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Domestication of the Dog

The history of Canine Domestication, and why it matters!

Humans are the only pet keeping animals on earth. The relationship between dogs and humans is unique. Having developed over hunmdreds of thousands of years, most dogs value human interaction in preference to interactions with their own species. In Cats the process is shorter, but cats too have changed dramatically from a solitary animal to one with complex social needs. Often it is easier to understand the management of behavioural problems if we understand a little of origins of some of these behaviours.

Debate has raged for many years over the original ancestor of the domestic dog. It now appears indisputable that it is the wolf. However, if you want a riveting dinner party argument it is not clear weather that was the Indian, Chinese, Arctic or European wolf: or a mix of several. Or a wolf species that no longer exists (that’s the antagonistic “who brought him” option in the dinner party scenario)

Definitive archaeological records of domestication go back about 15,000 years. For example, Naufian burial sites at Ein Mallaha in Northern Israel have uncovered human remains apparently embracing a puppy for all eternity. At this period morphological evidence of change in the anatomy of the wolf/dog are apparent. In other words, at about that time domestication lead to a new species of animal. However close association between wolf and human remains at archaeological sites are much, much older, arguably dating back 200,000 to 500,000 years at the Zhoukoudian site in China.

As the early nomadic peoples moved in to areas inhabited by wolves, the wolves less fearful of humans started to hang around the edges of human habitations. For the dogs these early humanoid ‘mucky pups’ left food scraps and remains around their habitations that were easy food for the wolves. Additionally, one could imagine there was a mutual security benefit. The wolves may keep other wolves away from the humans, whilst also warning the humans that other threats were approaching. The humans may have been better placed to deal with some of these other threats, chasing off a mammoth say, and protecting the wolves. It has also been argued that such an arrangement leads to the evolution of the bow and arrow. This is a fairly inaccurate weapon that is likely to injure not kill. The wolves would then chase down the injured animal, and as it tired, finish the job. They would then get an easy meal until the humans arrived who would take over.

This arrangement of mutual tolerance, rather than domestication had a number of additional benefits. The wolves would have a cleaning function, improving hygiene around the settlements, and decreasing petulance, in addition to the guarding functions.

Through these early interactions the balance of the wolf population would be skewed towards those less fearful of humans, with less aggressive tendencies (you probably don’t get to kill too many babies before you get chased away, or worse!). So even though no attempts at domestication were made in this period, behavioural changes were occurring in a selected wolf population.

It has been argued, though now largely discredited, that this very association was the reason man came down from the trees: as the association with dogs protected them on the plains. Nice concept, even if it’s not true!

From about 14,000 years ago the relationship became closer, with changes occurring in the skeletal remains differentiating the new dogs from wolves. This most likely occurred through a closer bond, and accidental selective breeding. In other words, the dogs associating with the humans no longer mixed with the larger wolf population.

Behaviourally it is argued that almost all behaviours are common to dogs and wolves, but the frequency with which they are displayed has varied over time. Dogs for example are more docile and show higher levels of affectionate dependency. Predatory behaviour is reported to occur in 100% of wolves, but is now rare in dogs. Wolves tend not to be sexually mature until about 22 months of age, where as in dogs this is often 7-10 months. Wolves generally only have a single breeding cycle per year, compared to 2 in dogs. And Wolves tend to be monogamous. Dogs are not so, which would have been very actively selected for by breeders, who want to select how dogs are mated.

Urine marking and alarm barking, though occurring in wolves, are far more common in domestic dogs. The potential to bark however, varies markedly between individuals. The role of scent marking in particular is confused in dogs. Dogs appear to urine mark to make an area more familiar and secure. They may also overmark, where other dogs have urinated to claim ownership. The fact that such behaviours are often over represented in anxious dogs is then not surprising. In many ways’ dogs in to adulthood, behave like juvenile wolves, through a process called neotenisation. Dogs retain many physical and behavioural attributes of young wolves throughout life. As such they tend to be more playful for example, than adult wolves would be. As such dogs seem to arrest their social development at a point equivalent to a 6-month-old wolf. For example, adult wolves are crepuscular (most active at dawn and dusk) where as wolf puppies have more erratic sleep patterns, more in line with those seen in dogs. Adult wolves are universally wary of strangers, a characteristic lost in many dogs. However, the fact that it can resurface in pet dogs is not then surprising.

Also, in this 14,000-year period the role of the dog change fundamentally and uniquely. Dogs stopped being purely utilitarian, and became a companion. This may have started to occur much earlier but becomes more apparent in this period.

In the latter years this became marked to extreme, as noted by Charles Darwin. I leave you with this thought:

We see the value set on animals by the barbarians of Tierra del Fuego, by their killing and devouring their old women, in times of dearth (shortage) in preference to their dogs.

Or they tasted better.
For more in formation I direct you to the opening chapters of “The handbook of applied dog behaviour and training” by Steven Lindsay, Blackwell Publishing, 2001.

This comprehensive text is best read in small bursts interspersed with large amounts of caffeine, but is incredibly well researched.