'The secret life of the dog' is an interesting documentary about the evolution and domestication of dog from wolf. However, on a few occasions it falls into the usual biological traps. It showed how 'humans selected for dogs with big eyes and playful nature, and on the dog's part, how they exploited humans for the prosperity they offered.' These steps are probably right. But is the basis really 'exploitation', or animals just finding a new way of working and interacting together? I'm probably being pedantic here, but I get tired of hearing the chant that selfish exploitation is the real factor behind biological interactions. Placing the basis of the human-dog relationship into some form of exploitation is just another weak attempt (probably unintentional) to denigrate natural processes, rather than revealing the true nature of the original wild relationship. There are many ways to interpret the various examples in nature, according to the ideology required by the society of the day. For example, the basis of the relationship could just as easily be described as an example of compatible animals of similar nature finding it easy to work together. Any initial caution and hesitation was overcome by simple rewards such as the wolf getting food and the human getting a cuddly pup that would become an efficient alarm system for the camp. Is this mutual exploitation, or brave collaboration? The interpretation really depends on whether the human is seeking a jaundiced view of nature, or a romantic view of nature. A biologist should do neither. But they should at least find a good and strong reason behind the event, without then trying to force it into the evolution specter of 'struggle to survive means everything must be based on exploitation'. If the biologists got it wrong and nature is a place where the aim is to be wild, then the real reason behind interactions will be more relaxed. It might be a simple example of the general benefit for any creature to extend its range of wild interaction (attunement) and efficiency of interaction (the compatibility between dog and human made life easier). Life for both became more comfortable and linked.

Another interesting part of the documentary described some research in Russia on the artificial domestication of the fox. This work has been going for four decades, and so far some 40 generations of fox have been bred in captivity. Normally, foxes are only playful with humans up to about two months age, and then they become aggressive, 'wild' and snap at humans. The researchers wanted to see how quickly they could domesticate the fox, by breeding those foxes that did not try to bite humans. They soon found that the age of fox playfulness extended longer, and the foxes became more accepting even craving for human contact. The foxes became tame. Some also developed white fur, suggesting biochemical changes had also occurred during the domestication process. The documentary suggested that within the process of turning foxes from wild to tame was the need to breed out aggression. Once more, being wild is associated with being aggressive. However again, interpretation is from the human point of view. Domestication does not involve breeding aggression out of a wild animal, but rather an alteration in what an animal considers to be a part of its family. Even domesticated dogs will attack a stranger or other dogs if they do not feel comfortable with them, often quite viscously. So aggression has not been bred out of dogs, it is just that the alarm bells for them go off at different signals because they become accustomed to the human world. Being aggressive should be no more associated with being wild than being domesticated. The foxes that remained 'wild' in their small wire cages become aggressive because they develop other needs that cannot be met by the researchers or their environment of captivity. Those urges gained upon maturity would include a need for exploration, a need to escape to be alone, room to hunt, and the expression of innate adaptations. 'Wild foxes' would become stressed in their cage, because it lacks the stimulation they need to relieve their wild desires. They become neurotic and trapped in the cage, and will snap at the humans that they learn to equate with their continued restriction. Domestication is more to do with extending the 'puppy' stage in the fox, where juvenile playfulness and bonding is selected. The new animal will crave to learn and imprint from the surrogate parents or pack longer than is possible under natural conditions. Continued breeding into the puppy state would also produce undifferentiation in other features as well, such as fur color and eye development. The retention of juvenile traits in adults, pedomorphosis, appears to be a common feature of domestication in other animals as well. So rather than being an example where aggression and emotion is taken out of a wild animal to make it tame, this work is an example of a change in what foxes learn is a part of their identity. (Posted April 2001)

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Links on dog domestication

Domestication of the dog
Evolution of North American canids
Stalking the ancient dog

'The secret life of the dog',
comments from Dr Beetle
The only way I can always be right is to assume I am always wrong