Genetic Memories, Some Fears in Dogs May Be Innate

Fear and anxiety from things like the scent of predators may be innate in dogs.

Posted Nov 27, 2020

Image by Cedric Clooth from Pixabay
Source: Image by Cedric Clooth from Pixabay

New research suggests that some very specific fears may be genetically encoded in dogs. I first encountered a possible instance of this a while back when an acquaintance joined me at a coffee shop with a story and a query.

He told me: "I was out walking in the back country with a few friends and Willis [his black Labrador retriever]. Willis was wandering out ahead of us when suddenly he gave what sounded like a distressed bark, and then raced back to huddle next to me. We went over to see what had spooked him and noticed a small pile of animal droppings near the side of the path. One of my friends, who is a woodsy type, told us that we were looking at some bear scat. He went on to say that he had seen other dogs act quite fearful when they encountered that kind of evidence that a bear is in the vicinity.

"Now, here is my problem. Willis is a city dog. He generally walks the sidewalks with me and I am certain that he has never encountered a bear in his life. So where did he get the ability to recognize the scent of the bear, and in the absence of any previous history, why should he get frightened when he came across it?"

I told him that I couldn't really be absolutely sure of the answer; however, there were some fears in people (like those triggered by snakes or spiders) that seem to be fairly universal. The problem is that in humans we can't tell whether or not these fears are learned from others around us or are inborn. However, there was some data that gave us a hint.

Back in 1946, a series of experiments were carried out by Canadian psychologist D. O. Hebb. He presented a number of objects to each of 30 chimpanzees and noted whether there were any signs of fear when they saw them. These could include withdrawing, screaming, and so forth. Among the objects was a replica of a snake. This produced signs of fear in 21 of the animals tested. Since 9 of the animals had been born and bred in captivity, and their behavior did not differ from that of the wild-caught animals, Hebb concluded that fear of snakes in the chimpanzee is innate. Perhaps, I suggested, some similar specific fears might be genetically encoded in dogs.

That was a few years ago, but science progresses and ultimately most of our questions get answered. Now some confirmation that certain specific fears may be innate in dogs has come out of the laboratory of Frank Rosell in the Department of Natural Sciences and Environmental Health at the University of South-Eastern Norway. The research team headed by Lydia Samuel of the Department of Natural Resources at the University of Derby in the UK was testing the notion that perhaps the response to the scent of predators might be wired into the DNA of dogs.

From an evolutionary point of view, being innately able to detect classes of predators, especially if this ability is linked to the triggering of fearful and avoidance behaviors, could certainly increase the likelihood of survival of a species. The research team knew that the identifying odors could be derived from a predator's urine, feces, fur, and anal gland secretions. They chose to use fecal scent from two types of predators: the brown bear and the Eurasian lynx. In the wild, bears, hunting cats and wild canines don't have a simple predator-prey relationship. Commonly they are seen to either compete for food or where possible avoid one another entirely. Perhaps, despite the fact that our dogs are now domesticated, there might be a "genetic memory" that still resides in dogs; one that had been used to avoid conflict and danger in the distant past. Of course, the research team also needed an example of a non-predatory herbivorous animal to balance out the test, and for this, they used scent derived from feces from the Eurasian beaver.

The basic study was fairly simple. The dogs had not been fed the morning prior to testing so that they were hungry. When they entered the testing area there were three bowls containing food. However, in front of each bowl was a petri dish that could contain the scent of either of the two predators, the herbivore, or a control scent (water). To get to the food, the dogs had to also approach the test scent. In addition, the dogs wore a heart rate monitor to see if there was an emotional response when they encountered the test odors.

The data clearly showed that the dogs seemed to identify the scents of the predators as significant and responded to them negatively. When approaching either of the predator odors, the heart rate of the dogs rose significantly, suggesting fear or anxiety, while there was no meaningful rise in heart rate when encountering the beaver or the control scent.

The researchers summarized their results and their evolutionary significance by pointing out that "In our study, the dogs chose to spend a reduced amount of time at the lynx and bear scents. The dogs spent a reduced amount of time close to the scent and, alongside total avoidance, this is an effective strategy against potential predation within a wild setting. It decreases the probability of individuals being detected by the predator in question, through temporarily reducing exposure time".

The important thing here is that the 82 dogs tested were pet dogs, which had been kept as companions and were not involved in any hunting activities. In other words, they had no previous experience with bears or lynxes. That clearly suggests that the recognition of predators' scents, and the dogs' fearful or anxious responses when they detected them, did not come from a reading of their own personal histories, but rather from their genetic code. Evolution has clearly decided that the survival of a species can be improved if individuals are prewired to be afraid of and to avoid things that may be harmful to them.

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Samuel, L., Arnesen, C., Zedrosser, A.,Rosell, F. (2020). Fears from the past? The innate ability of dogs to detect predator scents. Animal Cognition, 23, 721–729.