Scientists don't dispute that our modern dogs, in all their shapes and sizes, are descended from wolves. What they don't quite understand is how the genetic makeup of the domestic dog compares to that of their ancestor and how those changes affect behavior. There are now a number of studies being conducted into how genetics can influence dog behavior.
When wolves first became domesticated and developed a relationship with people, the friendliest, least aggressive individuals thrived amongst human civilization. These personality traits have persisted into our domestic dogs. A 2015 study published in the Genes, Brain and Behavior journal suggested that social behavior by dogs towards humans is indeed hereditary.
Scientists from the University of Massachusetts Medical School are investigating the genetics of behavior with the help of pet parents across the country. Their project is called "Darwin's Dogs".
The project invites pet parents to complete a 100-question survey about their dog's personality and behavior, and to send a sample of saliva for genetic analysis. The data from the saliva sample and survey answers will try to identify if any personality traits can be linked to specific DNA changes, and compare those strands of DNA to those in the wolf. The outcome of the study will be shared with all pet parents who have contributed to it.
The Canine Behavior and Genetics Project managed by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania is another such project. Their published papers identify a number of behavioral issues that run in family lines, including anxiety, aggression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. They too are inviting the public to submit samples and answer questionnaires to help identify traits and genetic links to behavior in pet dogs.
Several behavioral disorders in dogs have been shown to have a genetic basis – for example, Doberman Pinschers with a specific gene on a particular chromosome are predisposed to obsessive-compulsive disorder. Tail chasing in Bull Terriers has also been linked to changes in a gene. However, any heredity aspect to behavior can be modulated to some degree by environment – that is, how a pup is raised and trained.
The beauty of current DNA technology is that scientists don't need to restrict their studies to purebred dogs. They can identify the genes that are in dogs of any breed, even mixed breeds. This greatly increases the number of dogs that can participate in these studies and make the results even more relevant.
Studies such as Darwin's Dogs and the Canine Behavior and Genetics Project are important in evaluating how the genetic makeup of dogs has changed over time and how it can influence behavior. Their results may assist in the understanding of human diseases. With humans and dogs sharing over 80% of their genes, these studies could help explain the genetic information for disorders such as epilepsy, anxiety, and autism. If you're interested in contributing your dog's DNA and personality traits to Darwin's Dogs, visit their website – there's no cost and you'll be helping scientists better understand the behavior of your four-legged family members.