Posts Tagged ‘How the Dog Became the Dog’

Mark Derr takes on a recent New York Times piece that quotes experts making claims like this one.

In doing so, he also explains several of the theses in his book, How the Dog Became the Dog.

Hint:  That theory that Raymond Coppinger and others like to promote probably isn’t true.


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The topic is Derr’s new bookHow the Dog Became the Dog.

Lapham has carefully read this book, because he doesn’t just focus on the dog origin information that is the main focus of the text.

He gets Derr to discuss other parts of the book, which are just as interesting. They discuss (among other things) the origins of dog breeds– the “water curs of Newfoundland” caught my ears– and how the ancients used dogs in war.

Lots of good stuff.

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Mark Derr takes on the big controversy on the origins of the domestic dog.

The pro-Southeast Asian and southern China  origins theorists have some conceptual problems:

A persistent bias in all these genetic analysis the geneticists are running assumes that the highest genetic diversity is found at a point of origin; indeed, the statistical analysis they use is based on that assumption. Another built-in bias assumes that an expanding population radiated out evenly from the place of origin.

Both assumptions have been shown to be inaccurate, but they persist in part because statistically they must and in part because the results are what the researchers want to prove their point. They do not.

For all we currently know the founding dog population–or its descendants–could have been decimated by war, disease, or the influx of a few favored dogs–or masses of dogs. Mitochondrial diversity can be increased by preferential keeping of breeding of females for food production, as was apparently done in the Area South of the Yangtze River. can also increase through expansion in an environment where it is relatively isolated from large-scale infusions of fresh blood that might overwhelm the native stock.

The real problem is that there is a desire to find that dogs originated in one place. I don’t know where this comes from. It might be  unintentionally theological– the quest for a secular and non-mythological Garden of Eden.

But as we’ve seen with many different domestic species– those that don’t have nearly as long an association with people– that most have evidence of at least two or more domestication events. Pigs were domesticated in the Near East and China.  We have evidence of early horse domestication in Saudi Arabia, the Ukraine, Russia, and Kazakhstan.  Cattle have two confirmed domestications– as in they were domesticated from the Eurasian aurochs in the Middle East and from the Indian aurochs in the Indus Valley. However, the Indus Valley aurochs was totally absorbed into the domesticated indicus cattle population. There is also evidence that European aurochsen bulls contributed to European taurine cattle that were derived from the Middle Eastern aurochs.

I don’t know why we would be so shocked to find that dogs have a similar history, but dog domestication is one that took place over a much longer time period and over virtually the entire continent of Eurasia.  Over this vast time and place, lineages have died out, and because both dogs and wolves can be quite mobile, lineages from one region can easily be transmitted to another.

Because of these reasons, we need to be very careful about using mtDNA and y-chromosome studies to tell us where the dog came from.

These studies are looking at only a tiny part of the genome. Even if they are including hundreds of samples, you’re still not getting a very good picture. Granted, the nuclear DNA studies that Wayne and the UCLA team have performed are also looking at just at tiny fraction of the genome,  but they are looking at a whole lot more of the genome than mtDNA and y-chromosomes.  The number of individuals in these samples may be significantly lower than the mtDNA and y-chromosome studies, but they are looking at each individual sample much more clearly.

They are being much more precise in what they are measuring, while the East Asian theorists are just looking at a large n. But only a tiny part of that large n.

It’s like looking a truckload of twigs, when you should be looking at a truckload of logs.

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On Huffington Post.

It’s Mark Derr writing about How the Dog Became the Dog.

But it’s HuffPo, and it allows comments.

The comments are awesome!

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Very good interview here.

It has a nice little swipe at Cesar Millan– just to show that just because dogs are wolves doesn’t mean that all this alpha nonsense is accurate. Thinking of wolf packs as families helps us understand how dog domestication could have happened:

Well, first, there’s been a huge misunderstanding of pack behavior — so let’s just make sure we’re in agreement on that one. The Cesar Millan “you are pack leader” or “you have failed to be pack leader” routine is based on this notion of what a wolf pack is that grew out of studies of captive packs, which were made up of unrelated animals thrown together in these wolf parks. And people studying them saw that the males — unaltered males, unrelated males — fought for status. And they developed this notion of the “alpha wolf” — the biggest, meanest wolf — leading the pack. (It happened to fit, as an aside, with our views of what corporate America should be like. But let’s forget that for a minute.)

But when the researchers — David Mech is the most prominent wolf researcher — finally went and looked hard at wild packs, guess what they discovered? It wasn’t based on fighting at all; it was based on mutual cooperation. Why? Because the pack was an extended family. Ma and pa were the alphas by definition, because they were the breeding pair. Then you had the juveniles, the two- or three-year-olds moving out, and the puppies. And they worked cooperatively. And in fact, the alpha male often deferred to other animals in the pack. Why? Because not fighting is more important to social cohesion than fighting, if you follow me. Chimps, on the other hand, are known to be a rather violent sort, and wage war in various ways; they’re not as socially minded in that respect as wolves.

The early unit that humans had was the extended family — small family groups traveling around. And so I think there’s a kind of mix there that allows for this movement of wolf into human society, much more easily than other animals might do it. I mean, if in fact the wolf gained its dominance through fighting, then you’d be hard-pressed to see how humans and wolves would have gotten together to produce the dog; it’s more likely they would have gotten together to produce bloodshed.

That explanation goes a long way to explaining why we didn’t domesticate chimps, even though they lived alongside us in Africa for so many years. Chimps would easily learn to respond to human language, but once they hit a certain age, they turn into warlords.

Although not all wolves would have been suitable for domestication, it is likely that many were.

Taming wolves had to have been so easy that a caveman could do it.


Derr also wrote this piece on Cesar for the New York Times.

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Click to listen to the interview.

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It’s not often that a book causes you to stop and think.

It’s even rarer for a book to make you question many of the long-held beliefs you may have developed over the years.

When I first started on this blogging project, I accepted two ideas as essentially true:

1. Dogs were derived from East Asian wolves.

2. Dogs are neotenous or paedomorphic wolves.

Those two ideas have generally been accepted in much of the literature on domestication that it is generally hard to have a conversation about the subject without having to confront both of them.

But what if both of these accepted facts were bogus?

Well, it turns out that genome-wide analyses have found that dogs are likely not derived from East Asian wolves at all.  The primary source for their genetic diversity are Middle Eastern wolves.

And recent study that compared wolf cranial anatomy at varying ages with those of domestic dogs found that dogs simply are not paedomorphic wolves. Their unusual head morphology is the result of selective breeding, not the retention of juvenile traits.

At one time, I bought into much of the Coppinger model for dog domestication, and I generally accepted the idea that dogs had self-domesticated in villages of the Neolithic.

But by the time I started this blog, there were real problems with that model:  namely that there were newly discovered dog remains that were several thousands years older than when the Coppinger model suggests they would have appeared. Dogs were the product of the Paleolithic, when humans were hunter-gatherers.

As new discoveries in both molecular genetics and archaeology have continued to reveal that much of what we think we know about dog domestication is simply wrong, I began to wonder if maybe we needed a paradigm shift in our understanding of how this process actually happened.

Enter Mark Derr.

Mark Derr is the author of several great books on dogs. Dog’s Best Friend and A Dog’s History of America are both explorations of the human-canine bond.  The former is an exploration of the various human cultures that have developed around domestic dog. The book examine the human side of the bond, and not surprisingly, it finds us wanting in so many ways.  The latter is perhaps the most complete work of historiography ever written about dogs in the United States.  It is also an exploration of the dog culture, but it is one that examines its evolution over time within the context of US history.

However, it is in the question of how dogs became dogs that Derr makes the what is perhaps most ambitious attempt to explain how this human-canine bond began.

Most of the literature on dog origins examines it from either a biological or social sciences perspective. The biological approaches often use just a few methodologies and are quick to discount evidence from other sciences.  For example, archaeologists have been among the most conservative when it comes to examining the origins of dogs. For several decades, archaeologists claimed that the oldest dog was the one found at the Ain Mallaha site in Northern Israel.  The remains consisted of a puppy that was buried next to a woman, and it has been dated to around 12,000 years ago.  The first mtDNA assays of dogs and wolves found that dogs and wolves split around 135,000 years before present, which means that dogs were a product of a domestication that happened before modern humans left Africa.  Which doesn’t sound plausible, until you realize a wolf subspecies was indeed discovered in East and North Africa– but it hasn’t been connected to the ancestry of the domestic dog.

Derr hyperfocus on a single methodology. Such hyperfocus in as much blinding to reality as it is revealing, which is perhaps the book’s strongest point. Derr does not discount evidence that appears to contradict the findings that others have found. It is perhaps the most unique multidisciplinary approach to dog origins that has ever been attempted. No other book examines dog origins from so many different angles, using the latest evidence from molecular genetics as well as anthropology,  archaeology, and paleontology– and some remarkable, good old-fashioned historiography. Derr just places these findings from such divergent fields into the proper context– which is quite rare for most books written on the subject.

Ten years ago, the book on dog origins that everyone had to read was Raymond and Lorna Coppinger’s Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior & Evolution. The book has a complete domestication theory that went something like this:  About 12,000 years ago, the megafauna that were once so common during the Pleistocene began to die off.  Hunter-gatherers and wolves were both without food, and when humans began to farm on the small scale, they were creating garbage dumps.  Wolves would scavenge from the dumps. The wolves that could tolerate human presence more were better adapted to scavenging.  Over generations of this selection pressure for less fear and less aggression, the wolves became genetically tamable.   And because selection for tameness is also a selection for a bunch of domesticated traits, dogs became spotted and floppy eared. Because they were living in a low nutrition environment, their jaws and brains got smaller. Dogs are nothing more than developmentally delayed wolves, and because they have floppy ears and shorter muzzles, they are considered paedomorphic or neotenous wolves. Dogs are incapable of exhibiting full wolf motor patterns, and working dogs, like herders and retrievers, have been selected for an arrested predatory motor pattern.

As I noted earlier, the theory that dogs are nothing more than juvenilized, developmentally delayed wolves has been falsified– at least in term of their physical traits.  The notion that dogs are less intelligent than wolves and that they are somehow incapable of exhibiting full predatory behavior, even if members of specialized working breeds, has also been largely falsified through cognitive research and through the experience of anyone who has ever seen one of the specialized working breeds kill and eat something. Dogs are much better than wolves at gaining information from humans than wolves are– even if these wolves are raised in a captive situation.

All dog domestication theories have a corollary that asks what this theory says about the differences between wolves and dogs. Coppinger’s theory suggests extremely large differences. Derr’s suggests much fewer differences.  Coppinger rejects the name Canis lupus familiaris, which Derr embraces.   Coppinger holds that giving the dog the full species name of Canis familiaris is necessary because dogs possess a different ecological niche than wolves. However, wolves often fill different ecological niches throughout their range, and the wolves Italy and the Middle East often live almost exclusively on garbage– as do legions of domestic dogs. Derr also notes these scavenging wolves have not become dog-like, except when they have cross-bred with them.

So if not Coppinger, what does Derr propose is the more likely story of how dogs came into being?

The answer cannot be described as simply as the theory proposed in Coppinger’s model.

Derr contends that dogs are the result of interaction between humans and wolves, but this interaction happened over tens of thousands of years. There was no single domestication event– a finding that is revealed in genome-wide assays of dogs wolves. Most dogs have Middle Eastern wolf at their base, but some dogs have a contribution from European wolves and others wolves from East Asia.

This relationship began while humans were hunter-gatherers.  Humans and wolves began interacting with each other, and they occasionally took advantage of each other’s hunting prowess. In other situations in which two predators compete for the same prey, they become adversarial competitors. The most famous example of this enmity between two predators is that which exists between African lions and spotted hyenas. But humans and wolves went the other direction.  Wolves began to attach themselves to humans, often just to scavenge from the kills, but they also likely participated in the hunt.  Perhaps the relationship was a bit like what existed between some indigenous Australians and  dingoes, where the dingoes were very useful in hunting but still retained their independence.

For tens of thousands of years, man and wolf continued to relate to each other along these lines, with wild wolves contributing to the gene pool all the time.

Although Derr agrees with the finding that most dogs have Middle Eastern wolf at their base, he contends that Central Asia is the place where dogs were first able to exist as a freely breeding population with very little contribution from wild wolves. It was in Central Asia that Middle Eastern wolves that had attached themselves to humans met up with similar wolves from Europe and East Asia. This meeting of the different camp wolves that created the sustaining population of these animals that evolved into the domestic dog as we know it today.  It was this situation that most closely resembled a domestication event. Because with dogs, there was only a long domestication process, not a single domestication event.

Derr claims that it was during the Last Glacial Maximum (ca. 25,000-13,000  years ago) that the dog began to develop the morphological features that resembled those which Coppinger and others suggest are the result of neoteny. It was at this time that humans began to experience a great gracilization of our bodies, which Derr finds actually came from a lack of good nutrition during this starving time. It is likely that the same pressures exerted themselves upon the wolves that were accompanying humans from this time period. This is why first morphological distinct dogs have been dated to this time period.

Derr also questions whether we should be using the Siberian farm fox experiment as the basis for our understanding of how dog domestication happened.  Derr finds several methodological flaws with the farm experiment, namely that foxes that were not selected for tameness also began to develop the spotted coats and floppy ears– and the domesticated foxes are larger and more robust than wild foxes. Further, the selection criteria that the Soviet scientists used was changed twice, and the main feature the scientists selected for was against aggression. However, there is no evidence that dogs were selected for reduced aggression, and we have plenty of examples of domestic dogs that are far more aggressive than wolves are.

The model is interesting, but it cannot be used to suggest much more than this is the process by which the Soviets were able to domesticate the fox.

The dog domestication process was much more complex than the one Coppinger suggests.

Dogs are both the product of biology and culture. They are both artifacts and specimens.

Understanding that the dog is both a biological and cultural construct helps us look at the possible ways in which dogs evolved from wolves, but if we ignore either and choose to reject data that doesn’t fit our preconceived notions, then we won’t be able to see how it might have happened.

Dogs are not neotenous wolves.

They are the wolves who evolved to live with us.

And we are the humans who evolved to live with them.


How the Dog Became the Dog is now available at bookstores.

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In all the different accounts of people using wolves to do the tasks that are normally reserved for dogs, I had not come across anyone using a wolf as a gun dog. Audubon met a hunter in Kentucky who used a wolf to trail deer, and a French hunting hound pack included a wolf as a member.

There is also the story of Big Jim, one of the wolves raised to be released upon Isle Royale that happened to bond very strongly with a retrieving water spaniel. He learned to retrieve ducks from her, but I don’t know if he was ever of any use as a hunting dog.

But there actually was a wolf that proved to be an excellent retriever and gun dog.  He was actually a multipurpose gun dog, for in addition to being a great retriever of grouse and ducks, he also would bring down deer that had been wounded by the hunter’s bullets. He would sometimes kill  the deer, and then he would allow the hunter to collect his venison.

The story of this wolf comes from Blackfeet and Buffalo: Memories of Life Among the Indians by James Willard Schultz, also known as  Apikuni. Schultz grew up in the Adirondacks, where he learned woodcraft and hunting methods from the local mountain men, but as a young man in the  late 1870’s and early 1880’s, he moved into the Montana Territory, where he worked as a trader with various Indian tribes– most notably the Pikuni or Piegan. The Pikuni are nation within the Blackfoot Nation, and they are the only members of the Blackfeet to live in the United States. Schultz would chronicle much of their culture and daily life, selling accounts of his experiences to Forest and Stream. He would also become associated with the region that eventually became Glacier National Park, where he became well-known as an outfitter.

The story of his hunting wolf is rather simple. It begins with Schultz taking a wolf pup from a den, and he then trains it just like anyone would train a gun dog.

This wolf clearly was not a Native American dog, for the author makes it very clear that most Native American dogs, which probably were never encouraged to do much playing, didn’t want to play with him. The author makes a clear distinction between the two.

Further, it suggests that the wolves that became dogs could have participated in hunts with hunter-gatherers. If one reads the part where Schultz’s wolf was of great utility in bringing down wounded carefully, one could see how such a wolf could have been used even by people using more primitive weapons.

There is a general tendency in the popular conception of dog domestication generally tends to deny this possibility.

It’s stories of wolves like this one and the one that Audubon saw accompanying the Kentucky deer hunter that lead me to consider this possibility.

It’s also of note that this particular wolf fits almost exactly what  Raymond Coppinger derisively calls the “Pinocchio Hypothesis.”  Coppinger contends that no one ever tamed a wolf pup that has reached the weaning stage, so it must be impossible that hunter-gatherer man ever collected wolf pups and tamed them in this fashion. Hunter-gatherers just didn’t have puppy milk replacer, and they simply wouldn’t have been able to raise tamed wolves at all. Thus, dogs had to have come from wolves that self-domesticated through evolving to fit the niche as scavengers in human settlements.

Schultz was able to take an already weaned wolf pup– and not only was he able to tame it, he was able to use it as a hunting dog. This pup was eating bison meat, not suckling from bottles filled with Esbilac.

One should note that nowhere in Coppinger’s book is their any consideration for good historical records of wolves that were very useful as working dogs. These records are ignored or are not considered at all. It is almost as if they don’t exist.

Not only was this wolf working very nicely as a hunting dog. It was retrieving. Retrieving in the Coppinger model is an inherited predatory motor pattern. This inherited motor pattern is a truncation of normal predatory behavior, and dogs that inherit it are unable to engage the full predatory sequence. A dog that retrieves can’t  kill, dissect, or consume. It can only grab something and carry it back– and it exists within specialized breeds. One certainly wouldn’t find a wolf that did it, and if one did, that wolf would be unable to kill anything. Of course, this wolf not only retrieved shot birds, he actually killed wounded deer.

Modern wolves may no longer possess this aptitude. Decades of persecution have certainly changed wolf behavior. They are now much more emotionally reactive than the ones that lived on the Great Plains during the nineteenth century.  Most Native Americans were not wolf persecutors in the same way that Europeans were, and accounts of wolves in that region generally discussed how docile and curious they were.  Meriwether Lewis described the wolves he encountered during the Corps of Discovery Expedition (1804-1806) as being “extreemly gentle” and that Captain Clark had managed to walk up to a wolf and kill it with his espontoon.

Decades of persecution removed the curious and docile wolves from the population, leaving behind only those that are too emotionally reactive to handle to produce the next generation. Making comparisons with dogs and trying to generalize how domestication could have happened using these wolves is a major methodological error.

It is likely that the wolves of the Old World were much like these wolves. They had to have been very easy for Paleolithic hunter-gatherers to interact with. A wolf like “Big Mouth” would have been almost impossible not to domesticate.

The other factor that drives much of the conversation on wolf versus dog behavior is that there has always been an assumption that wolves must be handled roughly to get them to behave.

Did you read in Schultz’s account any place where he used lots of domination and confrontation to train his wolf?

He didn’t.

But modern wolf experts will write out all of these domination exercises that people must use to keep them under control.  A few months ago, I saw an Animal Planet program in which a wolf expert claimed that the reason why a woman’s captive wolf and wolf hybrid pack killed her is because she didn’t bite them. With animals that are already really emotionally reactive, such methods might exacerbate some of the aggressive behaviors that wolves might be exhibiting in already stressful captive situations.

Making comparisons with modern wolves in these high stress captive situations and domestic dogs and then trying to promulgate a domestication theory from these comparisons is really methodologically stupid.

All we really have are these historical accounts, and from them, we might be able to glean some idea of how domestication might have happened.

We know from modern examples that scavenging is not domestication.

Wolves in the Middle East and Italy have been scavenging off people for a very long time, but no one has seen them develop floppy ears or a curled tail or start barking or herding or pointing.

The idea that scavenging alone was the main force behind dog domestication is really quite dubious. Lots of animals have scavenged off us– everything from spotted hyenas to raccoons to marabou storks.  Black-backed and side-striped jackals have been scavenging off people ever since people learned how to hunt successfully. And they haven’t become dogs either. They also have contributed nothing to the domestic dog gene pool,  simply because they are not chemically interfertile with dogs, wolves, coyotes, golden jackals, or Ethiopian wolves. Scavenging alone will not make an animal evolve into domestication.

I think in the end that the real reason why people have issues with these notions is quite simple. Deep down, people are uncomfortable with knowing that dogs are wolves. They are wolves that experienced different selection pressures, but the two animals have not speciated. There are dog-like wolves and wolf-like dogs, and the two populations have exchanged genes and have continued to exchange genes. Wolf people tend to think of dogs as debased wolves, while dog people like dogs to be different so we don’t have to have a discussion about dominance hierarchies. Never mind that the dominance model that has been used to understand both wolves and dogs has largely been falsified through new scholarship. When one says dogs are wolves, one is not also saying Cesar Millan is a genius. Of course I’m not. But I’m not going to deny what dogs are in terms of their phylogeny, just because of the failed dominance model.

I think that much of what we think about wolves and dogs has unfortunately become too reductionist. I’m not saying that the typical family should be keeping a pet wolf, and I do recognize that there are tendencies in which wolves– in general– do differ from domestic dogs. The unfortunate aspect of this reductionist line of thinking is that has created a dichotomy in which dogs are dogs and wolves are wolves– and it has always been so. The truth is that dogs are derived from wolves that were very easy to domesticate. The nervous and emotionally reactive wolves we have today are not that easy to domesticate at all, but assume that they have always been this way I think is very faulty.

This model makes sense only if we ignore many examples of wolves that succeeded as working dogs in the past. Such a model does create contours, which easily fill out into a meme.  But meme like this one can be as blinding as it might be helpful, and this one is no longer of any use. It makes excellent fodder for documentaries, but the simple reality is that dog domestication is much too complex a subject to be reduced to such broad contours and generalizations.

Schultz was able to do something that many experts today would say is impossible.

He took a weaned wolf from a den, and he trained it to be an excellent hunting dog.

None of those things can happen, if we are to believe the popular literature on dogs and wolves.

But they did.

Simple as that.


Many years later, Schultz would train a coyote to be a retriever and turkey flusher, but because dogs and wolves are the same species, I felt that it was more appropriate to discuss the dog and wolf dynamic in this post. I will have a separate post for Smokey, Schultz’s duck retrieving coyote.


Many of these issues are discussed in Mark Derr’s How the Dog Became the Dog, which will be out this month.

See related posts:

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This image comes from Musk-ox, Bison, Sheep and Goat (1904) by Caspar Whitney, George Bird Grinnell, and Owen Wister. It shows how dogs were used to bay up muskoxen, allowing the hunter to kill them with shots from a rifle or the hurling of a spear or harpoon. The text explains how dogs were used:

Among the Indians that live south and west of the Barren Grounds (no Indian lives in the Barren Grounds), the method of hunting the musk-ox is practically the same, and, as I have shown in the early part of this paper, it is because the Indians lack high hunting skill and because their dogs are neither trained nor courageous that bigger kills are not made. White hunters and trained dogs could practically wipe out every herd of musk-oxen they encountered; for while it is true that musk-oxen give you a long run once you have sighted them, yet when you get up to them, when the dogs have brought them to bay, it is almost like shooting cattle in a corral. There is always a long run. I think I never had less than three miles, and in the first hunt which I have described, I must have run nine or ten. But, as I say, when you get up to them it is easy, for they will stand to the dogs so long as the dogs bay them. And all this running would be unnecessary if the Indians exercised more hunting skill and judgment.

Although the prairie form of the country is not altogether the best for stalking, yet one could stalk comparatively near a herd before turning the dogs loose. The Indians never do this, and, in addition, the dogs set up a yelping and a howling the moment they catch sight of the quarry. This, of course, starts off the musk-oxen, which invariably choose the roughest part of the country, no doubt feeling, and rightly, too, that their pursuers will have the more difficult time following. Indian dogs are not always to be relied upon, for they have a disposition to hunt in a group, and your entire bunch of dogs is apt to stop and hold only three or four stragglers of the herd while the remainder of the musk-oxen escape. Sometimes when they stop practically the entire herd, the dogs are very likely, before you come up to them, to shift, leaving their original position and gradually drawing together; perhaps, the whole pack of dogs finally holding only half a dozen, while the rest of the musk-oxen have run on. Musk-oxen, when stopped, invariably form a circle with their sterns in and their heads out; it matters not whether the herd is thirty or half a dozen, their action is the same. If there are only two, they stand stern to stern, facing out. I have seen a single musk-ox back up against a rock. Apparently they feel safe only when they get their sterns up against something.

Hunting musk-oxen on the Arctic Coast or the Arctic islands after the manner of the polar expeditions, is a much simpler proposition. There the hunters are always comparatively near their base of supplies, and, from all accounts, the musk-oxen are more numerous than they are in the interior. According to Frederick Schwatka, the Innuits hunt musk-oxen with great skill. They hitch their dogs to the sledge differently from the method of the Indians to the south. The southern Indians hitch their four dogs in tandem between two common traces, one on each side; while each Eskimo dog has his own single trace, which is hitched independently to the sledge. When the Innuits sight the musk-oxen, each hunter takes the dogs of his sledge, and holding their traces in his hand, starts after the game. The wisdom of this method is twofold: in the first place it immeasurably aids the running hunter, for the four or five straining dogs practically pull him along; indeed, Schwatka says that when these Innuits come to a hill they squat and slide down, throwing themselves at full length upon the snow of the ascending bank, up which the excited dogs drag them without any effort on the part of the hunter. I should like to add here that if such a plan were pursued in the Barren Grounds over the rocky ridges, the remains of the hunter would not be interested in musk-ox hunting by the time the top of a ridge was reached. Seriously, the chief value of hunting in this style is that the hunter controls his four to six dogs, the usual number of the Eskimo sledge. When they have caught up with the musk-ox herd, he then looses them and he is there to begin action. The Eskimo dogs are very superior in breed to those used by the Indians farther south, and are trained as well to run mute (pg.56-61).

The dogs in the image are “Eskimo dogs,” which  we more correctly call “Inuit dogs” or “qimmiq” in Canada.  However, these particular dogs are from Cape Morris Jesup, which is the northernmost point in Greenland. Robert E. Peary documented these dogs on his 1900 expedition, which first documented this particular cape.  The dogs were baying the muskoxen within a quarter mile of the northenmost terminus of the cape, which he thought was the most northern point of land in the world. Coffee Club Island, which lies just 23 miles east of Cape Morris Jesup is actually the land that holds this distinction– but only by only a little less than half a mile. The dogs on Greenland are usually referred to as Greenland dogs today, but they are very similar to the dogs in the Canadian arctic, which should be thought of as a landrace.

This image isn’t the best, but Peary did document dogs baying and “rounding up” muskoxen in Canada’s Northwest Territories in The North Pole: Its Discovery in 1909.

His description of the hunting the muskoxen with dogs goes as follows:

When we saw the significant black dots in the distance, we headed for them. There were five close together, and another a little way off. When we got within less than a mile, two of the dogs were loosed. They were wild with excitement, for they also had seen the black dots and knew what they meant; and as soon as the traces were unfastened they were off—straight as the flight of a homing bee.

We followed, at our leisure, knowing that when we arrived the herd would be rounded up, ready for our rifles. A single musk-ox, when he sees the dogs, will make for the nearest cliff and get his back against it; but a herd of them will round up in the middle of a plain with tails together and heads toward the enemy. Then the bull leader of the herd will take his place outside the round-up, and charge the dogs. When the leader is shot, another takes his place, and so on.

A few minutes later I stood again, as I had stood on previous expeditions, with that bunch of shaggy black forms, gleaming eyes and pointed horns before me—only this time it did not mean life or death.

Yet, as I raised my rifle, again I felt clutching at my heart that terrible sensation of life hanging on the accuracy of my aim; again in my bones I felt that gnawing hunger of the past; that aching lust for red, warm, dripping meat—the feeling that the wolf has when he pulls down his quarry. He who has ever been really hungry, either in the Arctic or elsewhere, will understand this feeling. Sometimes the memory of it rushes over me in unexpected places. I have felt it after a hearty dinner, in the streets of a great city, when a lean-faced beggar has held out his hand for alms.

I pulled the trigger, and the bull leader of the herd fell on his haunches. The bullet had found the vulnerable spot under the fore shoulder, where one should always shoot a musk-ox. To aim at the head is a waste of ammunition.

As the bull went down, out from the herd came a cow, and a second shot accounted for her. The others, a second cow and two yearlings, were the work of a few moments; then I left Ooblooyah and Koolatoonah to skin and cut them up, while Egingwah and I started for the single animal, a couple of miles away.

As the dogs approached this fellow, he launched up the hill and disappeared over a nearby crest. The light surface snow along the path he had taken was brushed away by the long, matted hair of his sides and belly, which hung down to the ground.

The dogs had disappeared after the musk-ox, but Egingwah and myself were guided by their wild barking. Our quarry had taken refuge among the huge rocks in the bottom of a stream-bed, where his rear and both sides were protected, and there he stood at bay with the yelping dogs before him.

One shot was enough; and leaving Egingwah to skin and cut up the animal, I started to walk back to the other two men, as it had been decided to camp at the place where they were cutting up the five musk-oxen. But as I emerged from the mouth of the cañon, I saw up the valley still another of the big, black shaggy forms. Quickly I retraced my steps, and gathering in two of the dogs, secured this fellow as easily as the others.

This last specimen was, however, of peculiar interest, as the white hair of the legs, just above the hoofs, was dashed with a bright red—a marking which I had never before seen in any of these arctic animals.

Taking the dogs with me and leaving the musk-ox, I went on to the place selected for a camp. Ooblooyah and Koolatoonah were just finishing cutting up the fifth musk-ox, and were immediately sent off with a sledge and team of dogs, to help Egingwah with the two big bulls.

When they were gone, I set up the tent myself and began to prepare the tea for our supper. As soon as the voices of the Eskimos were audible in the distance, I put on the musk-ox steaks to broil and in a few minutes we were enjoying the reward of our labor. Surely this was living on the fat of the land indeed, deer steak the second night, bear steak last night, to-night the luscious meat of the musk-ox!(pg. 151-154).

The notion that dogs and likely the early habituated wolves that became dogs were not used in hunting is an idea that has always perplexed me. I have shown with this post and the one on dingoes hunting tree kangaroos in Queensland that hunter-gatherers were more than willing to use dogs to get the meat they needed for sustenance. In neither case were these dogs improved European breeds. In Queensland, they were dingoes that were born in the wild, and in the case of these North American arctic spitz dogs, they occasionally had recent wolf ancestry– a fact that has largely been denied by people like Raymond Coppinger but has always been pointed out in the oral history of the people of the region and those who documented them. It is true that when modern wolves that have been bred in captivity are used as sled dogs, they often fail miserably, because they were too emotionally reactive with each other to be trusted on a sled line. That’s probably because they all derive from heavily persecuted populations of wolves. The original wolves in the high arctic were not persecuted at all, and allowing the dogs to mate with these wolves would have been something that would have happened, though probably not on a large scale.

The people who promote this hypothesis that hunting-gathering man had no use for hunting dogs often have not looked at any of the history or ethnography on actual hunter-gatherers.

It seems to me weird that hunting with dogs would exist with hunter-gatherers in both Queensland and the North American arctic, and because we know that the dog is the product of paleolithic man, not neolithic or early agricultural man, it seems to me that using dogs or early socialized wolves as hunting animals would have been their primary purpose. Paleolithic man in Eurasia was hunting prey very similar to the muskox– and often quite a bit larger. Using the dogs or tamed wolves to bay up a large prey species like this would have made perfect sense.

The fact that modern wolves are poor candidates for hunting companions reflects two aspects that have never been fully examined in the literature. One of these that centuries of persecution– even the most remote parts of the arctic– have fundamentally changed what wolves are. Wolves are pretty hard for the layperson to socialize, but it seems to me that if wolves were tamed tens of thousands of years ago, they had to have been much easier to tame than they are now.

It also leaves out something else that isn’t widely discussed but is an important topic in Mark Derr’s upcoming book, How the Dog Became the Dog, which will be out next month. Humans assume that wolves must be managed using all these harsh compulsory methods, because we assume that because wolves are often quite aggressive with each other in captivity that we must manage them this way.  I saw a wolf expert of some note on a nature program a few months ago who was analyzing that the reason why a woman was killed by her captive wolf and wolf hybrids was because she wasn’t biting them and standing over them to show them who is boss. Never mind that this woman kept them in a very small kennel run and had more than ten individuals in this enclosure, which would have put all sorts of stresses on the animals.

Dog trainers have largely assumed that the best way to train dogs is using a lot of force and intimidation, especially with “primitive” breeds.  The early wolf behavior studies stated that their societies were packs controlled by rigid hierarchies, which were led by an alpha male, who ruled with an iron fist. When these same trainers began to train wolves, they discovered that wolves usually responded poorly to these methods, and it was decided that wolves were impossible to train. It has only been recently when more positive reinforcement– based methods, which have started to have a very strong following among dog trainers, have been applied to wolves, that it was discovered that wolves were perfectly trainable, though not exactly like super-biddable Western dog breeds.

To train a wolf, one would have had to have gained its trust and respect. For a wolf to trust a human, a human would have had to have been gentle with it.  Any habituated wolves that would have shown aggression towards people would have been let go or killed, but those that were curious and interested in learning form people, like Adolph Murie’s Wags, would have been the ideal animals to train for the hunt.

Derr also points out that we moderns tend to think of dogs and wolves as clearly defined entities, but for much of our history, the line between dog and wolf has always been fuzzy.  Wolves that became dogs bred in the camps or very near them, but as was often the case, they often dispersed into the wild wolf population. Through capturing cubs and habituating adult wolves that were dispersing from their natal packs, new wild blood would also be brought in, and through wild wolves engaging in the Casanova strategy for reproduction, even more wild blood would be brought in.

Even in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in North America’s Great Plains, wolves and dogs were exchanging genes in this fashion.  Alexander Henry, a fur trader with the Northwest Company who was working along the Red River of the North in what is now North Dakota around the year 1800, would describe how female wolves would do anything to mate with his dogs:

We had a bitch in heat; she was very troublesome, and the dogs made a terrible noise on her account day and night. I drove them all to the plains; a band of wolves got scent of the bitch, and a furious battle ensued, in which one of our dogs was torn to pieces. This often happens at this season, when the wolves are copulating and our dogs get among them. The female wolves prefer our dogs to their own species, and daily come near the fort to entice the dogs. They often succeed, and if the dogs ever return, they are in a miserable condition, lean and covered with sores. Some of my men have amused themselves by watching their motions in the act of copulating; rushing upon them with an ax or club, when the dog, apprehending no danger, would remain quiet, and the wolf, unable to run off, could be dispatched.

The idea that dog and wolf have always had such clear distinction really taints our understanding of their evolutionary history.

The notion that we can make inferences about how man related to wolves using the way modern man relates to modern wolves is also in error. Evolution and selection pressures on wolves did not end when dogs came onto the scene. Man selected dogs to be even more cooperative and helpful, while Eurasian man put selection pressures on the wolf population to be more reactive and fearful. He also developed ways of relating to canines that might make it more difficult for man ever to domesticate wolves again. He also created the urban environment, which might be difficult for a wolf to adapt to, and domesticated other species, which might be hard for a wolf to ignore. Dogs have adapted to both of these developments.

But in areas where neither of these things exist, the difference between a dog and a dingo and a wolf and a dog would remain nebulous. That was the case with the Greenland dogs and with the hunting dingoes, and it was the case with hunter-gatherer man.

We are somewhat imprisoned by our prejudices and through our own paradigms with which our academics operate.

When we look at things from a more broadly-based, interdisciplinary perspective, certain truths become more clear.

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