Dogs, their Brains and Science

Vanshika Dhyani asks: did humans love wild animals into domestication?

Vanshika Dhyani asks: did humans love wild animals into domestication?

A recent article from the Journal of Neuroscience has come to a conclusion that the selective reproduction and subjection to environmental factors over generations led to alterations in the brain morphology of dogs. Did we love wild animals into domestication? Are we responsible for altering the gene pool of an entire species? Did the original organisation of their brain cells change?

Historians believe that man’s friendship with the species fostered when wolves settled in the outskirts of hunter-gatherer camps looking for leftovers. The ancient canines that came to be known as dogs were the relatively tamer and less aggressive of them. Recent genetic studies suggests that domesticated wolves originated in China, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Data from a 40-year-old experiment that began in the 1950s suggests that it takes six-eight generations to domesticate a canine. Oxytocin is a hormone associated with emotional bond that is secreted when two human beings connect emotionally. Another study conducted in Nagasawa claims that the same hormone is released when a man and a dog stare into each others eyes.

It is speculated that dogs began travelling with their human companions about 20,000 years ago, and the oldest dog fossil is over 14,000 years old, from Germany. This acts as an evidence that helps us understand the depth of our ancestral relationship with the creature. The bond is very so often called a ‘symbiotic’ one which refers to a mutually beneficial relationship, like lichens and mycobionts.

A Harvard study analysed the brain structure of 62 male and 33 female dogs. The aim of the experiment was to evaluate regional volumetric variation in their MRI scans. Neuroanatomical variation is evident in amongst breeds. Small dogs and big dogs have different brain structures. This is because they were bred to do two different jobs. This breeding manifested in their behaviour and physicalised in their brain. Dogs are said to have the cognitive brain activity similar to a two year old. Some dogs have the ability to learn commands quickly and obey 95% of the time. There is physical diversification in the shape of the skull is said to indicate behavioural dissimilarities. Most contemporary dog breeds were developed in the recent past, in a premeditated and intentional manner.

The influence of humans on different lineage of domesticated dogs indicates an altered, gross organisation of the animal’s brain. Breeds differ in cognition, temperament, and behaviour. Variations occurred in the terminal branches of their phylogenetic tree, which is evidence that humans have significantly altered the psyche of domestic dogs in several ways.

Scientists believe that brain evolution in domestic dog breeds follows a “late burst model,” with directional changes in brain organization being lineage specific. The truth remains, if humans had never domesticated dogs, they would still be wolves. Studies show that different breeds behave differently not because they differ in genetic composition but because they were raised to do different jobs. Dogs are intelligent animals. Scientists have categorised them into three sections on the basis of their intellectual capabilities. The three categories being: instinctive, adaptive and working & obedience. Stanley Coren- a canine psychologist from Canada believes that working dogs are the brightest of them all. German Shepards, Poodles and Border Collies belong to this category; they obey at least 95% of the times and are known to learn new commands after fewer than five exposures. It is not surprising then that these three breeds are ranked in the top three of 137 smartest dogs in the world.

Canine psychologists help us understand the psyche of these wolf-like-canines. Research in this area shows that while male dogs choose to play with female dogs, female dogs do not differentiate between playmates. This difference in behaviour is attributed to evolutionary necessity for mothers to care for pups of both sexes.

If your dog brings you a dirty sock when you’re having a particularly rough day they are trying to cheer you up. A dog can understand their owner’s emotions and pick up on how they're feeling. Thus, your dog may be more likely to bring you something that they associate with positivity or playfulness, in an attempt to cheer you up.

A recent article in Current Biology throws light on how animals like dogs co-evolved with humans. Zoologists are trying to understand consciousness in animals and how it has shaped their relationship with us. Research indicates that barking is a source of reliably communicating information about the dog’s current mental and physical state. It is believed to have evolved as a direct result of living with humans. It is speculated that domestication of dogs happened twice, independently, in Asia and Europe. Communication is believed to play a pivotal role in the co-evolution of the species. Even though a lot of research has gone into understanding the morphology and general anatomy of their brains, the question still remains: Did we love wild animals into domestication?