now listed on the Kennel Clubs list of vulnerable breeds. But DNA is now working to help with this problem. By creating a DNA bank, breeders have solicited the help of veterinary scientists to study the Skye Terrier DNA and better understand the diseases that are putting this breed at risk. 

Work on this dog DNA bank has helped scientists better understand a hepatitis mutation that has really devastated this breed. Better understanding will hopefully lead in the future to a simple swab or blood test so that dogs that carry this mutation can be better identified. To achieve this scientists are working to discover the offending gene.

In fact genome sequencing is really developing at pace in the field of dog DNA with the University of Bern founding the Dog Biomedical Variant Data Consortium which is a worldwide effort to compile DNA data across breeds into a single reference point.

In Summary

It is really positive that dog genome sequences has recently seen some real success stories with a gene identified that causes dog congenital heart disease and in 2019 a gene that causes curly fur was discovered which may sound frivolous but has helped veterinary scientists to understand baldness and hair growth problems min certain breeds. So, whilst the fate of the Skye Terrier remains in doubt advances in understand dog DNA may give it some hope for a more optimistic future.