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Q&A with Mark Derr about Dog Origins
Venturing deep into the history of our oldest friends
sociable wolves

Mark derr, long-time Bark contributor and historian of the dog, recently released a new book, How the Dog Became the Dog, in which he examines canine evolution. Derr covers a lot of ground in this work — 135,000 years, to be precise! We talked with him about the dawn of dog, and how our evolutionary pathway coincided with theirs.

Claudia Kawczynska: Canines going from fierce predator to “loyal companion” is quite a leap. Can you sketch how and why this might have happened?
Mark Derr: The premise I start with is that, in many ways, dogs are an evolutionary inevitability. As soon as humans and wolves encountered one another on the game trails, they struck up a relationship, and they’ve been at it ever since. People and dogs have very similar social structures, and there was a level of sociability between some wolves and some people that allowed those particular individuals to come together.

So, wolves and humans had an affinity, and sociable wolves would often breed near human societies. As they began to do that, populations were established, though not everywhere and not in great numbers. One group of socialized wolves would die out and others would appear in other places at other times. There is evidence that destroying the structure of a wolf pack destroys the culture for the young, leaving them without guidance. Imagine that this happened over many, many generations, resulting in a more socialized “dogwolf” — or dog-like wolf. In that sense, you’re never going to find a single place for the [first domesticated] dog to have appeared. Rather, you have [the dog developing] wherever you have wolves and humans.

CK: What was in it for the wolves who paired up with us?
MD: Several things. Wolves hanging around humans probably ate better than “wild” wolves. They also gained sexual freedom, which is a positive thing. Raising puppies takes a lot of time and energy, but with humans around, the burden of raising the young was greatly diminished.

CK: Was this consciously directed?
MD: No, not on the part of the wolf or the human, who didn’t think about it as a benefit either. The operational presupposition is that animals don’t do things that are bad for them. So if you look at it, let’s face it … if someone comes along to help raise your offspring, you are suddenly free to do all kinds of stuff.

CK: Like getting better food to feed those offspring.
MD: I think that was a major benefit for the dogwolf. Besides, they received protection from us.

CK: Did this relationship affect our own evolution?
MD: There is no question that early humans benefited from dogs at a very fundamental level. Evidence shows that humans who hunt with dogs do much better than those who don’t, for example. So, theoretically, the quality of their food would be better. The dog also provided transport, greatly extending our reach, and protection. Having that barking wolf or dogwolf or dog alert us to strangers, who may not have had our best interests at heart, was a positive thing — it helped us stay alive to reproduce. There is also no question that dogs helped us hunt, and then control and guard, ungulates that had been domesticated by humans. Dogs have been invaluable to humans, and continue to be.

CK: You note that with genetic data pushing back the dawn of dog to perhaps 135,000 years ago, the idea of neoteny has been turned on its head. How so?
MD: Though dogs reach sexual maturity earlier than wolves, growth or development of other organs and limbs is delayed, which is called paedomorphism. Slowing the rate of development is said to lead to neoteny, the retention of juvenile traits into adulthood.

Now, the latest research shows that a small number of genes have a big effect on everything from overall size and leg length to numerous other factors. I’ve been saying that for years. I didn’t know precisely what the mechanism was, but it wasn’t paedomorphism. There are other explanations, as it turns out. Not only that, but many of the features some consider neotenic are simply creations of modern breeders, who strove to make dogs more cuddly and humanlike by selecting for rounded skulls and large, forward-facing eyes.

To reiterate an important point, which I’ve made in numerous articles in The Bark and in my books, there is no evidence that dogs originated from selftamed, submissive, neotenic wolves. That theory — which is based on dogs originating during the Mesolithic Age, when people lived in settlements with garbage dumps — is not right. Dogs evolved much earlier than that and were in the camps with the hunters and gatherers.

CK: Back when we were both hunting the same species — together or separately — is it possible that wolves were hunting us too?
MD: I don’t know of any record of wolves hunting humans, though humans have long hunted wolves. The Plains Indians had wolves around the bison they were hunting, and there is strong evidence that shows their dogs regularly crossbred with the wolves. And sometimes to the point where it was not possible to distinguish between wolf and dog. The thing about human behavior is that much of it is fixed; even the tools we use are basically the same. It might be made from different materials, but a knife is still a knife.

Take an example from Lewis and Clark, who describe great herds of bison out there on the plains, and the Indians who hunted them with their dogs. The wolf is described by Lewis as the “shepherd” of the bison. The way wolves hunt really isn’t that much different than the way herding dogs gather animals.

People like Barry Lopez have done work on the business of wolves and human cultures, and why wolves are so distrusted by humans. The answer, I suspect, is that once dogs and agriculture were firmly established, a divorce occurred between humans and wolves (and other wildlife), because those animals were seen as threatening our livelihoods. At some point, the wolf became a competitor — an enemy, even — not because it was hunting us, but because it was taking our livestock. The mediating force is the dog.

More recently, the conservation movement established a sharp divide between the wild and the built, a divide that really shouldn’t exist, but does. At that point, the wolf became one thing and the dog became another, and they are in opposition rather than what they are, which is very closely related. I don’t think that the wolf has ever been an enemy of humans, but I could be wrong.

CK: Pat Shipman, archaeologist and author of The Animal Connection, pointed out that it was unlikely that wolf packs tracked nomadic hunters in order to live off their spoils (among other things) because those wolves would have had to cross the territory of other wolves, which would have been highly dangerous for them. So it was more likely that the dogwolf and the human were partners in the hunt. What’s your take on that?
MD: I agree. The other thing is — and this goes back to the food issue — humans are much more prof ligate hunters than wolves, and also take reproducing-age adults. Those are usually the strongest animals, and provide the best and most food. Wolves take the old and the young. Interestingly enough, once humans domesticated animals, we also tended to cull the very young and the beyond-reproduction-age females. So we came to eat more like wolves. I also firmly believe that humans and wolves just liked each other.

CK: Besides our shared characteristics, what else do we have in common with dogs?
MD: We are both extremely defensive of our territory, protecting home and hearth no matter where that is. We also both like to be on the move — we like going walkabout. Anybody who has dogs knows they love to come out with you. Dogs like to go for rides. Or, open a gate and the dog is gone. We value one another’s companionship, and we keep each other warm at night.

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 69: Mar/Apr/May 2012
Claudia Kawczynska is The Bark's co-founder and editor in chief. thebark.com

Illustration Amadeo Bachar

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