“Man’s best friend.” This is a well-known phrase used to describe dogs. However, what in particular makes dogs special? As opposed to other animals, why are dogs labeled as such?

On Wednesday, April 3, Clive Wynne, behavioral specialist and professor of psychology at Arizona State University, set out to answer this question in his talk: “What Makes Dogs Special?” 

Wynne began with a lighthearted survey of his audience members. 

“Who has a dog at home?” A small majority of the audience raised their hands. “Now [he continued] how many of you allow your dog to sleep in your beds?” Wynne’s second question was met with much laughter, as most of the individuals who answered in the affirmative for the first question kept their hands raised.

Wynne then pointed out that the bed is one of the most intimate and private spaces in an individual’s life. Not many people would allow strangers, or even close friends, to share their beds with them. Yet humans are willing, and even eager, to invite their dog into their bed.

Why is this so?

Photo by Dara Bellinson

Human existence has been entwined with dogs for the last 15,000 years. According to Wynne, dogs are the oldest domesticated “anything,” predating even the domestication of food staples such as corn and wheat. The fact that dogs have remained such an integral part of human life for so long suggests that there must be something unique about dogs that enabled them to earn the favor of humans.

Wynne initially began his research on dog behavior with the (later debunked) hypothesis that dogs are more socially intelligent than other animals. In other words, dogs are more keenly aware of, and adept in, discerning the meaning of social cues or gestures. Perhaps, a superior social intelligence was the reason why dogs are “a man’s best friend.”

In his first experiment, Wynne tested the social intelligence of a wolf, a house dog, and a shelter dog. He pointed either left or right and recorded how many times (out of 10 attempts) each subject correctly followed the direction of Wynne’s gesture. 

This experiment was repeated in multiple locations, which included a lab, a house, and a dog park. However, there was no trend in the data, regardless of subject type or location. After a series of other experiments, which tested multiple other social gestures, Wynne disregarded his hypothesis of a superior social intelligence in dogs, and instead turned his research toward the genetic composition of dogs. 

He hypothesized that a specific genetic composition gave dogs the ability to form lasting emotional bonds with humans and become “a man’s best friend.”

Indeed, upon examination of the canine genome, Wynne discovered a unique genetic characteristic. A dog’s genetic composition bears some resemblance to the genetic composition of a human with Williams Syndrome. 

Williams Syndrome, which exists in less than 0.001% of the population, is a genetic disorder in which 28 genes are deleted from the seventh chromosome. Extraordinary friendliness and sociability are often expressed by those with Williams Syndrome; Wynne points out that dogs generally exhibit these traits as well. 

Wynne proposed that this specific genetic attribute gives dogs a special affinity for displaying emotion and forming affectionate bonds. In other words, unlike numerous other animals, dogs have the ability to both feel and show love. 

Perhaps, Wynne concluded, love is the reason why humans and dogs have formed such tight-knit emotional bonds over the last 15,000 years.

On Sept. 24, 2019, Wynne will publish a book titled “Dog is Love,” which explicates his research on dogs’ genetic composition and its connection with the canine ability to love. 

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