Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Purebred Dog (Part 1): From Wolf to Woof

As mentioned here, I've been toying with the idea of doing a series of blog entries regarding the purebred dog and the current controversies surrounding it. Already, as I write, I've changed my proposed order of posts and comments, so bear with me! Thinking about the purebred dog and how to approach some topics I know I want to cover, I decided that the best place to start would be at the beginning. If we are all on the same page history-wise, it will make some of my other views on the topic easier to explain and justify.

So, the beginning...of the dog! A long-held popular belief regarding the origins of our domestic dog is currently being challenged. Most of us (along with our parents, and their parents, and so on) likely grew up believing the idea that the dog first entered the lives of our prehistoric ancestors in the form of wolf pups raised by the early humans. These pups, raised by humans, lost their wild nature and became accustomed to humans, their subsequent offspring following a similar pattern. These tamed wolves eventually helped humans by alerting them to danger, guarding the village and herding livestock. Tada! Behold the domestic dog!

A different theory is gaining momentum in many circles regarding the development of the domestic dog. The idea is that early humans did not domesticate the dog...the dog domesticated itself. Biologists Raymond and Lorna Coppinger are credited by many as the progenitors of this idea and for specifics you can refer to their book. The short version of their theory is as follows:

The early domestic dog can be first found in the same fossil layers where humans were abandoning purely nomadic lifestyles to the development of more stationary communities. With these early communities came the "invention" of the trash heap. And wolves, being the opportunistic and adaptable creatures that they are, would happily scavenge in these trash piles for food. In a hunting pack situation, the strongest and most cunning animal is the most successful because they control the resources and who gets the best part of the kill. However, on the trash pile, that dynamic changes. The animal that gets the access to the freshest and largest amount of edible garbage is the animal that has the most tolerance for humans. This animal is said to have the smallest "flight distance." A wolf that doesn't leave the trash pile until a human gets 50 yards from him will get more access to better food then the wolf that bolts when a human gets within 100 yards of him. The shorter the flight distance, the more food that wolf would get and the more successful he would be.

This theory is supported by a famous study that was conducted on a fox fur farm in Russia. Click here for a link to a good article on the topic. The short version is that a biologist at a fur farm in Russia wanted to develop a line of foxes that withstood the stresses of captivity better than most foxes did. He began testing foxes by sticking a large glove into their cages. Foxes that tolerated the glove were kept in the breeding program. In effect, these were the foxes with the shortest flight distance.

Almost immediately, the foxes produced started to show changes...not only mentally and socially, but physically. The foxes were much more tame, and -- interestingly -- had white markings, and actual anatomical changes to their skull and body structure. It seemed that behavior and anatomy are connected.

This experiment, and others like it, seems to support the notion that the dog domesticated himself. Additionally, it helps explain the facts in the fossil record: the dog appeared from the wolf in an historical blink of the eye. Eventually, people figured out how to bend the very malleable genetic nature of the early domesticated dog to fit their needs.

The series will continue with discussion on the rise of the purebred dog. Stay tuned!

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