Have you ever met a dog for the first time—even a dog that has no connection to your social circle—and had it look into your eyes, wag its tail, and make a happy whimpering sound as it wiggles toward you? A better question might be: Who hasn’t!?!
Dogs seem to be friendly by nature, and according to scientific research, they are. It turns out that a rare genetic deviation in humans, known as Williams syndrome (aka Williams-Beuren syndrome), is present in a remarkably similar manner in dogs’ genetic makeup. Rather than being a rare occurrence, however, it is common in dogs. But, it is not at all common in wolves.
The research of evolutionary biologists first revealed this surprising information in 2010 and since then studies of this phenomenon in dogs have continued. By 2017, a multitude of reports had been published corroborating the initial findings. Mainstream media—including National Geographic, the New York Times, and Inside Science to name a few—covered the topic.
The discovery of a genetic basis for the wonderfully friendly nature of dogs is fascinating. But as with human development, something called epigenetics plays a role in other animals as well, including dogs. In simple terms, epigenetics refers to the influence of factors outside of one’s genetic makeup that affect things like physical health, mental health, personality, sexuality, and so on.
So, the question becomes, are dogs so friendly simply because of a genetic code, or is it more than that? Both. The way a dog is raised will heavily influence its behavior and demeanor. Which is why being a caring, responsible “dog parent” is so important.
While scientists continue to research factors that play a role in the dog-human connection as well as the dog-wolf evolutionary divergence, we can take pleasure in the delightfully exuberant friendliness of dogs—a trait that has always brought us together and, that during the social isolation and mental anxiety produced by a pandemic, kept many of us sane.