Archive for the ‘dog domestication’ Category

German shepherd mating Carpathian wolf

Original crossbreeding between a German shepherd and Carpathian wolf to found the Czechoslovakian Vlcak.

If you have been reading this blog for a long time, I used to post historical and indigenous accounts of wolves, coyotes, and dingoes being used as working animals. I also would post accounts different breeders of domestic dogs crossing their stock with wolves to improve their strains.

I have long been critical of the Raymond Coppinger model of dog domestication, which posits that wolves scavenging from Neolithic dumps created the dog as an obligate scavenger that then became selectively bred for human uses. In this model, the tropical village dog is the ancestral form of all canines, a position that has emboldened the “Dogs are not wolves” theorists to suggest some tropical Asian Canis x is the actual ancestor of the domestic dog.

This model also posits that all dogs are just obligate scavengers, and unfortunately, this obligate scavenger designation means that what could be otherwise good books and research on dogs essentially denies their predatory behavior.

Last year, I kept hearing about a book that took on Coppinger’s model head-on. This book took Coppinger’s task for having distinct Eurocentric biases and that Coppinger essentially ignored vast amounts anthropological data on how different human societies relate to wild and semi-domestic canids.

So I finally ordered a copy of this book, which is called The First Domestication: How Wolves and Humans Coevolved by Raymond Pierotti and Brandy Fogg. I do recommend this book, but I readily admit that I don’t agree with quite a bit of it. I agree with it more than Coppinger, though, because they rather clearly show massive holes in Coppinger’s model.

Pierotti and Fogg have produced a model that relies heavily upon humans and wolves encountering and then benefiting from a hunting mutualism. Humans have a long history as scavengers, and even today, there are people who follow large predators, including lions, to rob them of their kills. Dholes are targeted by certain people as well, and it is very likely that humans entering Eurasia would have done the same with wolves.

The difference between the lions and the dholes and ancient wolves is that the lions and dholes resent having humans come near their kills.  The ancient wolves, however, came to work with people to bring down more prey. These wolves and humans came to be the dominant predators in Eurasia.

Pierotti and Fogg’s model posits the domestication process as beginning with ancient hunter-gather societies. It relies upon the wolf’s predatory nature as an important catalyst in allowing this partnership to thrive.

Further, the authors are rather clear in that our Eurocentric understanding of a clear delineation between wolves and dogs is a rather recent creation. Most cultures who have existed where there are wolves and dogs have a much more plastic understanding of the differences that separate the two or they have no separation of all.

The most compelling analogies in the work are the discussions about the relationships among hunters in Siberia, their laikas, and wild wolves and the relationships between indigenous Australians and dingoes.

In the Siberian laika culture, the dogs have extensively exchanged genes with wild wolves, enough that laikas and wolves do share mitochondrial DNA haplotypes. The laikas (or laiki, as they are known in Russia) do hunt the sable and other small game. They also protect the camps from bears, and in some areas, the laikas are used as not particularly specialized livestock guardian dogs. The authors see these dogs a very good analogy to describe how the earliest people and dogs would have lived. These dogs would have been cultured to humans, but they would still be getting an influx of wild genes as they lived in the wild.

In the dingo example, the authors discuss how these hunter-gather cultures would keep dingo pups and treat them almost exactly as we would our own domestic dogs. They also would use the dingoes to hunt kangaroos, but during mating season, they would allow their companions to leave the camps or stay.  They often would leave, but some would go off for a time in the bush and return. This suggests that early humans might not have forced their socialized wolves to stay in camp and that relationship could have been a lot more libertarian than we might have assumed.

These relationships are very different from the scavenging village dogs that Coppinger contends were like the original dogs. These animals are not obligate scavengers. They are hunters, and what’s more, it is their hunting prowess that makes the relationship work.

Further, the authors make a convincing argument that we can no longer use the scientific name Canis familiaris, because many cultures have relied upon wolf-like dogs and dog-like wolves for survival.  These animals are virtually impossible to distinguish from each other, and therefore, it would make sense that we would have to allow dogs to be part of Canis lupus.

The authors contend, though I think rather weakly, that dogs derive from multiple domestication events from different wolves. I remain fully agnostic to this question, but I will say that full-genome comparisons of wolves and three dogs that represent three distinct dog lineages suggest that dogs represent a clade. They are still very closely related to extant Canis lupus, especially Eurasian ones, and still must be regarded as  part of Canis lupus.  Therefore, one does not need multiple origins for domestic dogs from wolves to make the case that they are a subspecies of Canis lupus.

I am, however, quite glad to see that the authors reject this Canis familiaris classification, even if I think the reasoning is better explained through an analysis that shows how dogs fit within a clade called Canis lupus than one that relies upon multiple origins.

Also, one should be aware that every argument that one can make that says dogs are wolves can be applied to coyotes to suggest that they are wolves. Wolves and dogs do have a significant gene flow across Eurasia, but coyotes and wolves have a similar gene flow across North America. The most recent ancestor between wolves and coyotes lived 50,000 to 70,000 years ago, which is far more recent than the proposed divergence between Old World and North America red foxes and the divergence between Qinling and other giant pandas.

I really have no problem thinking of coyotes as being a form of Canis lupus in that a pug is a form of Canis lupus. All the acceptance of this classification does is allow for a positing that this species Canis lupus has thrived because it possesses both phenotypical and behavioral plasticity.

The authors, however, would have a problem with my classification. They make regular reference to red wolves, which have clearly been shown to be hybrids between coyotes and wolves, which themselves are probably better regarded as divergent forms of a phenotypically plastic species. They also contend that coyotes and people have never formed relationships like people have formed with wolves, because coyotes are too aggressive.

However, I have shown on this space that coyotes have been trained to do many of the things dogs have, including pointing behavior. They also have ignored the enigmatic Hare Indian dog, which may have been a domesticated coyote or coydog.

But that said, I think the authors have clearly shown in their text that dogs and wolves are part of the same species.

The authors also make some controversial arguments about dog paleontology and archaeology.  One argument they rely upon heavily is that wolves could have become behaviorally very much like dogs without developing all the morphological changes that are associated with most domestic dogs. Some merit certainly does exist with these arguments, but it also puts paleontology and archaeology in a position that makes it impossible to tell if a wolf-like canid found near human camps is a truly wild animal or creature on its way to domestication.

This argument does have some merit, but it still will have problems in those fields of study, because it becomes impossible to tell semi-domesticated wolves from wild ones in the fossil and subfossil record.

However, the authors do make a good case, which I have also made, that argues that the original wolf population had no reason to show fear or aggression towards people. The best analogous population of wolves to these original ones are those found on the Queen Elizabeth Islands of Northern Canada. These large arctic wolves have never experienced persecution, so they are quite curious and tolerant of the humans they encounter. Wolves like these could have easily been the basis for a mutualism that would eventually lead to domestication.

The authors also contend that the reason wolves in Europe are reviled is the result of the Western church’s propaganda that was working against traditional totemic animals of the pagans. Wolves were among those totems, and the church taught that wolves were of the devil.

However, I think this argument is a bit faulty, because Europeans are not the only people who hate wolves. Many pastoralist people in Asia are not big fans of wolves, and their hatred of wolves has nothing to do with the church. The traditional religions of the Navajo and Hopi also do not hold the wolf in very high regard, and these two cultures have been in the sheep business for centuries.

Further, we have very well-documented cases of wolves hunting and killing people in Europe. These wolf attacks were a major problem in France, where notorious man-eating wolves were often named, and they were not unknown in other parts of Europe as well.

The authors focus heavily on the benign relationship between wolves and people, including the wolf that hunted bison calves and deer to feed survivors of the Sand Creek Massacre, but they ignore the stories that do not posit the wolf in a good light.

The reason wolves in Eurasia have sometimes taking to hunting people is really quite simple:  Eurasia is a land where people focused much more on domesticating species to create animal agriculture. Agriculture has a tendency to reduce biodiversity in a region, and when people kill off all the deer in an area to make room for sheep, the wolves turn to hunting sheep. If you live in a society in which people do not have ready access to weapons, then the wolves start targeting people. Feudal societies in Europe would have been open target for wolves living in such ecosystems. By contrast, the indigenous people of North America, did not domesticate hoofed animals for agriculture. Instead, they managed the land, often with the use of fire, to create biodiversity of which they could hunt.

The authors do show that dogs and wolves are intricately linked animals. They show that dogs and wolves are the same species. They use many wonderful anecdotes of captive wolves and wolfdogs to make their case, and in making this case, they have made the case clear that dogs are the produce of hunter-gatherer societies and still are conspecific with the wolf.

I do, however, have some quibbles with some of the sources they use in the text. For example, when they discuss Queen Elizabeth Islands wolves, they focus on an account of Elizabeth Marshall Thomas on Baffin Island. She was on Baffin Island for one summer and observed one wolf pack. She is a fine observer of animals, but much of her analysis about dog and wolf behavior is still controversial. The authors also regularly make reference to Cesar Millan as a dog expert, when virtually no credentialed dog behavior expert thinks he is, and to the notorious website, which is of even more contentious. These authors are making serious and well-reasoned arguments about dog and wolf behavior and relying upon these sources detracted from the work. I would have liked if they had referred to L. David Mech’s wolf observations on Ellesmere or to John Bradshaw as an expert on dog behavior.

I also had some issues with their contention that the Ainu people of Japan are Turkic or Altaic. No one knows exactly who these people are, but they are interesting in their relationship with wolves. Traditional Japanese society, distinct from the Ainu, was actually quite similar to the Siberian cultures that have produced laika dogs that still interbreed with wolves. However, I don’t think anyone still thinks that the Ainu are Turkic or Altaic.

Finally, the authors do make a good case against Coppinger’s model, but they go on to accept Coppinger’s fixed motor pattern dependence model to describe breed specialization. It is certainly true that Coppinger was Eurocentric in his understanding of dog domestication, but both Coppinger and the authors are Anglocentric in their understanding of dog hunting and herding behavior. The authors think this is Coppinger’s strongest argument. I think this is among his weakest.  This model states that pointing, herding, and retrieving are all just arrested development of a full predatory sequence. A dog that can point just stalks. It never learns to use its jaws to kill. A border collie stalks but also engages is a type of chasing behavior. It will also never learn to kill. A retriever will run out and grab, but it lacks the killing bite.

The biggest problem with this model is that everyone knows of border collies that have learned to hunt, kill, and eat sheep. I had a hard-driven golden retriever that would retrieve all day, but she would kill rabbits and even fawns.

The Anglo-American concept of specialized gun dogs affected Coppinger’s understanding of their behavior. He never really looked into continental HPRs. For example, Deutsch-Drathaars, the original German variant of the German wirehair, are bred to retrieve, point, track, and dispatch game. Such an animal makes no sense in this model, for it would suggests that an animal that would point would only ever be stuck in that stalking behavior. It would never be able to retrieve, and it certainly would never use its jaws to kill.

A better model says that dogs are born with a tendency to show behaviors, such as exaggerated stalking behavior that can be turned into pointing through training. There are countless stories of pointing dogs that suddenly lost their pointing behavior after running with hard-driving flushing dog. The dog may have been born with that exaggerated stalking behavior, but the behavior was lost when it entered into social interaction. Indeed, much of these specialized hunting behaviors are developed through training, so that what actually happens is the dog’s motor patterns are refined through training rather than being solely the result of being arrested in full.  This is why all the old retriever books from England tell the sportsman never to allow his dog to go ratting. As soon as that dog learns to use its jaws to kill, it is very likely that this dog will start using its jaws on the game it is sent to retrieve.

Despite my quibbles and reservations, Pierotti and Fogg have made a convincing case for the hunting mutualism between wolves and humans as the basis for the domestication of dogs. I was particularly impressed with their use of ethnography and non-Western histories to make their case. I do recommend this book for a good case that we do need a new model for dog domestication, and the questions they raise about taxonomy should be within our field of discussion.


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Very interesting concepts:

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kenya black-backed jackal

We think of interactions between predators as always antagonistic.  Meat is hard to come by, and if one comes by meat on the hoof, it is unlikely that the owner-operator of said flesh will give it up willingly.   Meat is a prized food source, and it is little wonder that most predators spend quite a bit of energy driving out competitors from hunting grounds.

Because of this antagonism, the domestication of wolves by ancient hunter-gatherers is difficult to explain. Indeed, the general way of getting wolves associated with people is see them as scavengers that gradually evolved to fear our species less.

This idea is pretty heavily promoted in the dog domestication literature, for it is difficult for experts to see how wolves could have been brought into the human fold any other way.

But there are still writers out there who posit a somewhat different course for dog domestication.  Their main contentions are that scavengers don’t typically endear themselves to those from which they are robbing, and further, the hunter-gatherers of the Pleistocene did not produce enough waste to maintain a scavenging population of wolves.

It is virtually impossible to recreate the conditions in which some wolves hooked up with people. With the exception of those living on the some the Queen Elizabeth Islands, every extant wolf population has been persecuted heavily by man. Wolves generally avoid people, and there has been a selection pressure through our centuries of heavy hunting for wolves to have extreme fear and reactivity. It is unlikely that the wolves that were first encountered on the Mammoth Steppe were shy and retiring creatures. They would have been like the unpersecuted wolves of Ellesmere, often approaching humans with bold curiosity.

As I have noted in an earlier post, those Ellesmere wolves are an important population that have important clues to how dog domestication might have happened, but the truth of the matter is that no analogous population of wolves or other wild canids exists in which cooperation with humans is a major part of the survival strategy. The wolves on Ellesmere are not fed by anyone, but they don’t rely upon people for anything.

But they are still curious about our species, and their behavior is so tantalizing. Yet it is missing that cooperative analogy that might help us understand more.

I’ve searched the literature for this analogy. I’ve come up short every time. The much-celebrated cooperation between American badgers and coyotes is still quite controversial, and most experts now don’t believe the two species cooperate.  Instead, they think the badger goes digging for ground squirrels, and the coyote stand outside the burrow entrance waiting for the prey to bolt out as the badger’s digging approaches its innermost hiding place in the den. The coyote gets the squirrel, and the badger wastes energy on its digging.

But there is a story that is hard to dispute. It has only been recorded once, but it is so tantalizing that I cannot ignore it.

Randall Eaton observed some rather unusual behavior between black-backed jackals and cheetahs in Nairobi National Park in 1966.

Both of these species do engage in cooperative hunting behavior. Black-backed jackals often work together to hunt gazelles and other small antelope, and they are well-known to work together to kill Cape fur seal pups on Namibia’s Skeleton Coast. Male cheetahs form coalitions that work together to defend territory and to hunt cooperatively.

However, the two species generally have a hostile relationship. Cheetahs do occasionally prey upon black-backed jackals, and black-backed jackals will often mob a cheetah after it has made a kill, in hopes of forcing the cat to abandon all that meat.

So these animals usually cannot stand each other, and their interactions are not roseate in the least. Eaton described the “normal interaction” as follows:

The normal interaction between these two predators occurs when the jackals hunt in the late afternoon and come into a group of cheetahs. The jackals, often four or five, are normally spread out over several hundred yards and maintain contact by barking as they move. When cheetahs are encountered by one of the jackals, it barks to the others and they all come to the cheetahs, sniffing the air as they approach apparently looking for a kill. If the cheetahs are not on a kill, the jackals search the immediate area looking for a carcass that might have just been left by the cheetahs. If nothing is found, they remain near the cheetahs for some time, following them as they move ; and when a kill is made the jackals feed on the leftover carcass. If the cheetahs have already fed and are inactive and if a carcass is not found nearby, the jackals move on.

However, Eaton discovered that one particular group of jackals and one female cheetah had developed a different strategy:

At the time I was there in November, 1966, one area of the park was often frequented by a female cheetah with four cubs and was also the territory of a pair of jackals with three pups. The jackal young remained at the den while the adults hunted either singly or together. Upon encountering the cheetah family, the jackals approached to about 20 yards and barked but were ignored except for an occasional chase by the cubs. The jackals ran back and forth barking between the cheetahs and a herd of Grant’s gazelles (Gazella granti) feeding nearby. The two jackals had gone on to hunt and were almost out of sight by the time the adult cheetah attacked two male Grant’s gazelles that had grazed away from the herd. The hunt was not successful. The jackals took notice of the chase and returned to look for a kill ; it appeared that they associated food with the presence of the cheetahs and perhaps with the chase.

One month later, while observing the same cheetah family, I noticed that the entire jackal family was hunting as a group. The cheetah and her cubs were about 300 yards from a herd of mixed species. This same herd had earlier spotted the cheetahs and given alarm calls. The adult cheetah was too far away for an attack,there was little or no stalking cover and the herd was aware of her presence. The cheetahs had been lying in the shade for about one-half an hour since the herd spotted them when the jackals arrived. Upon discovering the cheetahs lying under an Acacia tree, one of the adult jackals barked until the others were congregated around the cheetah family. The jackal that had found the cheetahs crawled to within ten feet of the adult cheetah which did not respond. The jackal then stood up and made a very pneumatic sound by forcing air out of the lungs in short staccato bursts. This same jackal turned towards the game herd, ran to it and, upon reaching it, ran back and forth barking. The individuals of the herd watched the jackal intently. The cheetah sat up and watched the herd as soon as it became preoccupied with the activity of the jackal. Then the cheetah quickly got up and ran at half-speed toward the herd, getting to within 100 yards before being seen by the herd. The prey animals then took flight while the cheetah pursued an impala at full speed.

Upon catching the impala and making the kill, the cheetah called to its cubs to come and eat. After the cheetahs had eaten their fill and moved away from the carcass, the waiting jackals then fed on the remains.

Eaton made several observations of this jackal family working with this female cheetah, and by his calculations, the cheetah was twice as successful when the jackals harassed the herds to aid her stalk.

Eaton made note of this behavior and speculated that this sort of cooperative hunting could have been what facilitated dog domestication:

If cheetah and jackal can learn to hunt mutually then it is to be expected that man’s presence for hundreds, of thousands of years in areas with scavenging canines would have led to cooperative hunting between the two. In fact, it is hard to believe otherwise. It is equally possible that it was man who scavenged the canid and thereby established a symbiosis. Perhaps this symbiosis facilitated the learning of effective social hunting by hominids. Selection may have favored just such an inter-specific cooperation.

Agriculture probably ended the importance of hunting as the binding force between man and dog and sponsored the more intensive artificial selection of breeds for various uses. It is possible that until this period men lived closely with canids that in fossil form are indistinguishable from wild stock (Zeuner, 1954).

Domestication may have occurred through both hunting symbiosis and agricultural life; however, a hunting relationship probably led to the first domestication. Fossil evidence may eventually reconstruct behavioral associations between early man and canids.

Wolves are much more social and much more skilled as cooperative hunters than black-backed jackals are. Humans have a complex language and a culture through which techniques and technology can be passed from generation to generation.

So it is possible that a hunting relationship between man and wolf in the Paleolithic could have been maintained over many generations.

The cheetah had no way of teaching her cubs to let the jackals aid their stalks, and one family of jackals is just not enough to create a population of cheetah assistants.

But humans and these unpersecuted Eurasian wolves of the Pleistocene certainly could create these conditions.

I imagine that the earliest wolf-assisted hunts went much like these jackal-cheetah hunts. Wolves are always testing prey to assess weakness. If a large deer species or wild horse is not weak, it will stand and confront the wolves, and in doing so, it would be exposing itself to a spear being thrown in its direction.

If you’ve ever tried a low-carbohydrate diet, you will know that your body will crave fat. Our brains require quite a bit of caloric intake from fat to keep us going, which is one of those very real costs of having such a large brain. Killing ungulates that stood to fight off wolves meant that would target healthy animals in the herds, and healthy animals have more fat for our big brains.

Thus, working together with wolves would give those humans an advantage, and the wolves would be able to get meat with less effort.

So maybe working together with these Ellesmere-like wolves that lived in Eurasia during the Paleolithic made us both more effective predators, and unlike with the cheetah and the black-backed jackals, human intelligence, language, and cultural transmission allowed this cooperation to go on over generations.

Eaton may have stumbled onto the secret of dog domestication. It takes more than the odd population of scavenging canids to lay the foundations for this unusual domestication. Human agency and foresight joined with the simple cooperative nature of the beasts to make it happen.




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atila and the wolf

Photo by Tanja Askani.

In paleontology, a group of scholars exists largely on the fringe of the discipline. No matter what evidence is provided, they find some way to pump out a paper that says that birds cannot be dinosaurs. An established scholar or two will the publish and beat them down, but there is still an idea in the public mind that there is a debate between dinosaur experts about whether birds are a specific type of theropod dinosaur.

These scholars are known as BAND (“birds are not dinosaurs”), and they do get the attention of the popular press, even if ignored by the mainstream scholarship.

I’ve noticed in that in all my years writing about dogs and their taxonomy that there is a similar group in this sphere as well.  The difference is this group had the backing of one of the leading authorities on dogs in the world, Raymond Coppinger.

Coppinger was certain that dogs had to be classified as Canis familiaris, based upon a very crude ecological species concept. Village dogs that scavenge off human civilization hold a different niche than pack-hunting wolves, ergo, they are different species. Never mind that if we applied that same standard strictly, Arabian wolves, which scavenge a lot and don’t often hunt large prey, would be a different species from arctic wolves or any of the moose, elk, or bison-hunting wolves we have in North America.

If we are to adhere to cladistic classification, though, it is virtually impossible to create arbitrary species for dogs. The reason is best summed up in this paper that compared genomes of many wolves and a few dogs that have origins on different continents. The authors concluded:

 [W]ithin the Old World clade, wolf and dog represent sister taxa. Therefore, suggestions that the dog or dingo are a separate species (Canis familiaris) (e.g., Crowther et al. 2014) would cause gray wolves to be a polyphetic taxon; and consequently, our results support dogs as a divergent subspecies of the wolf. This result has societal significance as legislation in some countries and regional governments consider wolves and dogs as distinct species restricting the possession, interbreeding, or the use of vaccines and medications in wolves or dog–wolf hybrids if they have only been approved for use in dogs. In this sense, analysis of evolutionary history informs law and veterinary practice, as dog lineages are nearly as distinct from one another as wolves are from dogs, and the justification for treating dogs and wolves differently is questionable.

That pretty much should end this discussion. What these authors found and has been discovered in other papers is that dogs descend from a ghost population of gray wolves, Eurasian gray wolves, to be exact.

Lots of other experts agree with this assessment. Darcy Morey, an archaeologist with a great expertise in the study of Pleistocene wolves and early domestic dogs, has the address for his website as “” He and Rujana Jeger have formulated a conceptual framework of dog domestication that is quite unique. Basing their model upon trophic strategies on behalf of the wolves and shifting perceptions of humans, the authors contend that wolves that became dogs attached themselves to people. These early humans were often already acting as the apex predators in the ecosystem of the Pleistocene, and the wolves that did join up with people were able to take advantage of this niche.  Pleistocene wolves were not operating as apex predators in a faunal guild that included machairiodonts, cave lions, cave bears, and Pleistocene spotted hyenas, but when those animals became extinct, the wild wolves became the apex predators of Eurasia.  The wolves that hooked up to people joined humanity in agricultural societies and joined us as apex consumers. When humans began to domesticate other livestock,  wild wolves were seen as competitors and killed off.

The idea that dogs are not wolves does have some currency, especially if you’re quite stuck on Southeast Asian origins for domestic dogs. Vladimir Dinets believes that wild Canis familiaris was some kind tropical Southeast Asian canid that was related to but not descended from Canis lupus.  There is still a massive debate as to where dogs originated, and it should be noted that there are as many good papers that have concluded European or Central Asian origins as have suggested as Southeast Asian origins.

The reason you would go for wild Canis familiaris in Southeast Asia as the ancestor is that Southeast Asia is one of the few places in Eurasia that never has had gray wolves living there. In these schools of thought, much emphasis is placed upon Canis variabilis a possibly being the wild ancestor. Of course, Canis variabilis disappeared from the fossil record 300,000 years ago, and no serious scholar thinks dogs diverged from wolves that early.

The real problem is the genetic closeness between wolves and dogs, and that same genome comparison study mentioned earlier shows a significant gene flow between wolves and domestic dogs. Up to a quarter of all Eurasian wolf genomes likely have some dog ancestry, and in East Asian wolves, the dog component of their genome can be as high as 20 percent. In European and Middle Eastern wolves, the dog component can be as high as 25 percent.

The only thing that keeps dogs from swamping the Eurasian gray wolf population with dog genes is the reproductive and territorial behavior of wolves. Wolves generally allow only one female to raise her pups. Wolves generally kill dogs that wander onto their territories, and they will kill dogs that are in territories they wish to claim.

But dog genes are getting into the wolf population at pretty high rate in Eurasia, a much higher rate than you would think of for two distinct species.

A lot of the people who have a hard time recognizing dogs as wolves are tired of bad dog training advice that is based upon bad wolf science.  They might also be tired of claims from the raw feeding community that say we must feed dogs like wolves.

But just because people misuse the classification does not infer that the classification is wrong.

Cladistically and genetically, dogs represent a now extinct population of Eurasian gray  wolves.  If these terms mean anything, then dogs are Canis lupus familiaris.

These theorists are always going to have a reason to say that dogs are not wolves, just like the BAND theorists.  Indeed, it may be necessary to refer to them as DANW (Dan-double u), for they are they are coming up with reasons to avoid classifying dogs as wolves, no matter how much genetic or archaeological evidence is presented.

In the grand scheme of things, classifying dogs has little effect on our practical understanding of them, but this continuous phylogeny denial makes the dog world seem oddly out of step.

No one would miss a beat if you called a Hereford a domesticated aurochs.  A pekin duck a domesticated mallard? No problem.

But if you say dogs are wolves, which they clearly are, then you’re anti-science.

I’m not, though. You’re the one rejecting cladistics for your special classification model.

I’m adhering to the same model that would be accepted with any domestic species and its wild ancestor.

You’re just rejecting it because you think that’s what the science says. Maybe, but it’s hard to argue with DNA.

But they do it on Maury Povich every day, so why not?

Update: A more recent study that examined the genomes of gray wolves from across their range revealed that 62 percent of all Eurasian wolves have some dog ancestry. That’s much higher than the genome comparison study mentioned above. 


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gordon buchanan wolf

Gordon Buchanan with a wild arctic wolf on Ellsmere. Photo by the BBC.

For really long time, the mystery of human bipedalism vexed us. Our closest relatives, the chimpanzees and the bonobos, are all knuckle-walking apes, and there was an assumption that the common ancestor of all three species was a knuckle-walker. At some point, the lineage that led to our species rose up on its hind legs, perhaps to make it easier to gaze over tall grass, and we became bipedal.

The current thinking, though, is that humans never derived from any knuckle-walking ape. Instead, the common ancestor of humans, chimps, and bonobos was likely a brachiator.  The modern brachiators are the gibbons and siamangs, the so-called “lesser apes.” These animals are highly arboreal, and because they lack tails, they rely upon their long limbs to move swiftly through the trees. When on the ground, brachiators walk bipedally, swinging their long arms to the side for balance.

Humans evolved bipedalism from these brachiators, while the chimps and bonobos became knuckle-walkers. In this scenario, humans never were knuckle-walkers, and it is misleading to think that humans rose up on our hind-legs from creatures that moved like chimpanzees.

What does this have to do with dogs?

Well, there have been quite a few studies that have compared dogs and wolves that have been imprinted on humans from an early age in hopes that we might figure out the domestication process from studying how tamed wolves behave when compared to domestic dogs.

These are interesting studies, but I think they oversell what they can answer.

It should be of no secret that I am very much a skeptic of the Raymond Coppinger model of dog domestication. His model contends that dogs necessarily evolved from scavenging wolves that gradually evolved not to fear people and then became village dogs. Our specialized breeds are thus derived from village dogs that were later selectively bred.

Coppinger thought that wolves were just too hard to domestic without this scavenger-to-village dog step that lies between truly wild wolves and their evolution to domestic dogs.

Modern wolves are hard to tame. They must be bottle-raised from an insanely early age.  Coppinger thought that it would be impossible for people living during the Pleistocene to provide that kind of care for young wolf pups.

Like the people who assumed that humans evolved from knuckle-walkers, Coppinger assumed that wolves that exist today are good models for what wolves were like during the Pleistocene. These wolves are reactive and nervous to the point of being paranoid. It is well-known that many wolves won’t even attempt to den near human settlements, and if they catch wind of humans, they soon leave.

These animals would not be easily tamed by anyone, much less people living with Stone Age hunter-gatherer technology.

I generally accepted his arguments, and in the early days of this site, I largely parroted them.

A few years ago, I was watching a documentary about the tigers of the Sundarbans, a vast mangrove forest that straddles the border between India and Bangladesh. These tigers are notorious for their man-eating behavior, and there have been many theories posited about why these tigers so readily hunt man. Among these is the argument that the Sundarbans tigers drink so much salt in their water intake that it destroys their kidneys, which disables them and makes them more likely to hunt man.

But the documentary contended that the real reason these tigers are more likely to hunt man is that all other tigers descend from populations where humans have hunted them heavily. In British India, tiger hunting was a popular activity among the colonial administrators, and this intensive hunting cause tiger populations to drop.  This hunting left behind only tigers that had some genetic basis to fear man more, and thus, man-eating tigers are exceedinlg rare now.

The Sundarbans never received this hunting pressure, so the tigers left behind had the same innate tendencies to hunt humans that the ancestral tiger population possessed.

I found this argument utterly intriguing, and I began to weigh it against what I knew about wolves. Wolves across their range have experienced even more persecution than tigers have.  In North America, we have four hundred years of humans coming up with more and more creative ways to kill them. In Eurasia, this persecution has gone on for thousands of years.

The persecution of wolves surely has had some effect in how wolves behave, including their innate tendency to accept humans and other novel stimuli in their environment.

Wolves are often so fearful that they won’t cross roads.  They just avoid people at all costs, and it just seems that this is an animal that we couldn’t possibly domesticate or even habituate to our presence.

This has led some people to suggest that dogs aren’t derived from wolves, but some Canis x creature that is related to dogs and wolves, but it is ancestral to the former but not the latter.

Genome comparisons have shown that such claims really don’t work. Dogs are derived from an archaic wolf population, and in this way, they are sort of genetic living fossils, holding the genomes of a Pleistocene wolves that no longer exist. But these wolves that became dogs were still part of Canis lupus, and thus, we have to maintain dogs as part of Canis lupus as well in order to retain the monophyly of the species.

Except for dogs that have modern wolf ancestry, no dog is actually derived from a wolf population that exists today.

And the wolf populations that exist today just seem so hard to tame and work with that it makes sense then to consider the need for Coppinger’s scavenging wolf-to-village dog stage between wild wolves and modern dogs.

The thing is, these studies using modern wolves are only using wolves that are derived from these heavily persecuted populations, and it is very unlikely that these animals are representative of the wolves that lived during the Pleistocene.

We know that when wild dogs have never experienced human hunting, they are intensely curious about us. Timothy Treadwell had a pack of tame red foxes that followed him around like dogs while he was off communing with the brown bears. Darwin killed the fox that was named after him by sneaking up on one and hitting it with a geological hammer.

Lewis and Clark came onto the American prairies where there were vast hordes of wolves lying about.  The wolves had no fear of people, and one wolf was actually killed when it was enticed in with meat and speared in the head with a spontoon.

After these wolves experienced the persecution of Western man, the only wolves left in the populations were those that were extremely wary and nervous.

In fact, the only wolves that exist now that have never experienced widespread persecution by man are the white wolves that live in the Canadian High Arctic.

I’ve had the pleasure of watching two documentaries about these wolves. The first was by Jim Brandenburg.  Brandenburg and L. David Mech spent a summer living with and filming wolves on Ellesmere.  These wolves showed no fear of them, and they allowed them to observe their natural behavior in the wild, including allowing them near their den sites.

Virtually the same documentary was recently made by Gordon Buchanan of the BBC. Buchanan came to Ellesmere and became accepted by a wolf pack, which eventually trusted him enough to allow him to babysit their pups while the adults hunted.

These wolves hunt arctic hare and muskox. They live hard lives, but because they have no real history with man, they are oddly curious and trusting of people.

It seems to me that these wolves are much more like those described by Lewis and Clark, and they are likely to have behaved much like the ancient Pleistocene wolves did. They had never undergone extensive persecution by man, and thus, they were probably quite curious about man.

If these ancient wolves were more like the Ellesmere wolves, then it seems domestication would have been a pretty easy process. In fact, it appears to me that it is so easy to have happened that the struggle would have been preventing it from happening in the first place.

So if these High Arctic wolves are a better model for the ancient wolves that led to dogs, why aren’t they included in the studies?

Well, these wolves are hard to access, and what is more, because they represent such a special population, it might not be wise to remove any of these wolves from the wild.

So the socialized and imprinted wolf pup studies really can’t be performed on them.

But we could still get DNA samples from them and compare their behavior-linked genes to those of dogs and wolves from persecuted populations.

All these other studies are ever going to do is tell you the difference between dogs and certain wolves from persecuted populations. They aren’t really going to tell you the full story of why dogs came to behave differently from wolves.

So for the sake of science, we need to understand that evolution through artificial selection has affected wolves as well as dogs. Dogs have been bred to be close to man. Wolves have been selected through our persecution to be extremely fearful and reactive.

So as interesting as these studies are, they have a big limitation, and the assumption that these wolves represent what ancient wolves were like is major methodological problem.


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loose skinned arctic fox

The animal above is a super-sized blue phase arctic fox that is of a type being bred in Finland. The exposed haw is actually the result of being bred for super loose skin, a trait that those in the dog welfare community know very well. “Typy” shar pei and Neapolitan mastiffs are well-known sufferers from loose skin problems, but even a in breed that isn’t as exaggerated, like Clumber spaniels, this loose skin can lead to all sorts of eye infections.

This is a full-body shot of the Neapolitan arctic fox:

wrinkled fox

Why are arctic foxes being bred with such loose skin?

Well, that loose skin actually makes for a larger pelt and a larger pelt goes for higher price.  In nature, arctic foxes are quite small, much smaller than Boreal red fox subspecies, but the arctic fox in its winter fur is a much more valuable animal.

Both red and arctic foxes breed well in captivity, and they have been farmed extensively for their pelts. Captive red foxes come in many colors now, but the naturally-occurring silver phase was once the staple of fox pelt market. The arctic fox, especially its blue phase, is also quite valuable, but the smaller pelts mean they cannot compete with the silver phase reds.

These Finnish breeders have begun to produce large blue arctic foxes, some of which weigh 20 kg, and have very loose skin in order to make a much more profitable strain of arctic fox.

This development has several moral and ethical questions, as well as being something that those of us curious about dog domestication and evolution might find intriguing.

I should note that I am not anti-fur. I come from a long line of fur trappers, including my own paternal grandfather who used to trap red foxes to fund his union activities. He knew more about red foxes than anyone I’ve ever personally known, and he had a great appreciation for the species.

For some, the fact that these animals are being bred for fur is going to be the biggest ethical problem, but for me, it is the exaggeration in conformation that causes me greater worry.  When these animals are killed for their fur, it is done humanely. Finland is a leader in the humane treatment of animals, and killing fur-bearers on farms in a cruel fashion would not be allowed.  The standard practice is for the animal to be rendered unconscious, then electrocuted. (I don’t want to get into a long, drawn-out debate about these, because there are places where this practice isn’t followed. Finland isn’t one of them. )

But these foxes spent their entire lives with loose eyelids and a bulky conformation that puts an exorbitant amount of stress on their joints, and this truly is a welfare issue.

I see this as the main welfare issue of domestic dogs in the West. We’ve bred domestic dogs with such exaggerated conformation that we’re ultimately harming them, and the funny thing is these animal welfare sites that post shocking animal cruelty videos and images also generate web traffic with videos of cute little bulldogs and pugs with such shortened muzzles that they cannot breathe or cool themselves properly.

I find these loose-skinned arctic foxes appalling, in every way I find an extreme shar pei appalling.

And here I can agree with the animal rights activist. This is wrong.

But at the same time, my curious, scientific mind is intrigued. Fur farmed foxes are sort of parallel dog domestications.  Much has been written about the Belyaev fur farm experiments and what they might say about how dogs were domesticated, but the truth is virtually every fur farm breeding program for the various red and arctic fox phases is an experiment that could reveal some secrets about dog domestication.

It is amazing that we can selectively breed arctic foxes to reach the size of coyotes, and it is even more amazing that we can select for the loose skin in arctic foxes that we actively breed for in certain purebred dogs.

It would be interesting to get full-genome comparisons on these “monster foxes” and more typical arctic foxes.  Maybe the genetics are similar between these foxes and the super-sized and loose skinned domestic dog breeds we have produced.

If we are going to breed animals for agricultural purposes, we are going to have to do it humanely. I am certain the Finnish breeders of these foxes believe they have done a great agricultural improvement in much the same way their intellectual forebears in England in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries bred massive swine and beef cattle that could barely walk on their own hooves.

So yes, we have an ethical issue with these foxes, just as we have an ethical issue with the continued breeding of dogs with exessive loose skin and exposed haws.




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new guinea dingo

One of the most annoying things about “dog people” is the constant jockeying for the prize of the “most ancient breed of dog.”  If you watch Westminster on television, I would say a third of the breeds are described as “ancient.”

Most of them aren’t that old, and even if they do resemble ancient forms of domestic dog, the modern day representative often has very little genetic connection to them.

So it was with jaundiced eyes when I saw the latest headline that “The world’s rarest and most ancient dog was discovered in the wild.”  The headline is clickbait, of course, because most people don’t have a clue about what was actually found.

Some camera traps caught images of a type of dingo called the “New Guinea Highland Dog,” which is a new name for the “New Guinea Singing Dog.”  It is a dingo that lives a semi-feral existence in the highlands of New Guinea. Note that I said “semi-feral,” because different indigenous groups in New Guinea have used these dogs and their descendants for hunting.  It lives in the wild, but it can be tamed.

Genetically, these animals are not vastly different from Australian dingoes, which lived in much the same way.  They could breed in the wild, but indigenous people used them to hunt things like tree kangaroos.

These dogs exist where there are no wolves and are found in cultures that are mostly involved in hunter-gatherer societies. These animals might give us a window into how hunter-gatherer people in the Paleolithic may have related toward wolves and perhaps give us an insight onto how domestication may have occurred.

But the problem with these dogs is that there are fantastical claims about them. When someone says this is “the most ancient breed of dog” one needs to understand something. The most complete genetic studies we have on dogs have revealed that this type of thinking is quite flawed. One of the big problems is that no domestic dog is more closely related to wolves than any other. The only exception are dogs that have actual modern wolf ancestry.

Dogs are derived from an extinct population of wolves, and yes, a recent genome comparison study says we have to call this ancestor “a wolf” if we are to adhere to cladistic classification.  The reason is that dogs split off from Eurasian wolves at about the same time Eurasian wolves split from North American wolves.

genome comparis fan wolves and dogs

Arbitrarily declaring dogs and dingoes a species makes the entire Canis lupus species paraphyletic, according to Fan et al.

Dingoes are commonly used in genetic studies about dogs and wolves. When compared to a large number of samples of different breeds and different wolves, they almost always group with East Asian domestic dogs, as this dingo did with a Chinese street dog.

Another study, which found initially reported dogs originating the Middle East (but has since been retracted in light of more recent evidence), also found that dingoes fit with East Asian domestic dogs.

dingoes fit with domestic dogs wayne

It is well-known that New Guinea dingo-type dogs can be recognized as dingoes using a genetic test that looks for only certain dingo markers.

So the animal that was found in the New Guinea Highlands is a dingo, and a dingo is an East Asian domestic dog that has gone feral.

Now, about the question of this dog being “the most ancient.”

One of the problems with saying a breed is the most ancient, as I pointed out before,  is that no breed of dog is more close to modern wolves than any other, and the other major problem with saying a breed is ancient using genetic studies is that many of these so-called “ancient breeds” are actually just populations of domestic dog that have been isolated from the main swarm of dogs. This gives a “breed-like” isolation that confers upon it some antiquity that really doesn’t exist.

Thus, we really can’t say that a breed is the “most ancient,” even with genetic studies.

What I think is more interesting in regard to dingoes and New Guinea singing dogs is that they represent a different permutation of domestication than the bulk of domestic dogs.

Domestication is a cultural process as well as biological. The vast majority of dogs in the world today are street and village dogs, which are very easily tamed if captured at the right age. This is the permutation of dog domestication that arose after the Neolithic Revolution, and it is still the rule when dealing with societies that have not engaged in extensive selective breeding for working characteristics in domestic dogs.  We also have a permutation in which free-roaming and freely breeding livestock guardian dogs accompany herds across grazing lands. Any dogs that show aggression towards stock are driven off or killed. Another permutation, which is older than either of these two, are the people who actually rely upon their dogs as hunters. Here, I am thinking of the laikas of Russia, which are used to bay up boar and moose and tree gamebirds and furbearers in much the same way the Jōmon relied upon their hunting dogs for survival.

The Western permutation of dog domestication has been to breed many specialized dog breeds and types. We’ve selected for much higher levels of biddability in some of our dogs. We’ve bred out quite a bit of aggression and predatory behavior. We’ve accentuated certain predatory behaviors, like pointing and retrieving, and we’ve produced dogs that look you right in the eye for approval.

Western dogs have been removed very much from wolves, and from our perspective, it looks like the dogs of different cultures are more ancient than our own. But that’s from our perspective. Our own Eurocentric perspective.

For example, the indigenous people of the Americas were very much involved in producing specialized dog breeds. The Salish bred their own wool dogs.  The Tahltan bear dog actually was used to hunt bears, even though it was quite small.  The hairless trait that exists in most hairless dogs actually originated in Pre-Columbian Mexico.

The truth is people all over the world have produced dog breeds and types that are distinct. The various forms of dingo that exist in Australasia are exactly the sort of dogs that would occur in hunter-gatherer societies that were not engaged in the selective breeding of working animals. Instead, they are societies that relied upon feral dogs to provide their own hunting dogs, which often reverted back to the feral existence once they hit breeding age.

This is not the permutation of Western dog domestication at all, and because it resembles the ancient way man may have related to wolves, a lot gets read into these dogs.

These dogs aren’t more or less ancient than any other dog on the planet, but they are dogs that give us a glimpse of what might have been.

That is the amazing story.

But, of course, dog people can’t leave an amazing story to be told on its own, so claims about these dogs are made that simply aren’t backed up by serious inquiry and scholarship.

Unfortunately, we’re always going to be dealing with these sorts of clickbait stories about ancient feral dogs, but that’s not what the genetic studies are revealing. And it is quite sad that we’re still dealing with the erroneous Canis hallstromi classification for the New Guinea dingo, as well as its attendant “dogs are not wolves” hypothesis, which has been as thoroughly debunked as the “birds are not dinosaurs” hypothesis.

So it is interesting that the New Guinea dingo still roams in the Highlands,  but I wish peole would be very careful of clickbait canid taxonomy.






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