What makes dogs so special? Science says love

Once upon a time, scientists who studied animals didn't believe that animals could feel love. They thought it was putting emotion over science.

However, a new book says that the word is necessary to understand what has made the bond between humans and our best friends one of the most important partnerships between animals in history.

This is what Clive Wynne, who started the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University, says in "Dog is Love: Why and How Your Dog Loves You."

The animal psychologist, who is 59 years old, started studying dogs in the early 2000s. Like many of his peers, he thought that giving dogs complicated feelings was the sin of anthropomorphism, but body language was starting to show him otherwise.

A British man told AFP, "I think there comes a time when it's worth being skeptical of your own skepticism."

In the last twenty years, there has been a rise in dog science, with a lot of articles praising how smart dogs are.

Brian Hare's books like "The Genius of Dogs" have helped spread the idea that dogs are naturally very smart.

However, Wynne ruins the fun by saying that Fido isn't that smart.

Pigeons can tell the difference between different types of objects in 2D pictures, dolphins have shown they can understand language, and honeybees use dance to tell each other where food sources are. These are all things that dogs have never been able to do.

Wolves, which are related to dogs but are usually mean and not interested in people, have been shown to be able to read human cues, such as by playing fetch in a recent Swedish study.

Wynne suggests a paradigm change by putting together studies from different fields to say that what makes dogs unique is their "hypersociability" or "extreme gregariousness."

Gene for Williams syndrome

One of the most important improvements is research into oxytocin, a chemical in the brain that makes emotional bonds stronger between people. New data suggests that oxytocin is also responsible for relationships between dogs and people.

New study led by Takefumi Kikusui at Azabu University in Japan has shown that the chemical levels rise when people and their dogs look into each other's eyes, which is similar to what happens when mothers and babies look into each other's eyes.

In 2009, Bridgett vonHoldt, a geneticist at UCLA, made an interesting discovery: dogs have a mutation in the gene that causes Williams syndrome in people. People with this disease are intellectually limited and very friendly.

"The essential thing about dogs, as for people with Williams syndrome, is a desire to form close connections, to have warm personal relationships—to love and be loved," says Wynne.

New behavior tests have also given us a lot of information. Many of them were created by Wynne himself and are easy to do at home with treats and cups.

One experiment had researchers use a rope to open a dog's front door and place a bowl of food at the same distance from the dog's owner. The dogs almost always went to their owner first.

Scientists have used magnetic resonance imaging to find out that dogs' brains respond just as much to praise as they do to food, if not more so.

But while dogs naturally want to be loved, it takes loving care early in life for this to happen.

The love connection isn't just between people either: In an experiment that became the base for a 2015 movie, a farmer raised pups among a group of penguins on a small Australian island. The farmer was able to protect the birds from foxes that were trying to mate with them.

Love is all you need.

Wynne thinks that genetics may be the next big thing in dog science because it will help him figure out how dogs were domesticated at least 14,000 years ago.

Wynne supports the trash heap theory, which says that the ancestors of modern dogs hung out near places where people dumped their trash, getting to know people slowly before they formed the lasting bond we know today through joint hunting trips.

People often think that hunters caught wolf pups and then taught them, but Wynne says that's a "completely unsupportable point of view" because grown wolves are dangerous and would attack humans.

Scientists can now find out when the important change to the gene that controls Williams syndrome happened thanks to new methods for reading DNA from very long ago.

Wynne thinks this happened between 8,000 and 10,000 years ago, near the end of the last ice age, when people started riding dogs on regular hunts.

He says that these results are important for dogs' health, not just because they advance science.

That means not using harsh, painful training tools like choke collars based on false ideas about "dominance" spread by famous dog trainers who tell dog owners they need to be "pack leaders."

"All your dog wants is for you to show them the way," Wynne says. "You can do this by being a compassionate leader and giving them treats."

It also means making time for them to meet other people's needs instead of leaving them alone all day.

"Our dogs give us so much, and in return they don't ask for much," he shares.

"You don't have to buy all of these fancy, expensive toys, treats, and who knows what else that are out there."

"They just need our company, they need to be with people."