Dog Cognition 101: Domesticity ... it goes WAY Back!

PC: The Little Prince, (Osborn, 2015)

What does tamed mean? It's something that's been too often misunderstood. It actually means 'to create ties'..."

I had a lovely conversation at last night's Petminded Dog Cognition 101 meeting. Our group discussed the first lesson in the mini-course - Who are dogs? The lesson was short, but evidence of dog domestication is widespread. It can also be considered contentious.

If you ask an archeologist when dogs were first domesticated, they may say 20,000 years ago. But some question whether the bones are wolf, dog, or some other canid. Ask a geneticist, and they may say 40,000 years ago, but the evidence also suggests multiple domestication events and gene flow muddies the interpretations. Most people accept some time between 15,000 to 12,000 years ago based on our current knowledge.

What we do know is that dogs came from wolves. Genetically, their closest living ancestor is the gray wolf, although we know our dogs are not like gray wolves behaviorally. It is unlikely you would be comfortable inviting a stray wolf into your home, but you would perhaps give a stray dog a chance. So the question that no one has the answer to is, how did wolves become dogs? To be domesticated, several criteria need to be met, some of the relevant ones are: to be able to eat human food (things like starch and carbs from hunter-gatherer tribes), be friendly, and be calm in captivity. Wolves are none of that, besides, why would such a successful predator willingly be captured by humans?

Two popular theories came up during our discussion: the "Scavenger Theory" (wolves would live on the fringe of human settlements feeding off scraps and eventually moved closer into their homes) and the possibility that humans came across wolf pups and took them home. Like any good theory, both are debatable. One thing that both theories would require is that wolves would have to be less fearful of humans and humans would have to be tolerable of having wolves nearby. A lesser known explanation is the "Emotional Reactivity Hypothesis." This theory suggests that the proto-dog would have physiological variations that made it less fearful of humans, in particular, the stress hormone cortisol would decrease.

I think what's seems to matter most to us is when we started valuing proto-dogs as companions. Once again, archeology has found some answers here through dog burials. The most famous is the 14,000-year-old remains found in Germany, the Bonn-Oberkassel dog. If hunter-gatherers indeed only used dogs for hunting and guarding, then it is unlikely they would give them a proper burial. Not only that, but this puppy likely suffered from distemper, and to live as long as it did, it must have received human care. This means our ancestors most likely cared for these proto-dogs and our relationship with dogs goes way back.

PC: See Reference

We know our bond with dogs existed for thousands of years, but this still doesn't answer the question: why? Another way we can explore our relationship with dogs is through stories. We tell them today, and its likely that our ancestors did as well. So, we did the same. It brought up lots of old stories about wolves (Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George) and some new tales that I'm adding to my watch list (Wolfwalkers (Moore and Stewart, 2020)). These stories explore our link to nature by learning to communicate with wolves.

Perhaps it's our shared curiosity that drew dogs and humans together. For more engaging and enlighning conversations like this one, be sure to join us at one of our upcoming events!


PC: Losey RJ, Garvie-Lok S, Leonard JA, Katzenberg MA, Germonpre´ M, et al. (2013) Burying Dogs in Ancient Cis-Baikal, Siberia: Temporal Trends and Relationships with Human Diet and Subsistence Practices. PLoS ONE 8(5): e63740. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0063740

Skoglund, P., Ersmark, E., Palkopoulou, E. & Dalén, L. (2015) Ancient wolf genome reveals an early divergence of domestic dog ancestors and admixture into high-latitude breeds. Curr. Biol. 25, 1515–1519.

Janssens, Luc; Giemsch, Liane; Schmitz, Ralf; Street, Martin; Van Dongen, Stefan (2018). A new look at an old dog: Bonn-Oberkassel reconsidered. Journal of Archaeological Science, (), S0305440318300049–. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2018.01.004

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