“Man’s best friend”. The result of a genetic change in the receptor of the ‘social peptide’, oxytocin?

The gene involved in attachment and measures of sociality in humans may reveal why dogs went from being savage, fearsome creatures to “man’s best friend”. The oxytocin receptor gene has already been associated with ‘proximity-seeking’ and ‘friendliness’ in domestic dogs and now our Monash University study has identified differences between the dog and the wolf genome that implicate it in dog domestication.

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The oxytocin receptor gene codes for a protein that binds with the molecule, oxytocin, allowing it to exert its effects. Our recent study, published at Pet Behaviour Science journal (DOI http://dx.doi.org/10.21071/pbs.v0i2.4000), demonstrated that intranasally administered oxytocin improves dogs’ ability to follow human pointing, in order to find food. Previous studies have also demonstrated that domestic dogs exhibit greater point-following abilities than wolves, in the absence of oxytocin administration, raising the possibility that this is a consequence of domestication, which we theorized may involve the oxytocin receptor gene.
However not all domestic dogs exhibit the same degree of point following ability. In fact, numerous studies have reported a wide range of individual variability in performance. The aim of our study was to identify variations in the oxytocin receptor gene that could characterize good versus poor performing dogs, and, more importantly, differentiate dogs from wolves. In the dog group comparison, we compared the genomic profiles of the best and the worst ‘point followers’ identified in a previous study however we were unable to identify any variance in the genome. This finding suggests that the oxytocin receptor gene is not implicated in dogs’ ability to follow human pointing and that this ability may be the result of differences in the social and learning histories of the dogs, which this particular study did not control for.
The study did, however, identify genomic differences between the domestic dogs and wolves, which may implicate the oxytocin receptor gene in dog domestication. Whilst this does not explain why dogs are better than wolves at following human pointing, it may help explain how the domestication of dogs occurred and other social and cognitive differences between dogs versus wolves. We know that dogs have learnt to depend on humans for food acquisition whilst wolves remain independent hunters, however further studies are recommended to enhance our understanding of these differing relationships.

By Jessica Lee Oliva, Yen T Wong, Jean-Loup Rault, Belinda Appleton and Alan Lill

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