How Wolves Became Dogs

Though we tend not to think much about it, the history of dogs, well before you got your dog, bears more on what your dog is like than the particulars of his parentage.

Their history begins with wolves.

Wolves are dogs before the accoutrements.

The coat of domestication makes dogs quite different creatures, however.

4 While a pet dog gone missing may not survive even a handful of days on his own, the anatomy, instinctual drive, and sociality of the wolf combine to make it very adaptable.

These canids can be found in diverse environments: in deserts, forests, and on ice.

For the most part, wolves live in packs, with one mating pair and from four up to forty younger, usually related wolves.

The pack works cooperatively, sharing tasks.

Older wolves may help raise the youngest pups, and the whole group works together when hunting large prey.

They are very territorial and spend a good amount of time demarcating and defending their borders.

Inside some of these borders, tens of thousands of years ago, human beings began to appear.

Homo sapiens, having outgrown his habilis and erectus forms, was becoming less nomadic and beginning to create settlements.

Even before agriculture began, interactions between humans and wolves began.

Just how those interactions played out is the source of speculation.

One idea is that the humans’ relatively fixed communities produced a large amount of waste, including food waste.
Wolves, who will scavenge as well as hunt, would have quickly discovered this food source.

The most brazen among them may have overcome any fear of these new, naked human animals and begun feasting on the scraps pile.

In this way, an accidental natural selection of wolves who are less fearful of humans would have begun.

Over time, humans would tolerate the wolves, maybe taking a few pups in as pets, or, in leaner times, as meat.

Generation by generation, the calmer wolves would have more success living on the edge of human society.

Eventually, people would begin intentionally breeding those animals they particularly liked.

This is the first step of domestication, a remaking of animals to our liking.

With all species, this process typically occurs through a gradual association with humans, whereby successive generations become more and more tame and finally become distinct in behavior and body from their wild ancestors.

Domestication is thus preceded by a kind of inadvertent selection of animals who are nearby, useful, or pleasing, allowing them to loiter on the edges of human society.

The next step in the process involves more intention.

Those animals who are less useful or liked are abandoned, destroyed, or deterred from hanging about with us.

In this way, we select those animals who more easily submit to our breeding of them.

Finally, and most familiar, domestication involves breeding animals for specific characteristics.

Archeological evidence dates the first domesticated wolf-cum-dog at ten thousand to fourteen thousand years ago.

Dog remains have been found in trash heaps (suggesting their use as food or property) and in grave sites, their skeletons curled up aside human skeletons.

Most researchers think dogs began to associate with us even earlier, maybe many tens of thousands of years ago.

There is genetic evidence, in the form of mitochondrial DNA samples,5 of a subtle split as long as 145,000 years ago between pure wolves and those that were to become dogs.

We could call the latter wolves protodomesticators, since they had themselves changed behaviorally in ways that would later encourage humans’ interest (or merely tolerance) of them.

By the time humans came along, they might have been ripe for domesticating.

The wolves taken up by humans were probably less hunters than scavengers, less dominant and smaller than alpha wolves, and tamer.

In sum, less wolfy.

Thus, early in the development of ancient civilizations, thousands of years before domesticating any other animal, humans took this one animal with them inside the walls of their fledgling villages.

These vanguard dogs would not be mistaken as members of one of the hundreds of currently recognized dog breeds.

The short stature of the dachshund, the flattened nose of the pug—these are the results of selective breeding by humans much later.

Most dog breeds we recognize today have only been developed in the last few hundred years.

But these early dogs would have inherited the social skills and curiosity of their wolf ancestors, and would then have applied them toward cooperating with and appeasing humans as much as toward each other.

They lost some of their tendency toward pack behavior: scavengers don’t need the proclivity to hunt together.

Nor is any hierarchy relevant when you might live and eat on your own.

They were sociable but not in a social hierarchy.

The change from wolf to dog was striking in its speed.

Humans took nearly two million years to morph from Homo habilis to Homo sapiens, but the wolf leapfrogged into dogness in a fraction of the time.

Domestication mirrors what nature, through natural selection, does over hundreds of generations: a kind of artificial selection that hurries up the clock.

Dogs were the first domesticated animals, and in some ways the most surprising.

Most domestic animals are not predators.

A predator seems like an unwise choice to take into one’s home: not only would it be difficult to find provisions for a meat eater, one risks being seen as meat oneself.

And though this might make them (and has made them) good hunting pals, their main role in the last hundred years has been to be a friend and nonjudgmental confidant, not a worker.

But wolves do have features that made them terrific candidates for artificial selection.

The process favors a social animal who is behaviorally flexible, able to adjust its behavior in different settings.

Wolves are born into a pack, but only stay until they are a few years old: then they leave and find a mate, create a new pack, or join an already existing pack.

This kind of flexibility to changing status and roles is well suited to dealing with the new social unit that includes humans.

Within a pack or moving between packs, wolves would need to be attentive to the behavior of packmates—just as dogs will need to be attentive to their keepers and sensitive to their behavior.

Those early wolf-dogs meeting early human settlers would not have benefited the humans much, so they must have been valued for some other reason—say, for their companionship.

The openness of these canids allowed them to adjust to a new pack: one that would include animals of an entirely different species.