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Pet Column: Did we really domesticate the wolf?

Photo by Elle Williams.

By Elle Williams, CPDT-KA  
Pet Columnist, Canyon Lake Insider 

When you think about how dogs came to be man’s best friend, you might think our ancestors found some cute wolf’s pups and raised them as our own. This way of thinking isn’t far off from how we have tamed other wild animals. But the way humans most likely domesticated wolves to become dogs is a bit more complex.

There are plenty of videos of people finding an orphaned raccoon pup and now it enjoys belly rubs on the couch and people who stumbled upon an abandoned bird’s nest and raised the birds to come back to the home at night. That’s the process of taming not dominating.

The most plausible way dogs went from wolves to couch potatoes is actually much more fascinating than humans taking in some wolf pups.

I’ll start by letting you know there is no definite answer to how wolves evolved into dogs, but we have a pretty good idea based on genetics and behavioral studies.

First off, let’s debunk the puppy theory. According to Kathryn Lord, Ph.D., the start of domestication happened over 8,000 years ago, although, it can be argued as long as 14,000 years ago. This was when humans were living nomadic lives, stone tools were relatively new, and we depended on a hunting-gathering way of living.

If we were to have brought wolf pups into our lives, they would require a lot of resources that would take away from what the humans needed. It would be up to two years of feeding a wolf pup before it would be of any use to the humans, not to mention we would have to have acquired the puppies before they were a week and a half old and stay with them 24/7 for weeks in order to socialize them to humans. And yes, there have been numerous studies doing just that. 

Mind you, we didn’t have bottles 8,000 years ago. This means, some poor human female would have had to breastfeed a wolf puppy, and if you have ever felt a young canine puppy’s teeth before, you know they are razor sharp. Ouch! That also means her milk would be divided between her human offspring and a wolf pup. That would be a poor use of a valuable resource.

There’s no benefit to raising a wolf puppy at this time in human history, the cost of resources greatly outweighs the benefits.

So here’s what most likely happened. Wolves that did not show as much flight response to the human settlements gained access to our leftovers, parts of the hunt that humans didn’t eat. Those wolves that would flight (run away) would not gain as much access to resources as those that stuck around. Those that stuck around had a greater chance of living to reproduce. Those wolves most likely had the genetic information that led to less of a flight response. With more wolves reproducing offspring with those genetics means more wolves began to hang around human settlements. Its offspring would have had more of a chance socializing to humans via smell, hearing, and sight from an early age. More importantly, during a wolf pup’s first critical socialization period (two to six weeks of age).

Humans benefiting from wolves mostly started with having a clean up service. Less flesh and bones going bad means less bacteria, predatory scavengers, bugs, and other things harmful to humans. Later down the timeline, humans got the hang of taming and training them to hunt and protect. Once those skills were established, the relationship became much stronger and both sides benefited by mutually helping each other.  

It wasn’t until more recently that humans selectively breed for desired traits such as floppy ears, coat color, tail shape, etc. In fact, the breeds we have today are, at the most, only 150 years old.

So domestication came before being tamed, adopted, and trained. That raises the question, “Did we domesticate wolves or did they domesticate to us?” Seems like we shouldn’t give our ancestors all the credit.

In the next column, we will discuss the major differences between wolves and dogs and why it’s important to know these differences while training and raising our own dogs.

Elle Williams is a local in-home dog trainer and the owner of Give a Sit Dog Training. She is certified in dog psychology, nutrition, and grooming, and specializes in basic and advanced obedience, puppy prep, and behavior adjustment training.

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