Domestic: Our best (selectively bred) friend


When Wild Dog reached the mouth of the Cave he lifted up the dried horse-skin with his nose and sniffed the beautiful smell of the roast mutton, and the Woman, looking at the blade-bone, heard him, and laughed, and said, ‘Here comes the first. Wild Thing out of the Wild Woods, what do you want?’

Wild Dog said, ‘O my Enemy and Wife of my Enemy, what is this that smells so good in the Wild Woods?’

Then the Woman picked up a roasted mutton-bone and threw it to Wild Dog, and said, ‘Wild Thing out of the Wild Woods, taste and try.’ Wild Dog gnawed the bone, and it was more delicious than anything he had ever tasted, and he said, ‘O my Enemy and Wife of my Enemy, give me another.’

The Woman said, ‘Wild Thing out of the Wild Woods, help my Man to hunt through the day and guard this Cave at night, and I will give you as many roast bones as you need.’

Wild Dog crawled into the Cave and laid his head on the Woman’s lap, and said, ‘O my Friend and Wife of my Friend, I will help Your Man to hunt through the day, and at night I will guard your Cave.’

When the Man waked up he said, ‘What is Wild Dog doing here?’ And the Woman said, ‘His name is not Wild Dog any more, but the First Friend, because he will be our friend for always and always and always. Take him with you when you go hunting.’

-Excerpt from Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling

Dogs were domesticated 9000-34000 years ago. Recent research has suggested that dogs and grey wolves share a common ancestor rather than the idea that modern dogs descended from a group of grey wolves. How dogs were domesticated is still debated. One claim suggests that humans captured wolf pups and selectively bred them by allowing tamer captured wolves to breed. Another claim is self-domestication where wild wolves less afraid of humans would approach human camps and feed on the leftovers. These wolves survive better as they are able to easily obtain food and their numbers increase via natural selection. Perhaps the latter claim suggesting natural selection might better explain the divergence of wolves and dogs from their common ancestor. I might suggest that appearance of permanent human settlements triggered the diversifying selection for tamer wolves, which thrive better with humans, and more human-independent wolves, which thrive better in the wild.

Dogs are evident of animals having close relationships and in some cases highly dependent on humans as seen in bulldogs which usually require artificial insemination and cesarean section due to their body shape. They mostly rely on humans for food and shelter while both sides benefit from each others companionship.

The Bond

Being able to read human signals is what makes dogs so special. Dorey et al. (2010), in a study to investigate at what age do dogs become able to follow human points, showed that puppies become better at following momentary proximal points to find hidden food as they get older. This shows the ability of dogs to learn to read human social cues as they age. There is still some debate over whether dogs are born with this ability or acquire it as they age but the presence of the ability is proven.

In a study done by Miklósi (2003), dogs when faced with an insoluble problem are much more likely and quicker then socialised wolves to look back at the human experimenter and gaze for longer periods of time. He suggests that this communicative contact with humans seem to be genetically predisposed as this behavior was difficult to be induced in socialised wolves. 

Topál et al. (2005) stated that “…dogs have evolved a capacity for attachment to humans that is functionally analogous to that present in human infants.” and Prato-Previde (2003) “Our observations during separation episodes (ep. 3, 6, 5 and 8) show that the dogs’ search behaviours closely resembled those described in human infants and chimpanzees and included following the owner to the door, scratching at and jumping up on the door, puling on the door handle with the forelegs or mouth, remaining oriented to the door, going to the owner’s empty chair or looking at it from a distance.”

Both studies used the Strange Situation procedure which was originally used by psychologist Mary Ainsworth to study human infant-mother relationship. The following video shows the procedure. Simply replace the baby with the dog and you will get the general gist of the experiments.

You might have thought that the dog-human relationship was similar to that of a wolf pack in which the human is the “alpha” but it turns out that is not really true. It must be reminded that dogs are NOT wolves despite being the same species under Canis lupus. There are still many people trying to assert dominance on their dogs during training which might be excessive or even pointless.

The narrator mentions how humans can control dogs with our superior minds. This is much less stranger then having humans resort to dog behaviors and actions to communicate with dogs. Afterall, we have no tails to wag and certainly do not often growl or whine to communicate with fellow humans.

Selectively bred

Selective breeding is the process where a characteristic (physical and/or behavioral) is selected for in a species. The mating pair with the desired characteristic or the lack of an undesired characteristic is allowed to breed and hopefully pass the genes of the selected characteristic to their offspring. This has given rise to dogs with unique characteristics such as the size of chihuahuas and the face of pugs. Strangely enough, some of the oldest dog breeds look quite different from modern wolves such as the saluki and the chinese shar pei as one would expect.

Selective breeding occurrs all the time. Pure breed dog lines are strictly monitored to prevent any cross-breeding while new breeds are still being created and refined. The Dire Wolf Project started in 1987 hopes to create a breed that physically resembles the extinct dire wolf but with a gentle and mellow temperament. Known as the American Alastian, it is essentially a mix of Alaskan Malamute and German Shepherd with a few other mastiff breeds in the mix. Breeding dogs back to wolves, a process known as “breeding back”, and other extinct species is controversial although this project is not attempting to do so. It seems possible in theory but genetics is extremely complex. Some claim that cross breeding all existing dog breeds will give you a wolf.

Watching through many Animal Planet Dog 101 videos on YouTube, I realise that certain breeds are susceptible to specific health problems. This is a result of selective breeding done without regard for the health of the breed. The short legs and long back of Dachshunds often causes them to suffer from ruptured vertebral disks while deep-chested breeds such as the Great Dane commonly suffer from gastric torsion.

Dogs have also been selectively bred for behavior to carry out different jobs ranging from herding, hunting and simply being a lap buddy. The extent of physical and behavioral differences in dogs show how much impact humans can have on a species. This video just shows how amazing a sheepdog (in this case a border collie) can respond to commands of its owner.

The relationship humans have with dogs is wonderful and unique. Communication goes both ways although the extent of understanding from the dog is questionable. The compliance of the dog has allowed intelligent humans to domesticate and teach them various commands such that a dog acts as an extension of its owner. This is certainly a win-win relationship with both sides benefiting. Is this the kind of relationship we should aim for with nature?   

Non-academic sources

Academic sources
Dorey, N. R., Udell, M. A., & Wynne, C. D., 2010. When do domestic dogs,Canis familiaris, start to understand human pointing? The role of ontogeny in the development of interspecies communication. Animal Behaviour,79(1): 37-41.

Miklósi, Á., Kubinyi, E., Topál, J., Gácsi, M., Virányi, Z., & Csányi, V., 2003. A simple reason for a big difference: wolves do not look back at humans, but dogs do. Current Biology, 13(9): 763-766.

Prato-Previde, E., Custance, D. M., Spiezio, C., & Sabatini, F., 2003. Is the dog-human relationship an attachment bond?   An observational study using Ainsworth’s Strange Situation. Behaviour, 140(2): 225-254.

Topál, J., Gácsi, M., Miklósi, Á., Virányi, Z., Kubinyi, E., & Csányi, V., 2005. Attachment to humans: a comparative study on hand-reared wolves and differently socialized dog puppies. Animal behaviour, 70(6): 1367-1375.


Running thoughts: The dilemma

During a cold winter day, the hedgehogs decided to huddle together for warmth. However, their spines pricked each other as they huddled close. They began to separate but the cold drives them closer and their spines once again got in the way. This repeated until they finally settled on remaining a little distance from each other.

The above  scenario was created by philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer in Parerga und Paralipomena which was published in 1851. It is known as the Hedgehog’s (or Porcupine’s) Dilemma. Originally used to explain human psychology, Hugh Warwick, author of the book ‘The Hedgehog’s Dilemma’, applies it to the relationship between humans and hedgehogs. Inspired by this thought, I began to realise the many ways in which humans and nature have come close and in some cases have hurt each other.

The hedgehogs decided on remaining enough distance away such that their spines do not prick each other yet they are still able to receive some degree of warmth in the cold. Is there a certain distance in which humans and nature should be apart such that we do not harm each other?

There are so many degrees of closeness that have occurred or are currently occurring between humans and nature. From physical closeness of domestic animals and plants to the extent of communication between humans and animals, each living being has “spines” of a different length.

I hope to be able to uncover the “length” of as many “spines” as possible and the perfect distance, if it exists, between all the “hedgehogs” such that although we all do not get the most warmth, we are not hurting each other too.