How the Dog came to be…

photo by Dr Nicole Laing

Dog domestication remains a controversial topic among researchers.

Some facts are becoming clearer, but many theories still exist and much is still to be nailed down. The popular belief for sometime was that early humans stole wolf pups and then these tamer animals became the founding animals for a species that was to become the domestic dog. But researchers today, who work with wolves and who on a regular basis “steal” the wolf pups at 10 days of age – right as the sensitive period for socialisation begins, have found that this is a tricky process and although the pups are heavily socialised with humans, from soon after birth, they in no way end up behaving like dogs as they mature. It is highly unlikely that neolithic humans, some 10 000 years ago, would have had the energy and time to commit to this. Humans today can barely train their much more approachable dogs!

A more robust theory is that some wolves, who began to scavenge from the outskirts of human settlements, as neolithic man moved to living in villages and no longer roamed as a hunter gatherers, managed to survive better and were more likely to reproduce. Being less shy around the humans, who scraps they fed off, gave them a reproductive advantage over their more risk averse counterparts. Over time these less wary wolves may have made phylogenetic leaps (saltations) that saw their morphology change.

So this evolution was a process that occurred without the active input of people, but similar to any other evolutionary process whereby an animal’s morphology and behaviour changes to meet its niche. The new animals were ones that lived on the periphery of human settlements, adding starch to their diet some 10 000 years ago, not fleeing when humans approached, becoming disestrous (coming in to heat twice a year) and no longer cycling according to seasons because of the adequate supply of nutrients. In the same way as we have domestic rats, mice, cockroaches and pigeons – dogs just came to be. We also learned to live around them – we evolved along side.

Wolves (Canis lupus) may have remained wary and untrusting of people, moving away when people were in sight, and the subset of wolves that went on to become dogs (Canis familiaris) became less and less like wolves in behaviour and appearance. This may have occurred in fact quite quickly as the Silver Fox experiments of Balyaev demonstrates. When he began selecting silver foxes for “tameness” ( not moving away from the outstretched hand) – a whole swathe of morphological characteristics followed suit – the foxes began to show floppy ears, paler colours, bark and play more. In a mere twenty generations, by selecting for a single behavioural characteristic and only breeding these animals together, the whole appearance of the tame fox had changed. This model is helpful when when think of how dogs may have come into being.

The vast number of breeds that we have today are not a reflection of natural selection but rather an example of “unnatural” selection that has occurred for the last few hundred years. Their characteristics do not offer a survival advantage if they were to compete for food ( in the maelstrom of a “village”) and reproductive fitness is definitely lacking in some breeds. The mutations (that arise in any population) have produced desirable breeds, such as the chondrodystrophoid ( dwarf ) and the brachycephalic ( flat faced)  dogs and are examples of what can happen when a random mutation is maintained and promoted through capricious breeding by people, but their presence is very far from what would happen when village dogs the world over breed without the interference of humans.

The household dog of the Western world makes up a mere 15% of the world wide population of domestic dogs.  Village dogs exist much like their ancestors did – scavenging on human detritus – often maligned and considered dangerous and dirty. Their presence might have some impact on reducing waste but they are not working for the humans they surround.

photograph by Dr John Carles

Household dogs differ in that they are more reliant on the humans they live with, but sadly when humans have selected dogs and constructed “modern” breeds they often have done this with little thought of the desirable traits of a modern pet. Instead they may be selecting on colour, genealogy and unhealthy morphologies that humans find attractive ( eg flat faces) but are not conducive to general health. The end result are individuals with a long list of possible hereditary diseases and behavioural abnormalities who we continue to breed and therefore exacerbate the issues further. In our manipulation of the domestic dog we have sometimes created munted animals that really have a limited niche (a caregiver able to afford expensive healthcare) and whose lives are foreshortened by pain and discomfort. We call dogs “man’s best friend” but is our manipulation of them in their and our best interest?

For more reading on this and on domestication and genetics see:

Grandin, T., & Deesing, M. J. (Eds.). (2013). Genetics and the behavior of domestic animals.







Euphemisms in Dog Breed Descriptions


aloof = fearful

loyal = fearful

protective = fearful

one man dog = fearful

good guard dog = fearful

watchful = fearful

shyness = fearful

cautious of strangers = fearful

courage = fearful

reserved = fearful

sensitive = fearful

discriminating = fearful

bred to work = compulsive tendencies if work unfulfilled

zeal for work = apt to develop compulsion

high prey drive = apt to chase others

people oriented = prone to separation distress

It seems to me that breed descriptions are awash with descriptions that paint a picture of fearful breeds as acting out of loyalty and love. But these descriptions are cover ups for dogs who are on a continuum of the fearful scale and some will, as adults, be more prone to develop aggression because of their fearful nature.

Before seeing any companion in my referral business I research its background, its known genetics, and the breeding facility it came from.

Some of the things that also concern me are: seeing that the kennel is large – has several or even tens of female and male dogs. This can mean that bitches give birth and raise their puppies in kennel environments rather than in the home. More akin to a factory than a home. Ideally the new dog owner wants to bring home a puppy that already has had much socialisation and experience of a regular suburban environment – full of the noises of televisions, microwaves, passing traffic, screaming children and boisterous family life. A large kennel in a rural setting may not give pups adequate exposure to this. A wide range of sound and a variety of experience may be lacking.

Flying puppies – Often this is done during the fear period (between 8-10 weeks of age) and hence can set the puppy up for future phobias – e.g. noise sensitivity, storm worries.

Working dog lines sold as family pets – I often see working breeds who are sold as family pets and the breeders state that they select the pup with an appropriate temperament for the family. Dogs that are bred to work are selected for a very different skill base than those that suit a family. It seems somewhat nonsensical to believe that the two dichotomies can be bred from the same stock.

It makes no sense, to me, to say that dogs bred to do protection work also make good family pets. It makes no sense to say that dogs who are bred to work sheep all day will also do well with life in suburbia.

Always remember that behaviour is a result of three crucial elements – genetics, prior learning (e.g. socialisation history) and the environment (both the internal physiological environment and the current physical environment facing the dog). Because of their genetic tendencies for fearfulness some breeds will require more active socialisation than others to result in an adult animal comfortable around a variety of situations.

However hard we try we cannot turn a Rottweiler into a Golden Retriever. Years of selection and breeding has gone into produce both the look of the dog and the temperament that goes along with it. People choosing any breed should be aware of what that breed was originally selected to do, and expect the temperament type that comes along with that work, and in the end not be surprised that their dog is not an appropriate dog to spend its time in a cafe conversing with the dogs designed to do just that. It is not sufficient to like the “look” of a breed or choose one because its coat doesn’t shed. There is so much more that should be considered.