How dogs became dogs

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When books are published there are inevitable compromises. As a writer I might think something is interesting but that may not always be the same as what an editor (or a publisher's accountant) thinks is important. For those of you who enjoyed Mark Derr's book, How The Dog Became The Dog, and would like more facts or hypotheses, the following pages are those that didn't make it into a chapter titled How Dogs Became Dogs from my book Dog.

Dogs migrate out of Asia

The first dogs were much of a muchness. No one knows what their hair was like – what colours existed or whether it was always the same length and texture – but their skeletons were all roughly similar. The majority of biologists say that around 14,000 years ago, when human culture made its transition from hunter-gatherer to a more sedentary lifestyle, that this created new selection pressures on dogs breeding. Now there were only smaller game to capture around human settlements because humans had captured the larger game and scavenging was now from less nourishing waste from settled human communities. These new realities lead to alterations in their skeletal structure that physically differentiated “proto-dogs” from local wolf populations. Their teeth became smaller and more crowded than the wolf’s and their muzzles narrower. Curiously and inexplicably, the sinuses in the skull increased in size, so dogs looked ‘brainer’ than wolves but (don’t let your dog know) the cavity in the skull for the brain became about one-third smaller. The dog’s brain became and still is considerably smaller than the brain of a wolf that’s the same size but that doesn’t mean its brain deteriorated. In fact, it improved.

I’ll explain how dogs learn in Chapter Nine but briefly there are a variety of learning centres in the brain. The wolf needed extensive brain power to mentally map large territories. It also needed brain power to determine where it was safe to build a den, where it was most productive to hunt, how best to climb the pecking order and who it was best to mate with.?Domestication reduced the need for efficiency in these learning centres while at the same time it increased the need for efficiency of other learning centres, for example, how to live and work compatibly with another species (us), how to inhibit predatory aggression towards other species (our livestock) and, better than any other species, how to read our intentions, to understand what we said with our voices or signalled we wanted with no more than a nod of the head or a look in the eye.

There were fewer dangers from other larger, carnivorous predators when den sites were around human settlements, so coat camouflage became less important, but there was one increased danger, the risk of capture by people. Captured adults were eaten immediately while pups were probably raised and fattened before they too were eaten. Some of these captives survived into adulthood and mated but now that happened under the authority and control of people. This was the true beginning of planned breeding, when we took control of the dog’s destiny.?Descendents of these dingo-sized ‘first dogs’ accompanied people as they traded, migrated or invaded. They rapidly spread throughout Asia, north into Siberia, west into Arabia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa and south into the Indo-Malay regions. As humans populated new areas of the world, the Americas, Australia and finally Polynesia and New Zealand, dogs accompanied them. These first dogs served a simple purpose. They were a ready source of food and their pups were possibly a local alarm system.

Pups weren’t much different then to what they are now. Nor were our ancestors’ instinctive reactions much different to ours. Let me give you a relatively modern but I think relevant example. A little less than 200 years ago, in 1828, a major in the British Army, visited the Aboriginal people living on Stradbroke Island off the coast of what is now Queensland, Australia. He saw a dingo pup, admired its unusual dark colour and tried to buy it from his Aboriginal owner. This was one of the first meetings between the island’s native inhabitants and Europeans and this is what Major Lockyer wrote in his diary.?“I was very anxious to get one of the wild native breed of black colour, a very handsome puppy, which one of the men had in his arms. I offered him a small axe for it; his companions urged him to take it, and he was about to do so, when he looked at the dog and the animal licked his face, which settled the business. He shook his head and determined to keep him.”

Aboriginal or European, we were suckers then, as we are now for a pup’s inherent behaviour, especially the lick on the face. That’s a puppy behaviour we’ve intentionally perpetuated into adulthood in so many dogs. As our ancestors evolved from hunter-gatherers to living in settled communities young pups would have offered amusement, even companionship although it would be thousands of years more before they efficiently assisted humans with hunting or herding.

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