The bond between humans and their canine companions has been a topic of interest for centuries. In an effort to further investigate this special relationship, researchers from the Department of Ethology at Eötvös Loránd University recently conducted a study to determine how the genetic affinity of a family dog to wolves affects their reactions to howls.
The study included 68 purebred family dogs that were tested in a behavioral lab. The team of researchers played back recordings of wolf howls and then evaluated the dogs’ responses to the sound. Additionally, the genetic difference between the various breeds and wolves, also known as “root distance,” was taken into account.
The results of the study showed that breeds that were genetically closer to wolves, known as “ancient breeds,” were more likely to howl in response to the playback. On the other hand, breeds that were more distantly related to wolves, known as “modern breeds,” typically reacted with barking instead of howling.
Fanni Lehoczki, the first author of the study, explains that “It seems that although howling is present in most breeds’ repertoire, it lost its functionality due to the changed social environment, thus, modern breeds do not use it in adequate situations.”
Tamás Faragó, postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Ethology, ELTE and the senior author of the study, believes that “more ancient breeds, which are genetically closer to wolves, can process the information encoded in wolf howls better than modern breeds. Thus, ancient breeds of our study might become stressed by intruding on a pack’s territory and use howling for the sake of avoidance, just as wolves do.”
The researchers also discovered that the genetic effect on howling occurred only among older dogs aged five and above. This could be due to experience or age-related personality traits. It is possible that older dogs are more fearful, which was already suggested by previous studies.
In addition to the breed and age of the dog, the impact of additional characteristics such as sex and reproductive status were also evaluated. The researchers found that something is going on with male sex hormones, as there is no difference between intact and spayed females, but intact and neutered males do behave differently. Neutered males, which are in lack of testosterone, howl more in response to the playbacks.
The results of the study are consistent with the concept that human domestication and selective breeding have fundamentally altered canine vocal behavior, including howl perception and production. With this insight, we are one step closer to comprehending the significance of the historical development of the bond between domestic dogs and their “best friends,” humans, as well as its overall effects.
The findings of this study, titled “Genetic distance from wolves affects family dogs’ reactions towards howls”, were published in Communications Biology on February 6th, 2023. It is hoped that further research will be conducted to explore the relationship between humans and their canine companions, and to gain a better understanding of the impact of domestication on canine behavior.