By Lisa Tenzin-Dolma
A recent study explored whether there could be a genetic reason for why some of us feel such deep love and affection for our dogs. The paper about this study, titled “Evidence of Large Genetic Influences on Dog Ownership in the Swedish Twin Registry Has Implications for Understanding Domestication and Health Associations” written by Tove Fall, Ralf Kuja-Halkola, Keith Dobney, Carri Westgarth and Patrik K. E. Magnusson, was published in Nature Magazine in May 2019.
In essence, this study explored whether we are likely to inherit a love of dogs, and whether growing up with a family dog could naturally lead to us wanting to welcome dogs into our lives in adulthood. The study explored underlying factors for dog guardianship and assessed whether this could be environmental, or whether genetic influences could be at play.
The study included all twins in Sweden, both identical (monozygotic) and non-identical (dizygotic) including those in the Swedish Twin Registry who were born between 1926 and 1996. In Sweden, all twins are added to the registry and all owned dogs are registered, so this helped to make the statistical figures accurate. In total, 85,452 twins took part. The authors of the study created computer models in order to identify patterns that indicated either a genetic or an environmental influence that subsequently shaped a long-term affection for dogs, and that explained why certain individuals wanted to share their lives with them.
We don’t yet know which genes are specific markers for this, but the results are fascinating. The researchers concluded that a genetic inheritance that resulted in dog ownership/guardianship beyond childhood was a significant factor, with 57% for females and 51% for males. The study concluded that this genetic implication could give pointers to our past ability to domesticate dogs (and other species), could be a major factor in those who have an affinity with and love of dogs (the environment counted for less than 10% in the results), and could also contribute to studies that explore health and wellbeing factors associated with dog guardianship.
In their excellent book “The Genius of Dogs”, Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods state that humans and dogs co-evolved, that we each contributed to the evolution of both species to where we are at today. When we consider that there could be a genetic predisposition to our desire to welcome dogs into our lives, this makes a great deal of sense. The earliest known relationships between humans and dogs, with archaeological evidence that dates back way over 15,000 years and with the inclusion of additional evidence that reaches back 30,000 years, could have instigated genetic changes that were subsequently passed down from family to family. This ensured that dogs became the extraordinarily successful species that they are in our present time. The number of dogs in the world is estimated at 900 million, and even though 75% to 85% of these are free-ranging, this still gives us a population of close to 300 million dogs who are living in our homes.
Were You Born Loving Dogs?
The results of this study indicate this this is highly likely, and it could be a useful exercise to look back at your childhood and consider the relationships you had with dogs in your life, and how they impacted on your relationships with dogs right now. These are useful questions to ask yourself: Were both your parents, or one of them, dog-lovers? How about your grandparents? Did you grow up with dogs in the home? If your parents were unable to have a dog for any reason, did you choose to spend time with dogs from outside the home, when possible?
Did you yearn for a dog of your own when you left home?
Does your life feel more rounded or ‘complete’ when you are sharing it with a dog?
One of the few photographs I have of myself as a toddler was of myself with Scruffy, an aptly named, very cute and gentle terrier mix who lived with my grandparents and who was a sweet and patient recipient of my affection. My most beloved childhood friend was our rescued Border Collie, Bobby. He was in a dreadful state when my parents adopted him, but with dedication, love and medical care he soon glowed with health and he accompanied me everywhere. My parents were ‘dog people’ and that certainly was transferred to my sister and myself, and from us to our own children.
Passing On The Love Of Dogs
If you have children and a dog or dogs, it’s very likely that you have taught your children to be considerate and respectful of your furry family members, and that they, in turn, will grow up with this as part of their genetic heritage, further reinforced by your lifestyle, attitude and guidance. A number of studies and articles have shown that a dog can be a child’s best friend and confidante (as Bobby was for me, aged 7 onwards), and can unwittingly increase confidence and communication skills. A dog in the home can also teach children about responsibility, compassion, trust, friendship and, as the study referred to in this feature also included, can be an important factor in reducing the risk of allergies and asthma during childhood. Another element of growing up with dogs in the family, sad though it is, is that dogs also teach children about mortality.
From Mythic Gods to Sofa Companions
In ancient times dogs featured in the mythology of numerous cultures. From the jackel-headed Anubis, the Egyptian god of the dead; to Cerberus in ancient Greece, the three-headed hound who guarded the entrance to the underworld; to Bau, the Sumerian goddess of fertility who was often depicted with a dog’s head; to the Xolotl, Aztec dog-headed god of fire and lightning. This inclusion of dogs holding high positions in myths that still are part of cultural history today is a reminder that our relationship with dogs goes back a very long time, and that their qualities were so greatly respected that they were deified in the distant past.
With this in mind, it’s small wonder that science is now showing us that our relationships with the dogs in our lives are based on far more than a simple enjoyment of the company of a being with a lolling tongue and wagging tail!
First published in Edition Dog Magazine