How the Dog Became the Dog

By Mark Derr
Reviewed by Marc Bekoff, January 2012, Updated March 2021

Mark Derr clearly knows dogs as well as anyone who’s writing about these amazing beings. His two previous books, A Dog’s History of America and Dog’s Best Friend, clearly, concisely and cautiously summarized our various relationships with our “best friends.”

Derr’s newest book, with the same admirable rigor and clarity, explains how dogs became dogs, a question of interest to numerous people, researchers and non-researchers alike. Derr writes authoritatively about what we know and what we don’t know about how the dog became the dog. He critically considers what we know about domestication, using the latest information from a wide range of disciplines, including biology (genetics, physiology, anatomy), anthropology, paleontology, psychology and sociology, and dispels myths based more in hubris and hype than in fact that have appeared in other books and essays.

Among his most important messages, Derr shows how shared sociability and curiosity drew wolves and humans together, resulting in a close and enduring relationship of cooperation and mutual utility. Each benefited from the relationship in different ways. He also rejects the notion that dogs are merely juvenilized wolves (neoteny).

After reviewing reams of available data, he goes on to conclude that there was no identifiable domestication event: “[R]ather, mutations were captured and passed on for reasons of utility or desire or amusement or lassitude in certain populations of dogwolves. It thus becomes more accurate in many ways to speak less about how the wolf became the dog and more of how the dog became the dog.”


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Derr also realizes with humility that in the future, his ideas may have to be revised as we accumulate more information. But, given what we know now, this book is a superb summary, peppered with caution.

If you read one book on the evolution of dogs this should be it—a fact-filled volume that will make you want to learn more about the amazing animals who figure intimately in numerous aspects of our lives. I’m sure dogs would thank Mark Derr for writing his book, and we too should thank him for setting a confused record as straight as it can be, given what we now know and still have to learn.

Article first appeared in The Bark, Issue 67: Nov/Dec 2011

Marc Bekoff is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Colorado, Boulder.