Dogs in the wild: Thoughts on the domestication of our furry friends

This entry is published on Medium. You can find the entry here:

A recent encounter with a bobcat while jogging had me thinking about how we must have domesticated our closest friends, dogs.

While we can’t say for certain, deeper thinking about the circumstances can shift the probability in favor of one scenario over another.

Dogs probably were not domesticated at a campfire as you would have seen frequently in movies or in portrayals of ice age ancestors. There would not have been a bridging moment where a human extends out their hand to have a hungry wolf take up a meal as theorized by countless of people and which is accepted as the conventional account of things.

There would have been no smooth transition in the final stages of bringing our species together, but rather a jump.

Here’s why I believe so:

While it is true that the two species (wolves and humans) must have inhabited the same territories and likely pursued the same prey. When a wolf is tossed a piece of meat, it is similar to tossing a meal to a coyote or to a raccoon, bear or to a seagull for that matter. It is giving a wild animal that lives in close proximity to humans food. They live near us, we live near them. We toss them food, they run away to eat dinner.

With repeated interaction, a specific pack or specific animal might have created a bond with a specific human group. That bond happens with all sorts of animals each and every day.

At the end of the day, an animal that is fed would have likely run off to eat the meal, perhaps going back to share that meal with its kin. It may have grown unafraid of humans and may have trailed a group of benevolent humans, but not likely would have crossed the final line into domestication and living with humans through simple feeding.

I would love for the narrative to be redrawn in a similar way that it has been for Columbus’ discovery of the Americas and other such events.

What seems more likely to be true, during the pivotal event that leads to domestication, is that humans came upon a young wolf pup(s) and they were raised with humans. Another piece of empirical evidence that points me in this direction is the fact that nearly half of the world’s dogs today are not pets and once on the street it is very hard to domesticate them.

The critical ingredients I believe in creating an initial bridge between the two species would have been:

  1. Relative youth: The impressionability of that animal would have been important
  2. Isolation from its pack: Being raised by humans and not being raised as a wolf

I believe all circumstances for which a wolf would come into a human group are on the table, if satisfying those two conditions. While it is true that an orphaned, hungry wolf pup may have approached humans at a campfire and decided on its own to join the human group, most likely, it would have had to be (1) young and (2) isolated.

The first domesticated animal would have needed to find a mate too in order to reproduce, in the wild or with kin in this first generation. Coming upon a litter, may have satisfied this.

It was almost certainly not an adult animal as seen in so many representations of this event. Humans, more likely than not would have found a pup, a litter or known the mother of the pup and raised it, either as a pet or for food etc as we have with other domesticated animals.

Once the dog is raised in the human group, its subsequent progeny are subject to selection pressure by humans, and that is how we get the cute and cuddly dogs we know today.

As a last point, there are cases where the reverse happens, feral children are raised with animals, and it is almost always the case that a child is lost to human society and is raised with another species. It is not by increments but by jumps that a feral child ends up with a pack.

With over 471 million pet dogs and 900 million dogs on the planet, I wanted to share this and rewrite the narrative, as there seems so many speculations and misrepresentations about this event: the domestication of dogs.

The last step was not smooth, but rather a jump.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.