Being Man's Best Friend Is In A Dog's DNA
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Have you ever stopped to think about how impressive it is that dogs can understand so much of what we say to them? It's a rare housecat that will roll over or play fetch on command, but getting a puppy to do that just takes only a few training sessions. But according to research, dogs' ability to understand humans goes even deeper than you probably realize.
In a 2012 study published in PLOS One, researchers set out to determine whether chimpanzees or dogs were better at understanding human cues. Researchers began by placing pairs of objects behind, but in view of, their animal subjects. Then they pointed to and repeatedly glanced at the object they wanted and sternly commanded "Give it to me!" Other research has shown that both chimpanzees and dogs are able to follow a human's gaze to an object. But in this study, when it came to understanding a pointing gesture, dogs way outperformed chimpanzees. This might be surprising, since we're more closely related to chimpanzees than we are to dogs, and suggests that dogs have some genetic characteristic that makes them naturally wired to interpret human gestures.
One explanation is that in the more than 32,000 years since dogs were domesticated, dogs and humans co-evolved to understand each other. There's some hard science to back this up. Dogs, wolves, and humans all have the gene AMY2B, which creates alpha-amylase, the enzyme that helps convert starch into maltose. But while wolves have two copies of AMY2B, dogs have anywhere from 4 to 30 copies. That means dogs evolved a better mechanism than wolves for digesting starches somewhere along the way. Humans also have extra copies of the same gene, which studies suggest popped up during the agricultural revolution—the point when we began relying more on grains in our diet. It's likely that humans and dogs evolved extra copies of this starch-digesting gene at the same time, since they were probably sharing the same diet.
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