Posts Tagged ‘Mark Derr’

Mark Derr has been writing critiques of the Coppinger model of dog domestication for decades. His best known work on the subject matter is How the Dog Became the Dog, but his ideas can be read in a more succinct place at this article at The Bark (but do buy the book!).

Derr recently posted about Jung and Pörtl’s “Active Social Domestication Model” on his blog at Psychology Today.

His analysis is worth your time to read. He largely agrees with this model, but he contends that it needs to be placed in a larger framework of Derr’s own work and that on Wolfgang Schleidt and Michael Shalter, which is linked on Jung’s website.

Derr contends that Jung and Pörtl’s ideas need to be placed in this line of scholarship to which I’d also add the work of Darcy Morey and Pat Shipman. They don’t agree with each other on some important particulars, and they may have quibbles with this new model. But both scholars have been publishing outside of the Coppinger model for quite some time.

What I find most interesting is how this scholarship is pretty well-known outside of the English-speaking countries, but in the US and the UK, the generally accepted model by virtually everyone is the Coppinger model. Part of it may be that North America is home to wolves that are not particularly admixed with dogs. Indeed, they are probably the most “pure” wild wolves anywhere in the range of Canis lupus. And Great Britain and Ireland have no wolves, and there is no chance of any wolves coming back to those islands, at least by their own volition.

However, in Germany and Russia, wolves are admixed with dogs, and in the case of Germany, it is not at all impossible to see wolves living near large urban centers.

So they have a much more practical understanding of what it is like to live near wolves that have quite a bit of gene flow from domestic dogs, and they are less likely to buy into models that see dog and wolf as fundamentally distinct entities.

North Americans are much more accepting of a dichotomy model, and we have a hard time with gene flow between Canis populations. Our laws want hard and fast species, but the thing about Canis is that none of them are hard and fast species.

So it is easy for North Americans to posit that wolves are unable to be domesticated, because modern North American wolves (for the most part) are reactive and timid predators that do kill both dogs and coyotes they find on the trail. They do, but they also do the same with other wolves. And sometimes they mate with those wolves, just as they will mate with dogs and coyotes.

The Coppinger model requires an assumption that all wolves living in history and in the present are these shy timid ones, but that’s not what the historical record shows. And it is certainly not what is seen on Ellesmere or Baffin Island, where the wolves have never been persecuted by man.

The Coppinger model requires us to create the gray wolf as a Neanderthal dog in which it is big in size, big-brained, and meant to hunt only large prey, and posit the dog as the modern human with a smaller brain and more flexible diet.

We need a model that can place the origin of dogs before the Mesolithic, and this Active Social Model goes along way in that direction.

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Altai dog

Arguments over dog origins generally fall into two categories:

Where?  And when?

Where and when has the attendant question of “How?”

In the late 90’s and the early part of this century, almost everyone believed that dogs were derived from midden scavengers in the Neolithic.

Towards the middle part of the first decade of the twenty-first century, Savolainen’s big mitochondrial DNA studies came out and suggested that dogs were domesticated in East Asia, eventually refined to southeastern China.

In the middle of the 1990’s, Robert  Wayne’s early mitochondrial DNA analysis put the date of dog domestication so far back that virtually no one accepted it. His research suggested dogs were derived from at least four domestication events, but that the domestication happened 135,000 years ago.

Such an early date was universally poo-pooed.

Many became very heavily wedded to the Neolithic scavenger hypothesis and the attendant domestication= neoteny hypothesis, which has never been properly evaluated with proper scientific scrutiny. In this scenario, wolves scavenged out of the trash heaps of the Neolithic, there was a selection pressure for tameness.

And that was necessary for dogs to evolve from wolves. They had to live on a less nutritious diet, so their brains and jaws got smaller. Dogs are nothing more than neotenic wolves that evolved to live on garbage.

Now, this hypothesis is still quite popular.

But it’s got several problems, not the least of which is that many animals, including many species of wild dog, scavenge off of people, but they have not become tame, neotenic, or smaller brained as  result of it.

And never mind that many claims about brain size and dog domestication result from improper comparisons between domestic dogs and larger brained northern wolves. When compared with the southern wolves from which dogs most likely derive, many improved Western breeds actually have brains that are the same size as those wolves.

And never mind that there are wolves that have been tamed and used as working animals. Historical records of which can be found all over this blog with a simple query into the search function.

Of course, historical research is actually outside the purview of most biologists, so they continue to operate in this paradigm.

Mark Derr recently took to task a recent article by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods that tried to posit that man and the wolf were constantly at war with each other and that the only way dogs could have ever been domesticated is through scavenging.

The truth is this entire domestication paradigm depends upon dogs being domesticated relatively late, for only during the development of agriculture would there have been enough resources in trash heaps to feed enough scavenging wolves that could then evolve into dogs.

In the first decade of this century, this hypothesis seemed plausible. All the paleontologists and archaeologists who had studied dogs found them to be no later than the Neolithic, except for a few strange dogs, like the now famous dog from the Bonn-Oberkassel site that dated to 14,000 year ago.

When I was first exploring dog domestication, this animal was sometimes treated as evidence that dogs were domesticated in Germany, which as a German-American had me somewhat enthralled, or as an anomaly. 14,000 years ago, Germany was not yet in the Neolithic culture. It was still a land of hunter-gatherers, so it suggested that dogs were domesticated before Neolithic agriculture and the corresponding sedentary life style became commonplace.

For most of the early part of this century, the Natufian culture of the Levant and the peoples living in southeastern China a few thousand years before were deemed to the first people with dogs. The Natufian culture sites, which date from 10,000 to 13,000 years ago, are full of dog remains, and these remains particularly influenced Raymond Coppinger, the prominent exponent of the neoteny=domestication hypothesis.

Now as that first decade of this century drew to a close, there were some findings that were beginning to challenge this entire paradigm.

The first of these was the discovery of an anomalous wolf skull from Goyet Cave in Belgium. This skull was initially documented in the nineteenth century, but a 2008 study that included that skull revealed that was actually much more similar to that of a domestic dog. The skull was dated to 31,700 years ago, but when its mtDNA was examine, it was found not to be related to any living wolf or dog. None of the European wolves that were dated to that time period in that study were related to living wolves or dogs (at least in terms of their mtDNA).

Many researchers simply chalked up the Goyet Cave  “dog” to another anomalous wolf.

Then, in 2011, another dog-like skull was found found in Razboinichya Cave in the Altai Mountains of Russia.  It was dated to 33,000 years ago. This animal was deemed an “incipient dog,” which the researchers believed was just an early attempt at dog domestication which then had to be abandoned when the last glacial maximum forced humans to give up keeping pets.

Of course, this finding came out at about the same time Mark Derr’s How the Dog Became the Dog came out. Derr’s book was the first really cogent critique of the neoteny=domestication hypothesis, and it also tried to tie together all the various bits of genetic and archaeological and paleontological data into a coherent synthesis. In the book, Derr pointed to a recent genome-wide analysis that had suggested that the Middle East wast he primary source for most modern dogs, but he also posited that Central Asia would be the place where one would find the most morphologically distinct dogs. Derr contends that the Middle Eastern wolves followed humans out of the Middle East into Central Asia, where they mixed with those tamed wolves belonging to people from other parts of the world. Here, tame wolves were exchanging genes with each other and were not regularly incorporating the genes of wild wolves, and over time, this population of wolves began to look more distinct.

In case you hadn’t noticed, the Altai Mountains are in Central Asia, and when I sent a link to the study to Mark Derr, he was quite excited.

But the main paradigm suggested that this animal was nothing more than a relic of an early attempt at domestication.

Until this week.

That’s because ta portion of the Razboinichya Cave dog’s DNA was examined and compared to that of dogs and wolves, including 35 prehistoric New World canids.

It found that the  Razboinichya Cave dog was actually more closely related to the pre-Columbian and modern domestic dogs.

So this animal actually was a very early domestic dog.

In Mark Derr’s analysis of the study, he points out that the dog was not related to the wolves living in that part of Central Asia, which means that it may have derived from wolves that were brought there by people.

It does not negate the finding that the bulk of modern domestic dog genetic diversity comes from the Middle East, but it does provide evidence that the place where dogs began to become distinct from wolves was in Central Asia.

But it also shows that dogs were domesticated long before the Neolithic.

The dog is a product of the ancient hunter-gatherer societies of Eurasia.

It is not a creature that evolved on the scrap heap.

It is one that evolved with hunting-gathering man,  most likely participating in the hunt, hauling huge slabs of meat, and guarding camp sites from all sorts of fell beasts.

This ancient dog from the Altai Mountains is the oldest domestic animal on record.

Humans and dogs have been at it a long time.

It’s only now that we have proof it’s been this long.







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dingo reflection

The recent discovery that dogs have evolved some adaptations to assist in the digest starches has set off a whole wave of speculation about what this means for the domestication of the species.

Some are thundering about the old Raymond Coppinger theory on dog domestication, which posits that the dog evolved from the wolf during the early days of agriculture. According to this theory, the dog is a self-domesticating animal that evolved solely from wolves losing their fear of humans in order to scavenge from our trash heaps.

The logic here is that starches were only a big part of the human diet only when we began to farm, and if dogs have these adaptations, then it must mean that they were domesticated in agrarian societies.

The problem with this logic is twofold.

The first is that dog remains– which no one argues actually are of dogs–have been dated thousands of years before agriculture. I am thinking of the dog discovered at the Bonn-Oberkassel site and another that was found in the Kesserloch Cave in Switzerland. Both of those remains are 14,000 years old, and they clearly predate agriculture by thousands of years.  In addition to these two dogs, two dogs that were contemporaries of these Central European canines were discovered in Bryansk region of Russia. These two Russian dogs looked a lot like what we’d call mastiffs or mountain dogs.

And never mind that we have several possible dog remains that are even older than these. The Goyet Cave dog of Belgium and the Razboinichya Cave dog of the Altai Mountains are two canid remains that show signs of domestica tion that both date to over 30,000 years ago.

But most amazing of all has been the discovery of 31,500-year-old skulls of what appear to have been dogs in the Czech Republic. These skulls, which were found at the Předmostí, clearly had something to do with people. for one was buried with a bone in its mouth.

All of these discoveries put dog domestication well into the very distant past– long before we had massive trash heaps and long before we ate lots of bread. The dog is the product of wolves tamed during the time of the hunter-gatherers, not of the earliest farmers.

The other problem with claiming that dogs were derived from self-domesticated scavengers is that lots of animals scavenge off of people, including many populations of wolves.

Yet none of these animals– including the wolves– has become more like a dog simply through scavenging. If scavenging was all that it took, then the black-backed jackal would have been the ancestor of the domestic dog. These jackals have been scavenging off of our species long before wolves did, but even though they readily live in villages and often act as guard dogs to warn of the approach of leopards, they show no signs of domestication. There are no spotted or drop-eared black-backed jackals.

And there are no genetically tame raccoons, European badgers, spotted hyenas, or bears.

But all of these animals readily scavenge off our waste.

The only way the Coppinger domestication theory works is to ignore large chunks of science, but that is precisely what so many science journalists do.

The Coppinger theory is a very neat little package that attempts to make simple what was an inordinately complex move.

Almost everything we know about dog domestication is contradictory. We have competing archaeological and genetic evidence, and all that anyone can actually agree on is that the wolf is that the primary ancestor of the dog, the domestication happened before agriculture, and the domestication happened in the Old World.

Mark Derr takes to task some of the speculation that was generated from that study:

By every genetic and archaeological measure, wolves became dogs in the company of hunting and gathering people at least thousands of years before the advent of agriculture. There simply is no way around that.

Derr thinks that humans would have fed wolves cooked grains from wild grasses, which could have accounted for the selection pressures that would have caused dogs to develop the adaptations for consuming starches.

I am a bit skeptical that humans would have been collecting that much grain to feed dogs, but there are cases of hunter-gatherers doing just that. In How the Dog Became the Dog, Derr discusses a study of a site in China. Using isotopic analysis of human and “dog” remains from that site, the researchers found that the humans were growing broomcorn millet to feed both themselves and their dogs.

My bone of contention with this study is that it didn’t include large enough sample of dogs from a variety of breeds. There were no “primitive” breeds included in the study, and there were no dingoes.  Even among the dogs studied, there was variance of how many copies of the amylase-production gene the dog had, which suggests that some dogs are better adapted to a diet rich in grains and starches than others. It would be interesting to see if dogs like dingoes, which lived for thousands of years on a continent with no agriculture, have more copies of the gene than wolves do.

The really interesting part of this study was the discovery that dogs have evolved a tolerance to eating grains and starches.

The unfortunate part of the study is that it caused so much speculation about a theory of dog domestication that is largely contradicted by virtually all the other evidence we have.

In discovering that dogs can eat bread, the researchers threw Raymond Coppinger a bone.

Coppinger is a figure like Lorenz, but unlike Lorenz, who eventually gave up on his hypothesis that most dogs were derived from golden jackals, Coppinger continues to adhere to his self-domestication through neotenic scavenger hypothesis.

Never mind that there are really big holes in the logic behind it.

It is an easy theory to explain between the margins of news copy.

It’s much harder to say that things are much more complex than that.





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pavel West Siberian laika

Pavel, a West Siberian laika in Alberta. Photo by Dave Parsons.    

Mark Derr reviews Werner Herzog and Dmitry Vasyukov’s Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (2011).

In the piece, Derr extols the virtue of the multipurpose dog, the one that has the intelligence and the ability to do many different things and pursue a wide variety of quarry.

Laikas certainly fit the bill. Developed over the millennia over the vast expanses of Russia, these dogs have had to have the abilities that the English have reserved for specialized hounds and gun dogs.  The laika may bay up a moose or brown bear or wild boar, then dive into a frigid river to fetch a shot duck.

They were the dogs of the people who lived off the land, and in Happy People, the dogs are their sustenance.

Left alone for months at a time in the taiga, the Siberian trappers must hunt to survive and to provision their traps.

And without the dogs, they simply couldn’t survive.

Very few dogs living in the West make their own keep.

And virtually none are their owners’ survival.

These laikas are that and so much more, for these trappers live for much of the year as hunter-gatherers.

Perhaps their relationship with their laikas is much like the relationship that man had with the wolves that eventually became dogs all those thousands of years ago.

It’s tempting to think so.

It’s certainly tempting to imagine.


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lady liuwa

Lady Liuwa

I stunned to come across an amazing documentary this morning.

Last night, I was watching the Turtleman and (Not) Finding Bigfoot, so I left it on Animal Planet when I went to bed.

When I decided to turn the television on this morning, I noticed that the new incarnation of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom was on, and I decided to watch just a few minutes of it.

The animal in question was a lioness, the last survivor of her pride that had been massacred by poachers in the Liuwa Plain National Park in Zambia. That pride was the last one in the park, and she was the only member of her species for hundreds of miles.

The documentary focused upon a wildlife filmmaker named Herbert Brauer. He was interested in documenting how a single lioness might survive on her own.

So the footage showed her killing small antelope, and then the spotted hyenas would show up and steal it from her.

But then something strange started to happen.

She began to approach the vehicle that the filmmaker and his crew were using.

She began to roll over next to the vehicle, which in lion-speak is a way of saying that she seeks company.

And during the wet season when prey was more plentiful, she would kill something just to have the hyenas come by and steal it. Maybe she was trying to make friends with the hyenas, but hyenas aren’t terribly disposed to making friends with lions. They merely took her kills and ran off.

She was revealing the Brauer just exactly how social lions really are.

We often hear how important companionship is for lions, but I’ve always been a bit skeptical of that claim. I remember reading somewhere that the main reason why lions form prides  in the first place is so that the females can be more easily guarded by coalitions of pride males, thereby preventing pride takeovers by outside males who then kill all the cubs in order to bring the lionesses back into estrus.

I was always skeptical that the prides meant that much to lions. It always seemed to me to be something that lions have only recently developed. I’ve seen footage of lions fighting so fiercely over carcasses that they wind up killing their own cubs that just happened to be in the way.

After a few years of filming this lioness, who was given then name “Lady Liuwa,” she decided to take the relationship to the next level.

One night she followed Brauer to his camp and just sat outside and watched him.

She wound up coming by every other night.  There was no food in camp, and she never offered to stalk Brauer or anyone else.

She just longed for company.

For safety purposes, Brauer never let her come any closer than 15 feet. Even though she was a friendly lioness, she still had all her instincts and lethal teeth and claws.

It was when started doing this that Brauer really began to understand how lonely she was. It was at this time that he began to work with authorities to get a male lion brought in to be Lady Liuwa’s companion.

The first captured male lion died on his way to the park, but the second attempt, which brought in two maturing male lions, was quite successful. They joined up with Lady Liuwa, and she was no longer alone.

She had a pride once again.

The documentary was made in 2009, and I wondered what has happened since.

It turns out that she is still alive and doing quite well.  A blog and a Youtube channel are now devoted to her.

But the story of Lady Liuwa raises some important questions for me.

I have long been fascinated with the questions surrounding dog domestication, and I’ve found a lot of the literature on dog domestication somewhat lacking, mainly because too many experts reach for overly reductionist answers for these questions.

One of the best books to come out in recent years on the subject is Mark Derr’s How the Dog Became the Dog.

He posits a very complex scenario for how dogs became domesticated, and it has to be complex. The evidence that has accumulated through a wide variety of disciplines suggests that dog domestication had to have been a very complex process.

One part that Derr points out has been entirely left out of the discussion:

Were some wolves just wanting human company?

Wolves are more intensely social than lions are, and it would make sense that there might be a few wolves that somehow found themselves on their own that tried to seek out humans for companionship.

Maybe these lonely wolves played some role in dog domestication.

The story of Lady Liuwa is the story of what lengths social animals will go to in order to seek companionship.

Maybe something like this happened with a young wolf that dispersed from its natal pack.

Maybe it couldn’t find a mate anywhere, or maybe its initial mate had been killed.

And then it saw something in the roving bands of hunter-gatherers that made it think:

“Maybe I can trust them. Maybe we can be friends.”




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This is another good one.

I’ve not seen Cesar’s new show, but it sounds a lot like a canine version of Donald Trump’s.

The most important part of the blog post is this bit:

In terms of wolves and dogs, it is important to remember both parts of this essential paradox: The dog is a wolf; the dog is not a wolf. Biologically wolves and dogs are so close that they must be considered the same species, despite thousands of years of conscious and unconscious selection by humans of particular traits in dogs, none more intensely than during the past 200 years.

The contemporary wolf is primarily a creation of centuries of human persecution, habitat fragmentation, and natural forces. At various times in different parts of the world, the divide between dogs and wolves has been less wide than the chasms opened in Western Europe and the United States by wolf eradication campaigns in the 19th and early 20th centuries, campaigns that contemporary wolf haters would like to reopen.

Yet the use of wolves as a model for dogs in society can teach a lesson about dog training that some people who invoke them might not like to hear. Wolves, by all accounts, respond poorly to aversive training. They shut down. They rebel. They flee. Many dogs do the same, which leaves these questions: Why use aversive methods that cause pain and distress when you can achieve better results with praise, kindness, respect, and rewards? Why try to turn your dog into a stimulus response machine when you can teach it using rewards and praise? Why treat any animal or person differently than you want to be treated?

There is such a thing called dominance. No one can seriously deny its existence. An animal is dominant if it has preferential access to scarce resources. It doesn’t mean that it’s the biggest bully on the block. It just means that other animals recognize its authority as an “elder statesman,” and all it have certain privileges. If wild dogs lived under tyrannical pack leaders, there would be nothing but utter chaos.

But if you think that ethological term of art gives you the right to punch and strangle your dog, you are sorely mistaken.

Dominance has been used to justify all sorts of unscientific and actually quite nasty ways of relating to dogs.

It’s why many people avoid using it, and so many others even deny that the term exists.

I wish there were a better word for it, but there isn’t one.

I believe Cesar has jumped the shark. I think the campaigns against him have largely been successful, and it’s really the last hurrah of this bizarre and quite inaccurate paradigm.

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A tiger in the Sundarbans.

Mark Derr has a very interesting post up on Psychology Today.

He discussed the efficacy of using dogs to alert the presence of  man-eating tigers in the Sundarbans, and he wonders if similar dogs might be useful for alerting to the presence of lions in suburban Nairobi.

People have long used dogs as alarm systems. It may have been one of their original functions around human camps. Dogs would have alerted our ancestors to the Homotherium or the short-faced bear stalking near the camp, and thus they would have given humans a chance to chase off the big predator.

And there are plenty of modern-day examples:

In Siberia, a trapper or hunter would rely upon his laika to feed him and to help procure some furs. However, the dog would also have  use in alerting to the presence of brown bears, which would always be raiding his caches.

Helen Thayer, the first woman to walk and ski to the Magnetic North Pole, was told that she needed a dog to protect her from polar bears. She procured a dog of mixedqimmiq and Newfoundland blood named Charlie. Charlie alerted her to the bears on several occasions, and he even drove off a bear that charged her.

And we have the Masai people of Kenya and Tanzania who keep little pariah-type dogs with their cattle. They prefer golden red dogs, but the dogs are of no distinct breed. Just regular Africanis. The dogs alert to the presence of lions, and the Masai are able to run the predators off. Of course, the Masai occasionally do kill lions. Hunting lions is a rite of passage for young warriors in this culture.

However, the Masai usually have no problems with lions. The big cats usually defer to the Masai, and they usually don’t consider the Masai prey.

Now, it might be possible that a barking dog might be the best way to keep suburban lions under control.

However, there might be cases in which having dogs around might not be the best thing if one wants to keep the predators away.

Leopards and Amur tigers consider dogs a rare delicacy. Amur tigers limit dhole and wolf populations in their range, and it is well-known that Amur tigers will take dogs that are walking beside armed men. Leopards, which are well-known for hunting jackals, were infamous for taking the naive Western dogs belonging to European settlers in southern Africa. Most European dogs had spent their lives chasing cats, and when they got to Africa and caught wind of a leopard, they decided to give chase.  If the dog happened to be on its own, it stood very little chance against  leopard.

So maybe we can use the Stone Age technology of a predator-alert dog to solve twenty-first century conflicts with large predators.

It may require some recalibrations, but maybe we can develop a system that allows suburbanites in Nairobi to live near lions in much the same way the Masai do.

We have may even devise as hazing system for lions that uses dogs. In parts of western North America, Karelian bear dogs are used to haze grizzly bears that have become to accustomed to approaching people and homes. The dogs bark at the bears while humans shoot them with bean bags and rubber bullets. The bears learn to associate  barking dog with the pain from the bean bags and rubber bullets, and they soon learn to avoid human habitation.

We can learn to live with large predators. We just have to find ways to make sure that large predators know that we’re not a suitable prey source.

And maybe dogs can help us with that.





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Mark Derr has a new post up about the recent study on OCD in several breeds, which manifests itself as tail-chasing.

In the end, the research shows just how complex an issue OCD is in domestic dogs.

We don’t know how it is inherited, though there is likely some sort of genetic basis behind the tail-chasing behavior.

It’s another one of those issues in which the more we learn, the less we know.

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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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At least it wasn’t Santeria practitioners.

TNR is one of the biggest problems with the No Kill Movement.

Cat colonies do pose problems to both ecology and public health.

And TNR really doesn’t reduce the cat population to the level they need to be.


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