How the Dog Became the Dog: From Wolves to Our Best Friends

  • Mark Derr
  • Overlook Press
  • 288 pp.
  • October 27, 2011

A domestication process that arose from mutual benefits thousands of years ago has led to today’s cross-breeding that reduces dogs to “biological dolls,” the author argues.

Reviewed by Katharine Rogers

When exactly did dogs, our oldest animal companions, separate from their wolf ancestors to join the human pack? Fossil evidence is ambiguous, because wolf and dog skeletons were indistinguishable for thousands of years. And humans could have been associating with dogs for a long time without leaving physical evidence of the partnership. The conventional date for domestication of dogs is around 14,000 BCE; the date is based on morphological differences from wolves, particularly a shorter jaw with consequently crowded teeth, and evidence such as burial of people with dogs.

Mark Derr, however, argues that “dogwolves” may have been socialized 135,000 years ago, certainly by 40,000 to 50,000 years ago. He defines dogwolves as wolves “that genetically and behaviorally are dogs,” although they may still appear anatomically to be wolves. He prefers “socialized” to “tamed” because the wolves actively participated in the process. He bases his case on genetic and behavioral evidence — the DNA of dogwolves and their association with humans.

Derr neglects to explain the genetic evidence required to support his case. It is based mostly on a study by Robert Wayne and his associates at UCLA that identified the differences between a stretch of mitochondrial DNA from 162 wolves and one from 140 dogs of various breeds. Briefly, such differences result from mutations that arise at a regular rate, so that multiplying the differences by the rate indicates the date when two species diverged from their common ancestor. Wayne and others calculated that the first dogs diverged from wolves 135,000 years ago. Many molecular geneticists disagree with this finding, however, pointing out that the mitochondrial clock is far from reliable. Archeologists are even more skeptical because there are no animal bones suggesting domesticated dogs from anything approaching that time. Even Wayne admits that 135,000 years ago may be far too early, but he argues that the diversity of the mitochondrial sequences in the oldest group of dogs indicates a date much earlier than the archeologists have thought.

Derr’s behavioral evidence for early domestication is less substantial. In fact, it is based almost entirely on what he supposes must be so. When humans became team hunters — joined the “Guild of Carnivores,” in his phrase — they inevitably joined forces with similar team hunters: wolves. Because of Neanderthals’ skill in hunting, “It is hard to see Neanderthal without shadowing socialized wolves — there by mutual consent. I can even see those socialized wolves, protodogs, if you will, baying up a big bear thereby providing time and distraction enough for the hunter or hunters to stick their spears up and under the ribs into the heart.” The best behavioral evidence for early domestication of dogs is that Paleoindians almost certainly brought dogs with them when they came to the Americas 20,000 to 22,000 years ago.

Apart from his early domestication thesis, too much of Derr’s book consists of information that is generally known. It has long been agreed that dogs descended exclusively from wolves, without admixture of any other canid, and were not domesticated at a single time. They were domesticated at different times and places, by different peoples and from various local subspecies of wolves. Juliet Clutton-Brock, for example, has sketched probable relationships between different types of dogs and four geographical races of wolves.

There is similar agreement that wolves and people voluntarily got together for mutual advantage: humans got help in tracking and driving game and an alarm system for their camps and villages; wolves benefited from human weapons, a steadier food supply and the security of living and reproducing in camp; both species enjoyed each other’s companionship.  In fact, Rudyard Kipling intuited this in his Just So Stories back in 1902: Wild Dog smelled meat cooking at the human hearth and went to the cave to investigate. The Woman threw him a roasted bone and told him he could have more if he would “help my Man to hunt through the day and guard this Cave at night.” Wild Dog laid his head on the Woman’s lap, agreed to her terms and became First Friend.

Derr repeatedly opposes the “prevailing view” that wolves/dogs entered the human scene as scavengers, drawn by village garbage dumps after people had settled down as farmers.  He feels that this turns a noble hunter and companion into a “sniveling midden maven, a foul-tempered, slinking, village offal eater.” Actually, no one asserts that this was the only way the connection started. Obviously, wolves could have attached themselves to a roving band of hunter-gatherers and promptly made themselves useful by helping with the hunting and guarding the camp. In fact, this is how the association must have started in Arctic regions. Dogwolves presumably were hunters and scavengers. Indeed, our beloved companions today retain a persistent taste for scavenging.

Derr traces the prehistory of humans and dogwolves through thousands of years of migration and climatic change, including too much human history irrelevant to our relationship with dogs. But he rightly draws attention to the decisive turning point that came when humans domesticated livestock. While continuing to make use of the dogwolf’s ability to drive prey animals, people taught it to refrain from killing and eating them. Derr’s account of dogs in historical times runs over familiar points that have been better covered elsewhere.

In the past 200 years, modern breeds have been developed and purebreds have increased from about 5 percent of the American dog population just before World War I to more than half today. Free-ranging dogs have increasingly been restricted. By “limiting genetic diversity and gaining greater control of the dog,” these developments continue the domestication process that began thousands of years ago.

Derr argues, rightly, that this process has gone too far. The dog fancy encourages intense breeding toward some arbitrary ideal, and this has produced diseases and deformities, such as flattened noses that impede breathing and large heads that make it impossible for bitches to deliver normally. Many working dogs have lost the boldness, playfulness and curiosity necessary to do work, as they are bred “to do nothing but be submissive and devoted to their people.” Dogs may be reduced to “biological doll[s]” or objects of conspicuous consumption.

Such manipulation of the natural dog “disrespects dogs and people.” Moreover, dogs that are not totally controlled by humans offer us a connection to the broader world of nature, beyond human control and the limitations of human perceptions.  Derr applauds people who crossbreed dogs in search of animals “with the ability and desire to learn and to act — whether to play Frisbee … or search for victims of disasters or explosives or otherwise devote their talents to a satisfying task.” They “honor and set right our ancient relationship.”

Katharine Rogers ( has written First Friend: A History of Dogs and Humans, as well as two books on cats.  Her current project is “Meet the Invertebrates.”

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