Unlike other domestic species which were primarily selected for production-related traits, dogs were initially selected for their behaviors. In 2016, a study found that there were only 11 fixed genes that showed variation between wolves and dogs. These gene variations were unlikely to have been the result of natural evolution, and indicate selection on both morphology and behavior during dog domestication. These genes have been shown to affect the catecholamine synthesis pathway, with the majority of the genes affecting the fight-or-flight response (i.e. selection for tameness), and emotional processing. Dogs generally show reduced fear and aggression compared with wolves. Some of these genes have been associated with aggression in some dog breeds, indicating their importance in both the initial domestication and then later in breed formation. Traits of high sociability and lack of fear in dogs may include genetic modifications related to Williams-Beuren syndrome in humans, which cause hypersociability at the expense of problem solving ability.
Dog intelligence is the ability of the dog to perceive information and retain it as knowledge for applying to solve problems. Dogs have been shown to learn by inference. A study with Rico showed that he knew the labels of over 200 different items. He inferred the names of novel items by exclusion learning and correctly retrieved those novel items immediately and also 4 weeks after the initial exposure. Dogs have advanced memory skills. A study documented the learning and memory capabilities of a border collie, "Chaser", who had learned the names and could associate by verbal command over 1,000 words. Dogs are able to read and react appropriately to human body language such as gesturing and pointing, and to understand human voice commands, although a 2018 study on canine cognitive abilities found that dogs' capabilities are not more exceptional than those of other animals, such as horses, chimpanzees or cats.
Their long association with humans has led dogs to be uniquely attuned to human behavior and they are able to thrive on a starch-rich diet that would be inadequate for other canid species. Dogs vary widely in shape, size and colors. They perform many roles for humans, such as hunting, herding, pulling loads, protection, assisting police and military, companionship and, more recently, aiding disabled people and therapeutic roles. This influence on human society has given them the sobriquet of "man's best friend".
The domestic dog is the first species, and the only large carnivore, known to have been domesticated. Especially over the past 200 years, dogs have undergone rapid phenotypic change and were formed into today's modern dog breeds due to artificial selection by humans. These breeds can vary in size and weight from a 0.46 kg (1.0 lb) teacup poodle to a 90 kg (200 lb) giant mastiff. Phenotypic variation can include height measured to the withers ranging from 15.2 centimetres (6.0 in) in the Chihuahua to 76 cm (30 in) in the Irish Wolfhound; color varies from white through grays (usually called "blue") to black, and browns from light (tan) to dark ("red" or "chocolate") in a wide variation of patterns; coats can be short or long, coarse-haired to wool-like, straight, curly, or smooth. The skull, body, and limb proportions vary significantly between breeds, with dogs displaying more phenotypic diversity than can be found within the entire order of carnivores. Some breeds demonstrate outstanding skills in herding, retrieving, scent detection, and guarding, which demonstrates the functional and behavioral diversity of dogs. The first dogs were domesticated from shared ancestors of modern wolves, however the phenotypic changes that coincided with the dog–wolf genetic divergence are not known.
The dogs' value to early human hunter-gatherers led to them quickly becoming ubiquitous across world cultures. Dogs perform many roles for people, such as hunting, herding, pulling loads, protection, assisting police and military, companionship, and, more recently, aiding handicapped individuals. This influence on human society has given them the nickname "man's best friend" in the Western world. In some cultures, however, dogs are also a source of meat.
Where the domestication of the dog took place remains debated, with the most plausible proposals spanning Western Europe, Central Asia and East Asia. This has been made more complicated by the recent proposal that an initial wolf population split into East and West Eurasian groups. These two groups, before going extinct, were domesticated independently into two distinct dog populations between 14,000 and 6,400 years ago. The Western Eurasian dog population was gradually and partially replaced by East Asian dogs introduced by humans at least 6,400 years ago. This proposal is also debated.
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