Dogs That Changed the World
What caused the domestication of wolves?

What caused the domestication of wolves?

Traditionally, the experts studying the evolution of modern dogs believed that domestication was a conscious effort of humans. The theory was that ancient people took wolf pups from their dens, adopted them, fed them, trained and tamed them.

Biologist Raymond Coppinger, who has spent over 45 years working with and studying dogs, says that this story is nothing more than a romantic fairy tale. “I call it a ‘just so’ story. Nobody who has ever trained a wolf had any success if they started after 19 days,” says Coppinger, a professor of biology and animal behavior at Hampshire College in Massachusetts.

“We’ve got a graduate student doing it now. You take them out of the den when they are 13 days old and their eyes aren’t open, and you spend 24 hours a day with them, socializing them with people, bottle feeding them. You have to have a time surplus society like mine, where you have graduate students with nothing else to do. Mesolithic people would have been struggling for life. They wouldn’t have had time.” In addition, Coppinger says, even tamed wolves aren’t likely to be docile when it comes to food-or breeding. “I work with tamed wolves all the time. I don’t care how tame they are, try to take their bone away. It’s even worse when it comes to breeding. You start to fool around with wolves when they’re in a courtship performance, you could die right there on the spot.”

Biologist Raymond Coppinger Coppinger has another idea: the wolves domesticated themselves. He suspects that the process would have begun at the end of the last Ice-Age approximately 15,000 years ago when people began to gather and live in one place for the first time. The appearance of these villages was fairly rapid and coincidental with the fossil evidence of dogs as we know them.

“People are organized into continuous settlements — villages where they remain for a long period of time, whether there were sitting on the edge of a shell fishery or on the edge of a coral reef. When humans live in the same spot for a long period of time, they create waste, including both sewage and, more importantly for the dog, leftovers. There are things people can’t eat, seeds that fall on the ground, things that have gone bad,” Coppinger says, “The garbage, which might be found in dumps, or just scattered near houses, attracts scavengers: cockroaches, pigeons, rats, jackals — and wolves.”

Coppinger believes that a behavioral characteristic called “flight distance” was crucial to the transformation from wild wolf to the ancestors of the modern dog. It represents how close an animal will allow humans (or anything else it perceives as dangerous) to get before it runs away. Animals with shorter flight distances will linger, and feed, when humans are close by; this behavioral trait would have been passed on to successive generations, and amplified, creating animals that are increasingly more comfortable around humans. “My argument is that what domesticated — or tame — means is to be able to eat in the presence of human beings. That is the thing that wild wolves can’t do.”

  • Gracchus

    Flight distance seems not enough, intelligence should be add in the equation. By being intelligent, an animal can detect aggressive from passive stance, irrespective from distance of the trespasser. The dog wolf seems more able to detect our intentions via intelligence or social empathy.

  • T.R. Morris, ND

    I agree and also appreciate the notion that some subset of low flight distance wolves may have learned to follow (and eventually lead) humans on hunting expeditions. This kind of collusion could have added to the success of each species and become a selective factor in the evolution of both man and the burgeoning domestic canine. This relationship could also explain some of the ready instincts of the modern hunting breeds.

  • S.J. Traeger

    I think that dog temperament plays a large part in this as humans would be very unlikely to allow an animal exhibiting any aggression whatsoever to be in the presence of their children. What likely occured was the most docile animals were adopted as a curiosity and later utilised as a tool in hunting. When litters were born, any pubs exhibiting aggressive tendencies would have been culled and only the most docile allowed to breed, just as top breeders do to this day. So rather than natural selection having its way, humans guided the process which afforded humans with the many forms of domesticated dogs that exist today.

  • Paul Brewer-Jensen

    Gracchus,

    In the program it states that the size of the brain shrank during the selective process going from wolf to dog. Are you suggesting that a smaller brain correlates to greater intelligence? The effect on brain size of the domestication of other mammals is similar. read http://www.primitivism.com/domestic.htm for more details. I would argue that the same phenomenon applies to most domesticated humans as well.

    I think the smarter wolves, wisely, kept their distance from humans.

  • Carisa Gaghan

    I was wondeding, if wolves than turned into domesticated dogs, how long would it take for it to be a chawawa or a poodle. That couldn’t be just wolves. We helped in the way so I think wolves didn’t make all dogs, they made some, but humans mostly breeded the dogs to make new species. :-)

  • Betsy DeMarino, V.M,D.

    An important criterion for domestication in addition to flight distance was the ability of the wolf-to dog precursors to be able to read human expression and body language to know what human intentions were…something wolves and other wild canidae may not have developed even to the current day. This important trait allowed them to know who meant them harm and who might toss them a scrap. Dogs have been working that angle to their advantage ever since.

  • Wabishkewajiw

    On a hunt for white tailed deer with my family I noticed a coyote circling our hunt. It stayed outside our circle, but remained close by. I assumed he was waiting for the fresh gut pile that would be left following a kill. As the coyote circled the hunt it yelped and howled as if to keep any deer from trying to get out of the hunt. I thought about this behavior for awhile. Maybe we began our lives together by hunting together.

  • Wabishkewajiw

    In follow up to my last comment. Wolves or coyotes that have been banned from the pack, such as perhaps “my coyote,” quickly learn where an easy meal comes from. We actually can survive on almost the same diet as my Native American Ancestors did with the wolves. Wolves and coyotes didn’t follow them because they could pick up leftover squash.

    My ancestors learned to live in harmony with the wolf and other wild animals. The stories from Native Americans about the wolf and coyote are not legend (legend denotes some untruth from my point of view). They are our oral history that has been passed down through generations.

    They are one of our main family clans in my tribe.
    I love the Wolf!!! I have dreams about them.

  • Elizabeth Meyer

    Wabishkewajiw, I believe you are right. We as humans are animals too. We are all related and have connections that are rarely sought or realized! If only more people could understand and embrace our kin with animals. It is what we lack most in our world, is our connection to our environment and every living creature!
    I would also like to comment on the temperament of dogs breeds. My family and i had a dog who became aggressive to my children. We couldnt understand because we treated him well and he was vert protective of them. After biting both my children badly, i had to ethanize him. It was heart breaking, and we mourned him. We did do some research on his breed, and learned that although he was protective of the children, he viewed them as “lower” in the pack order. He bit them over food, so it seemed correct. AND after watching both programs on IPTV we learned that his breed was selected for those tendancies to be aggressive and fiercly protective. Had we known, or done research before he was given to us, we would not have taken him. Or at least would have found an appropriate outlet for his tendancies.

  • billy bob joe

    hello my name is billy bob joe and i love wolves they are awesome and pretty many people are also wolf lovers but i am definently one of the biggest i have been to yellow stone national park and o my! we saw 4 different wolf packs! all with beautiful leaders that were as brave as could be! when we were down there we heard about the most famous wolf pack and they had been going from farm to farm house to house and most of the residents had agreed to kill the leader. she was the most BEAUTIFUL wolf i have ever seen and she was on a role with her group. since they made this decision, the pack was almost destrioed until a male came and put every thing back in to place!
    thankyou tor reading
    billy
    bob
    joe!

  • Kim

    In response to: I was wondeding, if wolves than turned into domesticated dogs, how long would it take for it to be a chawawa or a poodle. That couldn’t be just wolves. We helped in the way so I think wolves didn’t make all dogs, they made some, but humans mostly breeded the dogs to make new species. :-)

    All dogs are the same species, they just have different genetic traits. If you watch the show they go into great detail about how the canine genes have an amazing ability to adapt certain traits from one generation to the next. In the Victorian times (can’t remember the years it says in the programs), but people figured this out and began breeding dogs based on their appearance. In the past dogs were selectivly breed for their ability, mainly hunting.

  • Elyse Skeoch

    Elizabeth Meyer – “My family and i had a dog who became aggressive to my children. We couldnt understand because we treated him well and he was vert protective of them. After biting both my children badly, i had to ethanize him. It was heart breaking, and we mourned him. We did do some research on his breed, and learned that although he was protective of the children, he viewed them as “lower” in the pack order. He bit them over food, so it seemed correct. AND after watching both programs on IPTV we learned that his breed was selected for those tendancies to be aggressive and fiercly protective.”

    It is a common misconception that aggression is due to a particular breed of dog. Yes, dogs have been bred to do certain jobs (Border Collies are for herding livestock, and Bull Mastiff’s were to guard prisons) and so still have their natural “instincts” in them today. But, the truth is, we humans have the power to manipulate dog behaviour and prevent these bad instincts from escalating into something like aggression. Simply by regular training and a better understanding – we can stop dogs from believing they are the pack leader (such as your dog did) and therefore prevent dominant (and dangerous) behaviour. Dogs can be followers just as easily as they can be leaders. The owners of the dog (that is, the whole family) need to take the leader role, and this can be easily achieved with proper training and understanding. I believe with all my heart (and 15 years of experience in the dog industry) that there are no bad breeds, only bad or uneducated owners.

  • Ruth

    If any of you are interested in how the dog began to develop all the physical and behavioral differences from wolves which we see today based just on the tameness factor, or if you doubt that dogs domesticated themselves then check this out.

    http://www.floridalupine.org/publications/PDF/trut-fox-study.pdf.
    This experiment shows just how much resource and time is needed to domesticate these animals and shows that it must have begun by dogs moving closer themselves in a time when people had niether the time nor the knowledge to attempt to start the process.

  • Sarah

    I question the 15K timing as food production begins only 10K years ago and in very limited areas. Without food production (versus food foraging) there is no settlement. HOWEVER, people who are foragers spend varying amounts of time in one place as they forage. The more resources the longer they could stay in a place. That means that dogs could have adapted to foragers who stayed relatively long enough to create trash heaps, etc. Makes sense then that dogs domesticated themselves.

  • Joel

    Again, I think we are looking at about 100,000 years ago humans and dogs began to interact. I believe humans began to domestic wolves (dogs) , but more important, wolves/dogs began to domestic humans. We can not use today’s relationship between dogs and humans to completely understand what life was like 100,000 years ago. Just in my lifetime, dogs have gone from running the neighborhoods to having to be on a leash. I think wolves/dogs were projects of the children of primitive times. Maybe wolf cubs were given as gifts. In any case, as we evolved more neoteny flavors in the past 100,000 years, so has the wolf/dog.
    I don’t know why this particular study shows 15,000 years for dogs. Maybe there was some interbreeding with the wild version up until that time. I think further study will put the start of domestication at about 100,000 years.

  • Forrest in Tennessee

    I think biologist Coppinger has a solid theory, but it does have problems and is not a complete explanation. For example, it seems that early peoples seeing a wolf nearby feeding on their piles of refuse would view them as potentially dangerous and as competitors for their limited resources and would intentionally scare them off . The program also does not explain how wolves gave up howling and began to bark, an attribute useful to humans so they would know of the approach of enemies far earlier than their own senses provide. I’d like to see flight distance experiments done with wolves, not foxes, as well. In sum, I think the way man and canines came together is much more complex than Coppinger’s simple theory can explain

  • anne

    as a young child in east texas i lived in a very isolated and forested area. a pack of wolves in the forest near my house allowed me to interact and play with them. i could stand in the clearing and howl, they would answer and come. my stepfather almost had a heart attack the day he made me demonstrate that i was not lying and one of my wolves answered and came. several years later when i was a teenager something was attacking cattle in the area. when asked about it, i tried to tell the adults it was not wolves but domestic dogs due to the nature of the animals being attacked (fully grown cows in their prime), the nature of the attack itself (hamstrung and then throat savaged) but most of all, none of the cows were eaten at all. Just murdered. they did not listen and organized hunting parties and destroyed all the wolf packs in the area. needless to say, the attacks continued and it was later found that the herd owners own dog and his uncles two dogs (all german sheperds) were the ones killing the cattle. too late for my friends. i still grieve.

  • Jerry

    It seems a plausible starting point as a hypothesis. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to many places in the tropics on photo safaris and in many of these field camps all sorts of animals, from forest pigs to monitor lizards, begin to establish near the camps to feed on the trash. As well you get small mammals like civets that come in at night to forage for an easy meal. These habituated pigs allow contact are are curious, so a similar theory might explain the initial stages of domestication of pigs, goats, forest fowl and perhaps cats (which would be tolerated because they also feed on vermin). Pigs might have been selectively culled outside the view of other members of the species. Civet cats are caught as young and raised as pets.

    Many foragers can establish quite long-term settlements provided that agricultural peoples haven’t marginalized them to more extreme habitats. Many Upper Paleolithic sites indicate long-term occupation, not a simple overnight hunting camp. There are lots of trash buildup in theses sites, and others had middens of like shell-mounds and such. Successful hunting of large animals eventually would result in spoiled meat that might be discarded by the human group, but still edible to the canid associates. Perhaps allowing these proto-dogs near the camp was beneficial in keeping flies, rats, and the stench down…and thus benefit group health?

    One issue is how the actual speciation event with wolves would have occurred…what would have prevented the genes of these self-domesticated wolves from being constantly infused with outside genes of wolves. Perhaps the early foragers themselves created a zone devoid of wolves by killing them or culling so much game that wolves spaced themselves away from the human hunting groups?

  • Pastshelfdate

    Thank you for the text version. I did get to see this episode, when I woke up very early and couldn’t get back to sleep. I’m sorry you ran out of space. The most striking segment of the episode, regarding domestication of dogs, was coverage of the Soviet experiment with breeding foxes for docility.

    Selecting and breeding among the foxes most relaxed around humans did more than create healthy small dogs. Their markings became widely varied. There appeared to be some link between the genes for shorter flight distance (See above.) and coat markings. Over the centuries, this tendency of variation has only grown.

    Thank you for a wonderful episode.

  • Teanna Byerts

    Bernd Heinrich, in “Mind of the Raven” observes ravens and wolves interacting; ravens apparently leading wolves ot prey and then sharing in the kill. He also notes that baffin Island Native hunters interact with ravens, following them to potential prey (and sharing it). Seems likely that early hunters, wolves and scavengers would have closely interacted… and ultimately, domestication would happen.

    PS…it might seem odd to thinnk of a Chihuahua as a descendant of Wolf. But anyone who’s lived with northern breeds knows it’s only a few tweaks of the genome between Wolf and Husky. And Afghans (”Sighthounds are among the oldest recognisable types of dogs, and genetic testing has placed the Afghan Hound breed among those with the least genetic divergence from the wolf on some markers”), despite their fashion accessory look, are brilliant primitive hunters.

  • Les in BC

    I agree very strongly with Mr. Coppinger. Having lived in Northern Canada from childhood to retirement age, we basically lived with one generational family of wolves. Though they had little fear of our family and having the females using our yard as a protection area when whelping, they still maintained their wild behaviours outside of our yard.

    Each wolf has a distinct personality difference much the same as a human. We would have certain wolves over the years that preferred to live amongst our family (not in our house) but within a few feet of our family’s presence. We fully understood the dangers of these animals; however, it was they who had adopted our family as their own families. Periodically they would snap at us but never to the point of causing injury other than a red mark from a more or less gentle jaw clamp or a playful scratch from actually playing with members of our family.

    With the above being said, an animal will never lose their wild instincts completely. They merely tolerate us humans as long as we are their source of provided food and shelter protection.

  • Dog Backpacks

    The concept of the dog backpack is not a very new idea. As long as dogs have been part of the domesticated lifestyle of mankind, people have utilized their dogs by creating dog backpacks for them so that they can help carry the load where ever they are going. In today’s society, it is more of a luxury item then an item of necessity or survival. Today, dog backpacks are very popular with those hiking and camping on or along the great trails and wilderness sites of the world. There are a few things to consider, however, before going on your trip with your canine pal loaded up with camping gear.

  • Cynthia Echterling

    I think wolves probably began the process by following hunting parties before humans settled down after the ice age and scavanging off of large game kills. Even then, the relationship between wolf/dog and hunter may have begun forming — learning each others hunting techniques and body language. They would have still been wolves, but impossible for later paleontologists to recognize as having a relationship with humans. As humans settled, so did the wolves as scavengers of garbage middens. We both learned to fear each other less and learn each others non-verbal cues. Only when wolves became less dangerous to our young in particular would we have taken the risk of bringing puppies into our homes. Then keeping the best hunters, most docile dogs might have begun. Bite the baby, you die. Of course what I rarely see mentioned is how to trained us to respond to their language. How many of us can resist big puppy eyes with out giving food, or the urge to rub a tummy, or groom dogs with our hands? We “domesticated” each other.

  • Belieber

    I think wolves probably began the process by following hunting parties before humans settled down after the ice age and scavanging off of large game kills. Even then, the relationship between wolf/dog and hunter may have begun forming — learning each others hunting techniques and body language. They would have still been wolves, but impossible for later paleontologists to recognize as having a relationship with humans. As humans settled, so did the wolves as scavengers of garbage middens. We both learned to fear each other less and learn each others non-verbal cues. Only when wolves became less dangerous to our young in particular would we have taken the risk of bringing puppies into our homes. Then keeping the best hunters, most docile dogs might have begun. Bite the baby, you die. Of course what I rarely see mentioned is how to trained us to respond to their language. How many of us can resist big puppy eyes with out giving food, or the urge to rub a tummy, or groom dogs with our hands? We “domesticated” each other.

  • Caroline

    MY “Gracie” was the best dog per say.I have always had dogs since I was a little girl I came upon Gracie when she was about 3 months old, I though she was a beautiful dog, later to find out that she was a wolf pup, I kept her and registered her as a AKita Wolf, for 13 years she was my girl, after 13 years she was arthoritic and had to be put to sleep, I cried etc. but it had to be done for her pain was to much , I now live in an apartment and cannot have such a large animal especially a wolf but if I could I would. She did have a time of trying the Alpha Omega status, but I talked to her and since than she and I were the best of friends and I became the Alpha, She did not like or obey my husband and she was so lovable she was a mother to my cat (s) and never hurt them, but was very territorial from the sidewalk up the driveway, but only her beautiful face and body was enough to let others know that she was the boss. I have so many stories to tell about my wolf girl I miss her so much and now at my age I am thinking of getting a dog . But there will never be a friend like MY GRACIE THE WOLF GIRL.

  • doug

    please! temperament and agression vary with breeds..No there are no inherently dangerous breeds of dog but a dog and wolf and coyote all have very different temperaments, some willful and others nurturing and it utterly behooves owners to get the proper level of social adaptability for family dogs! You dont want a coyote baby sitting but yeah they can be socialized..but not on fifteen minutes per day! A guard breed bites with crushing strength and the gentle herding breeds with high nurturing behaviors will not harm an injured bird or ever bite, even when in pain and they have a gentle mouth incapable of doing damage..Huge differences in temperament and agression levels between breeds..nothing to do with training or socialization..be aware.

  • Cheryl Wolfe-Bryan

    It’s just my opinion…and we all have one! I have studied wolves for some time..I am old…I believed wolves and humans domesticated each other…..some fossil records show this. And yes, humans have breeded all the way down to a chihuahua…..Caroline, I have raised a wolf hybrid (McKensey Valley wolf to a registered white german sheperd). She was registered with the Wolf Breeders of America. She was my daughter..I raised her when my youngest was 16 years old and she behaved as a sibling with him and I and my fiance’ at the time were the alphas. It was so awesome to see the wild and inate behaviors in my Sierra Weiss!!! But we always had to win, yet we did not use physically abuse. A lot of positive reinforcement, early socialization in townhouses, a lot of personal attention and a cupped hand over her muzzle when needing to be corrected made people comment on what a well behaved “dog” she was ! They were totally amazed upon learning she was part wolf. I have always loved wolves even before I married into the name and I didn’t get her until the ex was gone. I have had all breeds of dogs since I was 4 years old. I had raised two sons with the married name Wolfe and wanted so badly a daughter. I had her for 2 days short of her 11th birthday when the arthritis medicine she had been on for over a year caused the liver to shut down. As she slipped away the vet was more worried about my health because of my hysteria at loosing her….I can tell of many learning experiences both for Serra and me and I miss her to this day, and that was 7 years ago…..To Gracie and Sierra! their memory will live on, most likely forever for us!!!

  • femi

    dog is a domestic animal

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