Humans have shaped dog brains through selective breeding, scientists say

They might be man’s best friends, but could we have created dogs in our image? Scientists say that by selectively breeding animals for certain behaviors, humans have shaped their brains.

Over the course of several hundred years, people have bred different lineages of domestic dogs for different tasks – such as hunting, herding, guarding, or companionship.

A study published in the JNeurosci, the Journal of Neuroscience, examined whether and how selective breeding altered the organization of the brain in dogs.

Erin Hecht, of the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, and her colleagues analyzed magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of 62 male and female dogs of 33 breeds.

The research team observed a large variation in the structure of the brain that was not simply related to the size of the body or the shape of the head. Scientists looked at areas of the brain with the most variation between breeds, including beagles, dachshunds, greyhounds and Labradors.

This generated maps of six brain networks, with proposed functions varying from social bond to movement, each associated with at least one behavioral characteristic.

Variation in behavior between races correlated with anatomical variation in all six brain networks, the researchers said.

Happy Merle Crossbreed Collie Dog Portrait Against Yellow Studio Background

Importantly, an analysis of evolutionary relationships revealed that the majority of cross-breed changes have occurred relatively recently.

The researchers say these results establish that the significant variation in brain anatomy in dogs is likely due to behavioral selection applied by humans.

“These results indicate that through selective breeding, humans have dramatically altered the brains of different lineages of domestic dogs in different ways,” the authors wrote.

“Finally, philosophically, these findings tell us something fundamental about our own place in the larger animal kingdom – we have systematically shaped the brain of another species.”


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Jeanetta J. Stewart

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