Council for the Advancement of Science Writing

Junkyard dog not such a new idea

by Andrew Kays | 

Throw out your preconceptions about your playful pup's oldest ancestors. They were parasites.

That is what Clive D. L. Wynne, former University of Florida psychology professor and director of the UF Canine Cognition & Behavior Lab, said Nov. 3 in a presentation during CASW's New Horizons in Science, part of the ScienceWriters2013 meeting in Gainesville, Florida.

Garbage mounds attracted early dogs

ADDITIONAL COVERAGE

“If we look for dogs, we find them as scavengers,” said Wynne, now at Arizona State University. “Dogs originated as vermin, and they colonize our leavings much like rats or cockroaches.”

He notes that because these investigations are so far in the past, a lot of speculation is necessary. However, the more we discover, the better we are able to make predictions.

A few theories exist about the origins of our canine companions. The most prominent suggests that 15,000 years ago, early humans raised docile wolf pups and eventually nurtured them into domestication. A wolf could run down game that its owner had pierced with an arrow and receive a pittance of the meat in return.

Support favoring this idea comes from a 20th-century Soviet researcher who domesticated wild foxes—fairly close evolutionary relatives of dogs—by breeding successive generations of the 2 or 3 percent that were the tamest. Even adult foxes would leap into the arms of any nearby human by the end of the experiment. 

However, this outcome required decades of research, so, early humans were unlikely to have domesticated wolves, according to Wynne.

Instead, a two-step process can explain the emergence of dogs and it begins with dogs' love of our trash. The scavengers grew comfortable near humans and slowly became a part of our communities.

Wolves typically maintain a distance of at least 200 meters from humans, usually disappearing before ever being seen. Modern feral dogs living in Ethiopia maintain five meters. Pet dogs maintain zero distance from humans.

Dogs served many uses

Over time, humans noticed that the beasts had their uses. Dogs could raise an alarm when large predators were nearby, providing protection for human homes.

Dog meat could also serve as extra protein during food shortages. Even in Europe, this practice still exists, but is in the process of being phased out. About 16 percent of Swiss residents say they have eaten dog meat. In 1934, the Nazis were among the first Europeans to enact animal laws, Wynne said, putting tens of thousands of dog butchers out of business.

Dogs can also be tremendous hunting partners once domesticated. A 20-pound dog can bring a family twice its weight in meat a month. For today's hunters, a dog is every bit as effective as a rifle.

Evidence points toward dogs' effectiveness as hunters as the root of human affection for them, Wynne said. Eventually, humans discovered the utility of domesticated dogs and the potential for cooperation.

“The dog has to share with you. Dogs are too puny to make the kill themselves,” Wynne said. “Wolves do not share, you cannot take food from a wolf.”

In the past few years, as researchers looked at dog DNA for biomedical insights, further clues emerged. It is now thought that the original dogs almost certainly developed in the Middle East rather than in East Asia.

Scientists looking at rapidly changing dog genes have also found a small similarity to the genetic profile of humans with Williams syndrome, a condition that causes a reduction in reading of social cues, but extremely outgoing personalities.

Maybe, Wynne said, overly social canine ancestors were just too weird to be accepted by the pack.

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Andrew Kays is a junior studying journalism and anthropology at the University of Florida. He interns for the UF Institute for Food and Agricultural Sciences, an internationally renowned center for agriculture research and publication. He is also a contributing writer for The Independent Florida Alligator, the largest student-run newspaper in the country, where he writes about science news and prominent studies. Andrew has a passion for genetics, human evolution and their proper representation to the public. Reach him through Twitter @APKays or his website andrewpkays.com.