Funny this should show up on one of my email lists:

Wolves Make Dogs’ Dinner out of Domestication Theory

Funny because a few days ago I was a participant in a discussion about Animal Cognition and an article that had appeared in National Geographic magazine in March 2008 of the same name. I had read the article and had seen various televised specials regarding it on Maryland’s PBS and the National Geographic channel.

The article appeared to contradict the recent assertions from the scientific community about animal cognition, dogs specifically; refuting the ‘theory of mind’ in which it is thought that through the evolutionary process, dogs were endowed with an ability to communicate with us in a way that wolves could not have. The experiment details the study of wolves, household (owned) dogs who fared as well and the study of institutionalized dogs in shelters, who fared poorly.

Since no-one knows for sure how domestication came to pass, the dogs aren’t talking, don’t have a written history and all of our primal ancestors are decedent; I speculate that dogs developed a symbiotic relationship with man by virtue of a common usury. Raymond Coppinger believes it had to do with the by-products of pre-civilization.

Our own waste. Middlings from our campfires, the leavings of a species on the move.

I support that theory in part only because it makes sense that we as a species are a messy lot. I can’t imagine much thought was given to concealing our waste products, but I disagree that that’s all it was. I think that early man was compelled to follow wild dogs on the hunt for game, allowing them their successes, only to drive them off and consume the game for themselves. In this way a few things may have occurred; the two species would have become quite familiar with the movements and activities of each other, become rather comfortable in a “Know Thy Enemy” sort of way and became dependent upon each other through that process.

As the millennium creeped on and the two species became more comfortable with the presence of each other, that same familiarity enabled each to become more predictable in their mutual behaviors. Since the goal of survival was the same for both, it makes sense that each could become co-dependent on the other to locate and bring down game. When game was difficult to locate, man tracked the animal tracking the game animal. If the human was successful on the hunt, there would certainly be leavings for his erstwhile canine companion from his abandoned campfires. If the wild dog was successful, man learned how to overcome his fear and scare the wild dog off of the game to consume it for himself. And still leave enough for his reluctant companions.

It becomes easy to visualize a suspension of fear between the two parties and a union develop that allowed for more intimate contact, the securing and raising of pups to do what they had always done, but this time from within the lights of the campfires.

It is not too much of a stretch to see this happening in human populations across the globe, using what raw material they had available to work with. Selection begins here, with cognitive decisions for choosing and rearing the young animals.

I believe it is not necessarily one wild dog population that acted as the genetic raw material for all dogs, but I would like to think it was many separate genetic pools that didn’t begin to intermingle until trade routes developed through the passage of man to other areas beyond his home range. A wolf on the steppes of Siberia during these times may have shared some of the genetic material as a wild counterpart in what is now known as Africa, but the diversity of each was coupled with his environment and his capability to survive in it.

The recruitment of dogs for specific tasks was a direct result of this symbiotic relationship. This symbiosis continued throughout much of the evolution of both species until within the last one hundred years. Hunting dogs will have always been first. Without them, the success of early man’s survival may have been questionable. Sentry or guarding type dogs would have been right up there with the hunting dog if not one in the same animal. To this day, there are populations of indigenous people across the globe that are wholly dependent on their dogs to help locate game, act as sentries to their villages and encampments and protect their flocks and herds from predators.

The wolves they used for this experiment were intensely socialized from early ages and trained much like a dog could be. Some of the dogs they used for the study were in effect tested twice; once in a laboratory type environment where they tested poorly and again in their own surroundings, where they fared equally with the wolves. The last group of dogs tested were dogs in an institutionalized environment like a shelter.

After reading the remainder of this post and following the links, you can draw your own conclusions both about the study and about the evolution of dogs or animal cognition on the whole.

There were studies conducted on a fox farm in Siberia more than half a century ago based on genetic selection and it’s impact on a population of foxes raised for fur. The discoveries offered telling arguments for domestication through selection for “tameness” in their pursuit of animals that were easier to handle. What transpired over many generations were measured in the alterations of physical attributes that changed along with the fox’s temperamental changes. Folding or hanging ears, alterations in coat color, tail carriage and shape. Genetically, they were still foxes.

The original foxes used in this study were wild animals who were captured and then selectively bred for their fur. Successive generations were bred specifically for tameness, proving the genetic diversity within the species itself. These successive generations were born with largely patterned coat color, soft ears, different eye colors, other physiological differences that made them more “dog-like” than fox-like.

Since the wolves in the study were trained much like one would a dog, how are their cognitive skills anything more than a by-product of that conditioning? It is clear that the dogs in the study who were tested in their own homes fared just as well and it is also clear that the institutionalized dogs failed. I construe these findings as a result of the relationships, of the training and socialization that they had received. It had nothing, in my mind, to do with genetic influence, cognition or racial differences.

Wolves and other wild canids are by nature a suspicious lot. Brilliantly observant and cautious. Their survival depends on their abilities to adapt. Through whatever domestication process that transpired, the one thing that was removed from the equation was caution. The wild beast through whatever process; capture, peripheral association, familiarity that came in some way, lost his basic fear of man and man for his part lost his fear of the wild beast.

The caution that kept the wild dog in the distance was eroded to a point to make it possible for humans to exploit it. If they captured pups in the den, these pups were raised in the company of humans for whatever length of time and the rudiments of communication must have occurred on some level. I venture to guess that even back then our progenitors knew the value of a tasty morsel when made available to a hungry animal.

Surely our ancestors knew when they were being followed and by what. I can imagine somewhere in the past when we were not the highest predator on the food chain. Just speculation on my part, but I would also venture to guess that the ‘domestication’ occurred by design when it was discovered how alike as a species we really were.

Wild dogs of any species are keen observers. They see better than the average dog, hear better than the average dog, have olfactory capabilities beyond the average dog. These are all skills necessary to make them successful predators. I would surmise that early on in our association with wild dogs that we recognized the VALUE of these attributes and learned to work with them.

One of the folks that had been discussing the National Geographic article also read the results of this study. His comment to me encapsulated my question perfectly.

He wanted to know what kind of dogs the research participants were working with.

The wolves in the study were nurtured to a point that they lost their natural caution of humans and were able to react to the test using the function of their inherent abilities. That which makes them successful predators.

The dogs used in the study ranged from the average house pet (who were tested both in the institutional environment and in their familiar surroundings) and either failed or succeeded according to the environment. In the confines of the lab, they were inhibited, cautious and failed; while tested at home they were comfortable and conversely, successful in equal measure to the wolves.

The institutionalized dogs failed miserably.

This is not a measure of cognition. This is a measure of the nurturing component that affected all three populations.

The domestic dog is considered to be the most successful species on the planet. Within his genetic potential lies the capability to reinvent himself in as many ways, with as many skills as necessary to continue to survive. Early on we found those traits to be indispensable for our own survival and began to mold them in our image.

Border Collies are the penultimate stock dog for a reason. For centuries they have been selected not only for their ability to round up sheep and deliver them to their masters’ feet, but all of the qualities that enable them to do that. Keen hearing, keen sight, a keen sense of smell and the willingness to cooperate with a human.

The hounds, all with noses like double barreled shotguns to locate game, again endowed with skills inherited from their wild ancestors. Endurance, scenting ability, excellent hearing.

Other breeds, other tasks, all extrapolations of what was considered valuable by humans and selected for.

All of these skills are the direct result of selection from an ancestor richly endowed with them. What makes them useful to us is the willingness to cooperate, a lack of inhibition and for us to recognize and select those inherent skills and direct them to a specific task. To nurture them.

So of course the wolves did well. They are naturals.

The dogs from the group of house pets also did well, but not when taken out of an environment familiar to them.

The institutionalized dogs did the worst of all the groups.

But what kind of dogs were they?

Of the institutionalized dogs, it is easy to determine that they are certainly a product of their environment. What considerations were made to their selection for this experiment? Breed? Age? Reasons for surrender? But still, there remains a question regarding their selection as dogs or rather, why they came to be? Were they purposefully bred working dogs? The product of a puppy mill or pet shop? Random-bred mutts from the cities or farm communities surrounding a particular area? What breeds did they have in common if they were of mixed ancestry? What breed or breeds did they represent if they were ‘pure’? Had there been any prior training? Was the training conducted by a professional trainer of dogs or by lab technicians much like the Scott and Fuller experiments conducted throughout the mid part of the 20th century.

Of the owned dogs, what were their statistics?

The argument that dogs ‘read’ humans better than any other animal based almost exclusively on their route to domestication just doesn’t appeal to me. I have owned, bred and trained them for many years. Although I have owned some very special dogs, they had to LEARN to read me. Once they ‘knew’ me, they could anticipate my intentions based solely on cues I offered, either with movement no matter how subtle, sounds I made no matter how hard or soft or even the casting of my eyes from one direction to another. This is a testament to their skills of observation, handed down to them from ancient contributors whose very lives depended on these same skills.

But they had to know me first. They had to adapt and conform to the signals passed on to them through me and observe the outcomes each and every time.

Does this diminish them as cognitive beings? Certainly not. It places them on a level of capability that to this day we depend upon. Since we have moved through the need for dogs as hunters and guards in most parts of the modern world, we still select for the excellence of their attributes for sport, for protection, for service and even now for detection of things as insignificant as insects and mold to life threatening cancers.

Does this make them better than wolves? No, it simply makes them less cautious.