Steve Connor: All bark and no bite in today's modified dog

Science notebook

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The Kennel Club has come in for a bit of a whipping this week over its inability to control the inbreeding of dogs which has resulted in some extreme examples of canine suffering, such as spaniels with skulls too small for their brains.

Dogs are of course a prime example of a genetically-modified organism. They bear little resemblance to their wild ancestor, the grey wolf, from which they were domesticated some 10,000 years ago. Generations of selective breeding has resulted in the range of breeds we see today, from the tiniest chihuahua to the mightiest great Dane.

Much selection in recent years has been for specific traits to improve a dog's looks or aptitude for a particular job. Earlier selection must have simply focused on choosing pups that were the most amenable to living alongside humans. This almost certainly led to the selection of "neotonised" traits, in other words those seen in young animals but lost in adulthood, such as playfulness, obedience and general naivety. So in many ways a modern adult dog is more of a wolf cub than a wolf.

One of the results has led to dogs having smaller brains than wolves. A wolf-sized dog has a brain about 10 per cent smaller than a wolf. This doesn't mean that dogs are not as smart as wolves, only that their intelligence is geared towards interacting with humans, rather than survival in the wild. Wolves, for instance, don't bark. Barking appears to have evolved as a way for dogs to communicate with their masters. Indeed, studies show that humans, even those who don't have dogs, can recognise the emotional "meaning" attached to a bark, whether the dog is for example playful, frightened or aggressive.

Foxy little experiment

This reminds me of a similar attempt to domesticate the fox, which started in 1959, using a breeding colony of Siberian foxes at a research station in Novosibirsk. Russian scientists simply chose to breed from those kits (fox cubs) that were the least fearful of humans. Forty-five years later they ended up with foxes that stare you in the face, wag their tails and whine with joy when anyone approaches.

Intelligence tests showed that the quasi-domesticated breed could even find hidden food if people indicated directions to them. They had also developed cute blue eyes for no apparent reason.

Plucked from space

While we're on the subject of faithful companions. Will Whitehorn, head of Virgin Galactic and close confidant of Richard Branson, has promised to come back with figures to back up Branson's claim that a ride into space uses the same fuel as a return business class trip to New York. Will, if you are out there, I'm still waiting.

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