From wolves to dogs: the latest news about the domestication of man’s best friend

Veterinarians, scientists and animal lovers alike, are forever pondering the nature of the special relationship between man and dog. The pet that earned the name of ‘man’s best friend’ following many years of successful coexistence, did not always exist as we know and love it today. In fact, it has evolved from wolf to dog. A mysterious process of evolution has led to the animal’s domestication, which took place thousands of years ago; but how did it happen?

The domestication of wolves solely thanks to man?

We are still a long way off from knowing with certainty how wolves became dogs, man’s modern-day companions. In the short movie, The Promise, directed by Gabriele Salvatores and produced by Almo Nature, gaps in scientific reconstruction are compensated by imagination, which surmises that in return for eternal compliance with the pack, man had the chance to coexist with wolves that evolved to become the dogs we know today.

Until recently, the belief of much of the scientific community surrounding the canid’s evolution was based on the theory formulated by scientist Francis Galton. According to the British scholar, humans domesticated the wolf. This, he theorised, began when man took wolf pups back to their camp and raised them as pets.

 

From wolf to dog: the idea of self-domestication

Today, it is accepted that Galton’s theory has some glaring weaknesses in understanding the complex relationship established between dog and man. For example, it overlooked the fact that the transition from wolf to dog likely occurred over the course of thousands of years. Scientists also believe that living together in human camps would not have been enough to completely change the nature of the wolf pups from wild to domestic. That’s why now we talk about the hypothesis of self-domestication. The way the self-domestication theory goes is that the first humans left some animal carcasses outside their settlements to attract predators such as wolves. The bravest among the wolves did not hesitate to approach, presumably marking the start of the millennial relationship with man. Thanks to the food provided by humans and their increasing confidence to approach and consume it, the wolves grew stronger, multiplied and took on the new, clearly defined role of shepherd, keeper, hunting mate within the human settlements.

Supporting this view is a study carried out by scientists from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. While comparing skeletons of dogs and wolves from private and museum collections from around the world the scientists found credible evidence of domestication. Their studies revealed the flattening of the tips of the dorsal vertebrae of the ancient dogs, presumably a result of them being used to transport heavy loads on their backs. The researchers also found that the dogs’ skeletons were missing pairs of molars in the lower jaw possibly indicating that the ‘wolf-dogs’ wore bridles for towing. These new and intriguing theories don’t end there: we have already talked in a previous blog post about another hypothesis concerning the influence of humans on the hunting methods of wolves, all these theories and discoveries combine to further cement the special chemistry between man and predator.