Where Did Our Dogs Come From Part I of II

by Jennie K. Willis, PhD as printed in the Coloradoan in January of 2013

Last week, the semester began for me and for thousands of students at CSU. I teach a class on the behavior of domestic dogs and  I always start by talking about origins and the domestication because it relates to how we interact with them and work with them even today. There has been a lot of new research published  in the past ten years and that has shaped what we know about man’s best friend.

The beginning of the great dog story is found in China about 15,000 years ago.  Researchers established years ago that dogs are most closely related to wolves, but the question was, which wolf? For a while, people thought that maybe the diversity found in our breeds was due to a number of different domestication events with the subspecies all over the world. It took one researcher, who started as a forensic scientist looking at dog hairs left at crime scenes, to start realizing that some dog breeds had more genetic variation than others. Those breeds that originated in Asia were the most diverse, helping to identify a location where domestication may have taken place. The Chinese Wolf subspecies had a jaw feature that was unique in wolves, but found in all dogs. Dogs were also most similar genetically to this one subspecies.

The idea that domestication of the dog took place only once was astounding, but then the evidence of how that could take place was even more interesting. Domestication occurred at a time when human culture stopped being hunter-gatherers and started building settlements. It is very probable that wolves were attracted to us because of our garbage. We unknowingly created a new niche for wild creatures to use. When people came to dump trash, some wolves were less afraid of people than others. Those wolves stayed closer and got the garbage when it was dumped. Other wolves ran farther away and didn’t get the prize. This concept is called flight distance. Another researcher was able to test this model of domestication in another wild canine species, the Silver Fox, and it showed the same results.  Selection for less fearful animals leads to changes in other ways.

Changes that resulted from domestication when compared to wild populations:

  • Increases in barking
  • Lighter coat color, especially white markings
  • Sickle tail
  • Decreased fearfulness
  • Increase in begging behavior
  • Juvenile characteristics persisting into adulthood

Why is this important?  So much information available about dogs tells us they are little wolves. In fact, they are extremely behaviorally different now than wolves. It is quite likely that early dogs lived near early peoples not as predators, but as scavengers. The ability of dogs to cooperate with and anticipate the needs of people exceeds that of any other animal, even other primates.  Join me next time to learn more amazing facts about the origins of our domestic dogs!


Dr. Jennie Willis is an instructor of animal behavior at Colorado State University and owns a private consulting business, which provides counseling for problem pets and their people. For more information about consultation, seminars and classes please visit www.AnimalBehaviorInsights.com

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