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Dogor—Dog Or Wolf?

Frozen puppy in Siberia a puzzling discovery
By Karen B. London PhD, December 2019, Updated June 2021

An 18,000-year-old puppy frozen in the Siberian permafrost was uncovered with its fur, nose, mouth and even its whiskers intact. It is so well preserved that researchers could determine that it was about two months old when it died (based at least partly on examination of its milk teeth), and could also extract DNA from a rib bone. Two separate analyses of the DNA have been conducted, allowing researchers to determine that the puppy was male, but the genetic material could not resolve a fundamental question: Is the puppy a dog or a wolf?

The puppy has been named Dogor, which has two meanings. One, it is the beginning of the question, “Dog or wolf?” Two, it means “friend” in Yakut, a Turkic language spoken by nearly half a million native speakers in eastern Siberia.

Usually, it is possible to distinguish dogs and wolves in preserved canines, but not this time. That could mean that this individual is from a population that was ancestral to both dogs and wolves or that it lived not long after the two lineages split. The find is exciting no matter which of these options is true because Dogor lived at a very interesting time in canine evolution—around the time that early dogs began to emerge.

There is more analysis to be done, and scientists are hopeful that a third genetic analysis may help resolve the question of whether Dogor is a wolf or a dog. Also, additional specimens are likely to be found in the near future. The Siberian permafrost is melting due to climate change, and many ancient animals have been found in recent years.

If Dogor is indeed a dog, it is the oldest one known. The next oldest is the Bonn-Oberkassel puppy, which dates back over 14,000 years ago and was discovered in Germany. That individual was clearly identifiable as a dog. Additionally, the puppy was found buried with a man and a woman who are believed to have been companions of the dogs. This puppy showed evidence of several bouts of serious illness that likely required human care to survive. Between the illness and the shared burial, there were clear signs that the dog-human bond was strong already.

Karen B. London, Ph.D. is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression. Karen writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about canine training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life