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Who Thought Up Dog Domestication, People or Dogs?

by / Thursday, 11 January 2018 / Published in Animal History, For Students, For Teachers, Prehistory

Some scientists think prehistoric people created the dog by adopting wolf pups and breeding the friendliest of them. But a more recent theory says humans were basically bystanders in dog domestication.

dog domestication: Grey wolf in Bavarian Forest National ParkWARNING: Do Not Pet the Wolf

The Trouble with Adopting a Wolf

Stone Age people domesticated the dog 10,000 years ago or more — possibly much more. But how? The traditional wolf-breeding theory has a problem. Why would anyone ever keep an adult wolf: a animal old enough to breed? It doesn’t matter how carefully you choose the friendliest puppy or how much you love it and train it. Your pet will still grow into a large, frequently sullen, often disobedient, and always dangerous predator. Have you ever seen a two-year-old grab a dog’s ears and pull? Did you cringe and hope Fluffy wouldn’t bite? What if Fluffy were a full-grown wolf? Would the toddler even survive? Plus, how would Stone Age people control a full-grown wolf’s mating or even tell it where to go? Keep in mind, these alleged dog domesticators had no chains, shock collars, tranquilizers, or even metal tools or weapons.

Did Wolves/Dogs Adopt Us?

The newer idea is that, at some point, wolves began following human hunter-gatherers to scavenge leftover meat. Among these “camp wolves,” the animals least afraid of humans would usually get the meat first. So these less fearful wolves ate more, survived longer, and had more pups. That’s it: that’s the whole evolutionary story behind dog domestication, just about. Over the generations — or centuries — selection for low fear of humans led to a cascade of other changes. Those include shorter noses, curled tales, floppy ears, patches of white fur, puppy-like playfulness, and a tendency to bark when excited — not to mention a submissive, tail-wagging love for Homo sapiens — all without a trace of wolfish dignity. Those doggy traits appeared because they’re governed by the same hormones that reduce avoidance and fear.

I imagine a few outcast wolves: without packs. They cope by following humans around, scavenging garbage and rushing in for scraps as soon as human hunters finish butchering a kill. The humans tolerate them because, well, there are always scavengers, and these camp wolves sometimes scare away more dangerous animals. Over many, many generations, the two populations grow closer and even cooperate in the hunt. All along, the camp wolves that fear humans least eat most and have the most pups. By the time adult animals move into the camp, natural selection has already turned them into dogs.

What Russian Foxes Have to Say about Dog Domestication

dog domestication: Georgian white Russian domesticated fox

You’re dying to pet this domestic fox, right?

Whichever theory is right, we’ve seen how the genetic and physical change probably worked. In 1959, Russian scientists in Siberia began a multi-decade experiment with foxes. From a group of animals kept for fur, researchers bred the foxes least afraid of people. After ten generations, the experiment had transformed a fifth of the foxes. They had shorter noses, curled tails, floppier ears, white patches, and puppy-like playfulness — and they’d become submissive tail-waggers who love, love, love human beings.

In other words, selection for low fear of humans created a new dog-like creature. In fact, you can adopt one of these Russian foxes, and they make great pets — unlike all other foxes all over the world.

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  • Wolf photo: Grey wolf in Bavarian Forest National Park, courtesy of MrT HK through Wikimedia Commons.
  • Fox photo: A Russian domesticated Red Fox with “Georgian White” fur color, by Kayfedewa through Wikipedia.org.

© 2018 by David W. Tollen.

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