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Perennial Teenager

Author: | Date: January 11, 2012

We covered a lot of fascinating topics at AnimalSense Academy.  Here’s one that you have probably noticed in your own dogs without being aware of the technical term or its role in canine evolution and the development of breeds.

Neotony refers to retaining immature or juvenile characteristics in adulthood and includes both physical and behavioral attributes.

Long before doing any formal study of dogs, I noticed how playful senior adult dogs can be.  My 10-year old dog Bear played chase, catch, tug-of-war, hide and seek, and wrestled.  As I played with him one day I remember thinking that a 70-year old human would not behave that way (using the shorthand 7 to 1 age conversion formula that is not technically accurate). It is not so much that a senior human would never play, but a healthy dog may exhibit frequent physical play and have a generally playful disposition well into advanced age.

Some researchers speculate that neotony played a significant role in domesticating wolves and the evolution of the modern dog.  According to this theory (simplified), juvenile wolves are social and reasonably tame and show care-soliciting behavior and this helped them seek out and form bonds with humans. Early people favored wolves that showed puppy-like qualities into adulthood and over generations of co-existing with humans lead to the transition to dogs. In a famous experiment with foxes, researchers bred foxes who could tolerate physical nearness to humans (evaluated based on the distance the fox would let the human approach before it fled and then how far away it would run) with other foxes who showed similar tameness.  After several generations, the foxes showed many behavioral traits of domestic dogs such as searching for their keepers, climbing on them, taking food out of their hands, rolling over to have their tummies rubbed, letting people carry them and responding to their names. Unexpectedly, the foxes also began to look different – more baby-like with floppy ears, tails that turned up at the end and two-colored coats.

So according to the neotony theory, this behavioral and physical transformation also happened to wolves as they began to tolerate early humans in order to scavenge from their settlements.  In essence, these wolves retained the more flexible disposition and behavior of juveniles and adapted to the requirements of humans.  In less scientific terms, some authors say that the physical changes (fuzzy fur, large heads and eyes, round torsos) made the evolving wolves more appealing to humans and lead our ancestors to care for them because of our genetic propensity to care for our own helpless young.

Another aspect of neotony that played a role in the development and diversification of dogs is the concept of arrested development.  All dogs retain some degree of the wolf’s hunting drive and technique.  The human selection of more juvenile traits “arrested” the development of hunting skills in dogs.  The wolf’s hunting sequence begins with identifying the presence of the prey and ends with capture, kill and eat.  Many breeds of dogs were bred to perform jobs that required some level of wolf-like hunting behavior, but not the fully developed lethal skills of an adult wolf. For example, herding dogs use the beginning stages of the hunting sequence to intimidate flocks by staring at and stalking them.  These are behaviors that wolf puppies would exhibit in play, as they began to develop their prey drive.  Breeding together herding dogs who were good at their job passed on that truncated hunting behavior pattern to their puppies. Scent hounds were bred to use a more developed prey drive and chase and corner prey, but then call their human to take care of the rest. Retrievers don’t actually attack the prey, but run or swim out to it and carry it back in their mouths without doing any damage.  Different jobs required specific levels of prey drive and the resulting breeds represent different stopping points along the way from wolf to dog.

Photo Courtesy of Monty Sloan and Wolf Park


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