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Rethinking dog domestication

Updated: Mar 10, 2022

Researchers explain why the old story of the ‘mean wolf that turned into the friendly dog’ may be wrong.

The domestication of dogs has long been thought of in terms of an extinct species of wolf visiting hunting camps and their campfires, seeking perhaps warmth and certainly discarded food. At first, the meetings were at best cautious, but eventually the relationships became more relaxed, even familiar. Over many generations, the wolves became prowling familiarities. Their young grew friendlier, less fearful, and eventually were valued and fed by humans As our settlements became more sedentary, so wolves became dogs. In time, dogs adapted to humanly constructed environments and became less aggressive.

A nice story, but recent research has been questioning whether domesticated dogs are less aggressive and have more advanced social thinking than wolves.

New research from Austria compares not pet dogs and wild wolves, but the group dynamics of wolf packs and packs of free-ranging domestic dogs. Astonishing although this may seem, the latter comprise more than 70% of today’s domestic dogs. The new observations show that there is actually less aggression within wolf packs, for they rely on a cohesive pack structure to forge and fend their territory. Domestic pack dogs, on the other hand, do not cooperate as much, and often forage by themselves.

Indeed, research published this month has shown that dog domestication may have made dogs both less fearful and more subservient. Unlike wolves, dogs seek to avoid conflicts and are more inclined to follow rules, which makes them more viable social partners. So, dogs are not a humanly created product, but a species adapted to their unique ecological niche. Alas for the faltering evolutionary puppy-love story!

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