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The Evolution of Dogs’ Brains

By John – on in News, Biology
From almost wolves to pocket dogs, canines have evolved under the influence of humans over the years. Here is how our species affected theirs.

Dogs are man’s best friend, and given the human attraction to canines, it comes as no surprise that hundreds of different dog breeds have emerged over the course of history. However, in the process of changing the shape of our beloved pooches, we have also modified their brains.

In a recent study that was conducted by Hecht and published in the Neurosci journal, 33 different breeds of dogs underwent an MRI scan to ascertain the extent to which differences in breeds were correlated with differences in brain structure. The breeds included boxers, pinschers, Yorkshire terriers, and beagles, and the study involved observing differences in the respective breeds’ brain size and shape as well as the behavioral traits that are commonly observed in those dogs.

For instance, bulldogs were originally bred as fighting dogs. However, they have since evolved to become a much-loved breed of family pet that can get along with babies as well as college kids. This entails that bulldogs fit into both the “explicit companionship” and “sport fighting” groups, which are based on the categories used by the American Kennel Club.

The researchers subsequently traced the six networks within the brain that may be influenced by the canine’s behavior; for example, companion or hunter. For example, the prefrontal cortex represents one area of the brain that is strongly associated with social interaction and is commonly very active in breeds that are known for activities such as herding, retrieving, and flighting. According to Hecht, this makes perfect sense on the grounds that these breeds fulfill tasks that are “cognitively complex and demanding, so they might require greater support from the prefrontal cortex.”

The approach adopted by Hecht was praised by Daniel Horschler, a Ph.D. student from the University of Arizona who did not have any involvement in the study :  “They didn’t try to divide the brain into regions themselves, which is I think a really good approach because we don’t yet know a lot about how dogs’ brains are organized.”

If anything, studies of this nature and the interest it has attracted from the research community stand as a testament to the fact that dogs are becoming increasingly interesting as subjects of study, especially in research that attempts to better understand the correlation between cognition and emotion. Some scholars argue that, during the course of humanity’s 20,000 years living alongside our dogs, these animals have become gradually better than any other at detecting and interpreting human emotion.

If the findings of Hecht are to be believed, the brain variations that can be observed in the brains of dogs occurred in more recent times in the history of this animal, thereby indicating that the evolution of the canine brain has been relatively rapid: “It brings home how humans alter the world around them,” she says. “It’s kind of profound that our brains are changing other brains on the planet.”

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John

John has been a jack-of-all-trades since he was a child. His insatiable curiosity led him to study science. He began writing scientific articles for various blogs during his school years. He loved it so much that he continued even after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in science. John now writes for Get-Science and other online scientific publications.