The Origin of Domestic Dogs

The origin of the domestic dog is not clear as we once thought.

Did Dogs Descend From Wolves?

I have grown up with the belief that dogs descended from wolves and that, over many years, were domesticated by man. The general theory being; an alliance brought on by a scarcity of food saw man and wolf come together to hunt, combining their skills in a mutually beneficial union.

Some theorists also believe pups were taken from their mothers but whichever way, over time, man was able to tame these wild beasts and begun working them in a variety of jobs, becoming the controlling position in the relationship.

Due to this transition of power, and the breeding of specific physical attributes that man required, we now have the domesticated dogs in all sorts of sizes and colours in our homes today. But fundamentally they are wolves in dogs clothing.  

While this seems like a reasonable theory, it was surprising to me that such a diversity of canine breed developed from the wolf in what, by Darwin’s terms, was a very short period of time. It is thought that man pushed the transformation from wolf to dog far quicker than natural selection ever could.

However, a research study performed by Russian geneticist Dmitry Konstantinovich Belyaev on a fox farm beginning in the 1950’s has thrown up a new theory, and one I feel is a more likely evolution when we consider how dogs look and behave today.

Below I have attempted to condense the findings and add my thoughts. I would love to know yours!

The Silver Fox Experiment

Belyayev was employed to work on a fox farm in Siberia which bred foxes for their fur. These foxes were wild, hard to handle and often too stressed to mate. The farm asked Belyayev to nurture foxes that would be easier to keep and manage.

Foxes, like all wild animals, are not easily tamed. Richard Bowler, a wildlife photographer, living in the UK, homed foxes on his land in Wales and reported that even when the mother had become familiar with humans and was, for the most part, tame, her offspring were not.

They were born wild cubs and were naturally nervous of people with a high fight or flight drive when approached by a human. Belyayev choose to breed only foxes that were more tolerant and less fearful of humans. 

His method was simple; if when a gloved hand was extended into their cages, the foxes that attacked or were obviously frightened were excluded from the mating programme. Only those that were relatively docile or curious were selected. This started a selection process based entirely on tameness.

Under this controlled breeding, each new generation of foxes displayed different behaviours and more interestingly; changes occurred in their external appearance. In as little as 30 years of mating only the tamest and least fearful individuals, the behavioural, physiological, and anatomical characteristics of the silver fox had transformed dramatically.

The extraordinary and highly unexpected changes to their appearance were attributed to the lower levels of adrenaline found within each new generation. The foxes fight or flight instinct subsided as they became more accustomed and less fearful of humans which resulted in the reduced levels of adrenalin.

Dmitry Belyayev with the domesticated foxes

Extraordinary Results

Scientists have determined that adrenalin and a chemical called melanin are directly connected. Melanin controls the skin and fur pigmentation of an animal. Causing a change to one will impact on the other, starting in motion a set of changes.

It was noted that their coat changed, displaying a wider variety of speckled colouring. Their ears became floppy, and their tails started to curl.

The geneticist saw changes to the shape of their skulls, jaws, and teeth and some became more vocal, making bark like noises. The foxes started to wag their tails and jump up at the researchers for attention.

All traits that we recognise within our pet dogs today. With little encouragement from the researchers they seemed to desire human interaction and had developed a remarkable understanding of our gestures and facial expressions.

By the time Belyayev died in 1985, the foxes on the farm were acting and looking more like dogs than foxes. What the researchers on the farm saw from generation to generation was a significant transformation in both behavioural tendencies and physical appearance, in what was only a blink of the evolutionary eye.

When considering the results from this research, we see a new theory being offered to the origin of dog many experts like Raymond and Lorna Coppinger in their book: A NEW UNDERSTANDING OF CANINE ORIGIN, BEHAVIOR AND EVOLUTION* In this new hypothesis, dogs shared an ancestry with wolves but evolved into an entirely new species within in the Canidae family.

It is of this new species that we now have the large and heterogeneous collection of dogs around us today, that behave significantly different to that of the wolf.

*another great book is “In the Defense of Dogs” by John Bradshaw.

The New Theory

When humans first started to form permanent settlements, wolves that resided nearby found that food could be easily scavenged from the newcomer’s waste sites. Only the wolves that did not flee when humans approached would remain to feed.

These less fearful wolves became isolated from the main population and reproduced amongst themselves. If we consider the changes that occurred in the foxes, in a relatively short period of time, we could conclude that a similar transformation occurred within wolves: an extensive physiological and behavioural adaptation of the original animal occurred. In this theory, the wolf turned itself into a dog.

Pups were born with smaller teeth as the food was easily broken down and chewed, floppy ears started to emerge as they were not on alert mode constantly and coat colours began to change. Today’s domestic dog evolved; one that was genetically still very similar to the wolf but looked and behaved profoundly different.

This new species was tame, their offspring were born tame and were less aggressive or as independent as the wolf. Village communities saw the dogs guard their easy pickings. They likely fed the dogs, providing more food source and encouragement to stick around and defend their territory, in some cases vocally, helping to ward off attacks from surrounding clans.

Some could believe that such a transformation from wolf to a dog could have happened in one lifetime. If so, possibly villagers thought that dog was a magical creature and should be worshipped, bringing them into their communities and even their homes. In Mayan culture today, dogs are believed to be the guides to the afterlife or heaven.

What Have We Learnt?

With this knowledge, we start to think differently with respect to dog behaviour. Domestication can only happen when human need meets a susceptible species.

When dogs started to become guardians to villages, or spiritual presence within a community, it would not have taken long to notice that they could read and respond to both nonverbal body language, and verbal commands and so began the extraordinary communication we have with dogs.

If our ancestors had dogs during a hunt, they would have had an advantage over those that did not. Dogs could detect prey using their far superior senses of sight, smell, and hearing.

They could protect humans from predators; sense them from a great distance and give warning, possibly even defend people against attacks. The advantages of dog ownership became apparent, and the word spread amongst people of these valuable additions to society. Thus starting our unique and enduring relationship with dogs.

Man took their dogs with them wherever they explored. It is the dog’s unparalleled adaptability to any environment or climate that has undoubtedly contributed to man’s survival. The most able that coped and succeeded in their new surroundings adapted to produce a new generation of improved versions of themselves.

We know, based on the fox farm results that this can happen quickly and not over thousands of years as Darwin’s theory suggests.

Remarkable Adaptability

If we take a look at sled dogs for example; Taken by man to freezing climates where the majority of ground was covered in snow or ice, the dog adapted expertly to their harsh surroundings.

Growing a two-layer thick coat – an outer coat that kept snow away from the body and an inner, waterproof coat for insulation. Their tails grew long and bushy to curl around them while sleeping and keep their noses and feet from freezing.

Dogs were used as a mode of transport; hauling people and supplies to areas that were inaccessible by other any other method. They developed webbed feet to act as snowshoes and propel them across the unstable ground. Their gait changed to produce movements that used little energy and became able to control their metabolism, allowing them to travel long distances on very little food.

The wolf that turned itself into a dog, but it was dog that transformed further to become a breed that could withstand freezing temperatures, travel long harsh terrains and survive with little in the way of food.

How Does This Help?

There are now numerous breeds of dogs which have unique behavioural impulses and physical features that developed over years of adaptation to environments and survival. Each has specific motor patterns (a set of movements directed towards accomplishing a purpose).

These patterns affect how they perceive a situation and how they learn. All dogs are individual and will learn in their own way. We should not believe they are ruled by the same behaviours as a wolf.

Although some tendencies may be contributed from the ancestral link, they are far from being part of the wolf pack and its hierarchical structure. A notion, that since wolves have been studied outside of captive environments, is weakening anyway.

The alpha dog presence in a wolf pack in the wild is not evident. They work as a family unit with a set of parents. Each wolf chooses to be there, one generation of cubs taking care of the next until they separate to start their own families.

Exerting your dominance over a dog to intimidate them into obedience is unlikely to form a good relationship. We learn from the new theory of dog origin that they have adapted and developed to help us survive, and they stayed with us over thousands of years. We do not need to use punishment based training to teach them.

Most dogs are eager to learn, placing them under a stress of being punished will produce a reluctance to do what is asked for fear of being punished. They will begin to associate the hand that elicits the punishment, or the lead or collar, or even the person inflicting discomfort and pain with negative feelings.

They will more than likely try to avoid that object or person when they see it coming and, in some cases, these feelings could draw out aggression by way of defence.

Effective Training

By learning that our dogs are not masquerading as wolves in our homes, we look to the real question behind successful training and obedience. Which is how do dogs learn?

Reward based training is becoming more popular recently as we start to understand how dogs minds ticks. Learning can be described as a form of association. Dogs learn quickly by association and are learning all the time, not just in designated “training sessions”. For example, when a dog is given food they feel happy (Food = Pleasant Feeling).

If you use the same bowl repetitively to feed a dog, that dog will associate the bowl with the pleasant feeling, even though the food is not yet present (Bowl = Food = Pleasant Feeling). If you replaced the bowl with a bell or a command, after a few repetitions, the dog would associate this with the pleasant feeling also.

This is “stimulus-event-emotion” process is often referred to as Classical Conditioning. By heaping praise and affection onto a dog when they have completed an action is also classical conditioning. If given the command to stay, the dog stays, and you reward that dog with attention it learns in the same way. “stimulus-event-emotion” – “vocal command to sit – dog sits – the dog is rewarded with affection.

Science and research have given us the opportunity to understand dog behaviour better and allow us to continue to enjoy their companionship through a mutually respectful and harmonious relationship. Although many practitioners still advocate the use of punishment based training, I for one will not be following this method.

If I just look at my dog and see the pleasure that he gets from me picking up the ball, or the lead or just arriving home, I know that even though he is not the most obedient of greyhounds, he is a happy one as he has nothing he associates with negativity around him.

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