Thursday, November 3, 2011

Patricia McConnell Seminar: What is a Dog?

Does it seem odd for a famous dog trainer, one with a PhD and who is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, to ask what a dog is? Whether it is or not, simply asking the question encapsulates one of the things that I love about Patricia McConnell: she is always, always learning. She never assumes that she has all the answers, she's not afraid to say “I don't know.”

And so she began a day-long seminar- one intended to summarize the latest scientific studies about the genetics, development, social systems, emotions, and cognition of dogs- with the most basic of questions: What is a dog? The problem with this question, of course, is that we will never be able to truly answer it. While we all have ideas on what a dog is, our answers come from a decidedly human point-of-view. Our reality is so startlingly different from the dog's that it may even be impossible to answer the question at all.

We still try, though.

Dogs, Patricia told us, have been living with humans longer than any other domestic animal. But where did they come from? How did they become domesticated? And how long have they been living with us?

The first question is easy, at least from a taxonomical standpoint: the scientific name for dogs is canis lupus familiaris, which makes them a subspecies of wolves. However, to say that dogs are wolves is similar to saying that humans are chimpanzees. We share many of our genes with chimpanzees, as do dogs and wolves, but we do not share all of them, and even a small difference can have a profound effect on behavior.

Wolves and dogs are different largely because of a change in a regulator gene, specifically one that controls the process of development in dogs. This has resulted in paedomorphism in dogs, which is the “retention of juvenile characteristics in the adult.” Basically, as compared to wolves, dogs act like puppies.

In Patricia's experience, wolves (even wolf hybrids) act distinctly different from dogs. For example, she has found that wolves are much more physically active. They are mouthier and have a tendency to destroy things far beyond what even the worst dog puppy ever does. They aren't as docile as their canine cousins, and as a result are difficult to correct (and Patricia didn't mean physically; wolves just aren't as interested in humans as dogs are). They have an extreme desire to roam, and are next to impossible to keep at home. What's more, wolves are much more wary of new experiences.

All of this means that even a very difficult dog acts like a baby in comparison to a wolf. That's because they are, simply put, socially immature. Paedomorphic. And this paedomorphism extends to more than just behavior; it includes physical appearance and internal physiology.

One of the best examples of how the process of domestication causes profound changes is Belyaev's Foxes. Belyaev was a Russian scientist who was breeding silver foxes on a fur farm. He and his colleagues began breeding only the tamest foxes, and within eight generations, they had foxes that acted like, well, dogs. These “genetically tame” foxes were more docile than the average fox, and even as adults, they showed juvenile behaviors like face-liking and paw-raising.

But they also began to have patches of white in their coats (something rarely seen in non-domesticated animals), curly tails, and flopped over ears. Their internal physiology changed, too. Instead of one heat cycle a year, they began to have two, like dogs. There was a delay in the production of corticosteriod, which meant that their “fear period” and socialization window extended from six weeks to eight or more weeks... like dogs. And there was an overall decrease in corticosteroids in general, which meant the foxes were less likely to flee. Like dogs.

So how did dogs become domesticated? Well, we'll never know for sure, but there are three main hypotheses: The Village Dog Hypothesis, which says that there was a natural selection for wolves who were bold enough to hang around an early settlement's garbage dumps, the Hunting Hypothesis, which says that wolves began to follow human hunters (or vice versa?), and the Nurturing Hypothesis, which says that after adult wolves were killed, the pups were brought back to camp and raised by the women and children. Patricia doesn't claim to know which is correct, but does wonder if perhaps there were multiple forces in the process of domestication instead of just one.

As for when this happened, fossil evidence places domestication in East Asia around 12,000 to 14,000 (maybe even 20,000) years ago, while DNA analysis places it somewhere from 100,000 to 135,000 years ago. That's a pretty big range, one that has been expanded as science has progressed rather than narrowed, which makes it a huge question mark in history.

In the end, it doesn't really matter. While dogs and wolves are related, they are different. Wolves are difficult pets for even the most knowledgeable people, and impossible for the inexperienced. Yet dogs are everywhere, and as Patricia put it, our relationship with them is nothing short of miraculous. No wonder so many people are asking so many questions about our canine companions. We may never find all the answers, but we have learned a lot, and Patricia McConnell shared much of the current scientific knowledge about dogs with us throughout the day. I look forward to sharing some of it with you.

If You Want to Know More
Patricia suggested these books for further reading on today's topic:
Inside of a Dog, by Alexandra Horowitz
Dog Sense, by John Bradshaw
Dogs, by Raymond Coppinger and Lorna Coppinger
Part Wild, by Ceiridwen Terrill

And a suggestion of my own:
The Wolf in the Parlor, by Jon Franklin

Videos you might like:
Belyaev's Foxes, selected for docility
Belyaev's Foxes, selected for aggression

And a fellow blogger's own series on Belyaev:
Leema Kennels on Belyaev


Joanna said...

I've read Dogs by the Coppingers. Some parts were way too drawn out and over-explained, but it had great information. I definitely recommend it for someone interested in the origins of the domesticated dog.

I always love hearing about Belyaev's foxes. They come up over and over, but it seems like everyone highlights different aspects of the experiment/result.

Tegan said...

Not to blow my own horn, but I did an extensive literature review on Belyaev's fox experiment and thought your readers may be interested in this, as well. It is a four part series, but here's a link to the index:

Crystal Thompson said...

Tegan, thanks for linking to that! I remembered reading it, but couldn't for the life of me remember WHERE. I really enjoyed your series on Belyaev.

Kerry M. said...

Crystal, Thanks for writing this up!

Tegan, oh my goodness are those pictures on your intro page freakin' adorable. I want to take both those dogs home.

Tegan said...

Thanks heaps for the link, Crystal. It's a really interesting experiment and I think it really helps broaden our understanding of dogs (and 'what is dog?').
Kerry, thanks for your comments regarding the pictures. The reddish terrier dog is a foster I had a few years ago (and I still get updates about her!) and the other is a boy from my last border terrier litter. I think they're pretty cute, too. ;)