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Chimpanzees may share many of our genes, but dogs have lived with us for so long that they offer a good model for understanding human social behavior.
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updated 3/26/2009 11:58:50 AM ET 2009-03-26T15:58:50

Chimpanzees share many of our genes, but dogs have lived with us for so long and undergone so much domestication that they are now serving as a model for understanding human social behavior, according to a new paper.

Cooperation, attachment to people, understanding human verbal and non-verbal communications, and the ability to imitate are just a handful of the social behaviors we share with dogs. They might even think like us at times too, according to the paper, which has been accepted for publication in the journal Advances in the Study of Behavior.

While there is no evidence to support that dogs and humans co-evolved their laundry list of shared behaviors over the past 10,000 to 20,000 years, the researchers believe adapting to the same living conditions during this period may have resulted in the similarities.

Lead author Jozsef Topal explained to Discovery News "that shared environment has led to the emergence of functionally shared behavioral features in dogs and humans and, in some cases, functionally analogous underlying cognitive skills."

Topal, who is based at the Institute for Psychology at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, is one of the world's leading canine researchers. He and his team argue that dogs should serve as the "new chimpanzees" in comparative studies designed to shed light on human uniqueness.

"In my view, pet dogs can be regarded in many respects as 'preverbal infants in canine's clothing,'" he said, adding that many dog-owner relationships mirror human parental bonds with children.

In one of many recent studies conducted by the team, Topal and his colleagues taught both a 16-month-old human child and mature dogs to repeat multiple demonstrated actions on verbal command — "Do it!," shouted in Hungarian.

The actions included turning around in circles, vocalizing, jumping up, jumping over a horizontal rod, putting an object into a container, carrying an object to the owner or parent, and pushing a rod to the floor.

The dogs "performed surprisingly well and at a comparable level to the 16-month-old child," Topal said.

Multiple studies mentioned by the authors also support that dogs exhibit all three primary types of social behavior that humans evolved when they split from chimpanzees 6 million years ago. The first is "sociality," or organization into groups where members are loyal to each other and display reduced aggression.

Zoo babiesThe second is synchronization, where following shared social rules and even taking on each others emotions helps to strengthen group unity. The researchers, for example, say that, "when approached by an unfamiliar person showing definite signs of friendliness and threat in succession, dogs show rapid changes of emotional and behavioral response in accordance with the human's attitude."

The third is "constructive activity," where individuals within a group cooperate and communicate with each other to achieve goals. Dogs can also distinguish rational from irrational human communications, Topal said.

The scientists additionally believe dogs are good models for human social behavior because studies can compare and contrast domesticated dogs with wolves, and then with humans.

Marc Hauser, a professor and director of the Cognitive Evolution Lab at Harvard University, fully agrees that dogs offer a good model for understanding human behavior.

"The dog has come into its own as a great new model for understanding the mind in general, and the evolution of the human mind in particular," Hauser told Discovery News. "Not only have we lived with dogs for thousands of years, but because of this relationship, we have acted as an agent of selection to modify aspects of their behavior and minds."

"Now, perhaps for the first time, students of animal behavior, psychology, neuroscience, anthropology, philosophy and veterinary medicine will unite to provide deeper insights into the evolution of dogs and the evolution of humans," he added. "I for one am very excited about this opportunity, which is why we have followed the lead of other labs, and started our own dog lab!"

© 2012 Discovery Channel

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