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Understanding Your Dog Through Evolution, Part One

Author: Sarah Tulicki | Date: April 22, 2014

I have been working with dogs since I was a teenager and I have learned a lot over the years, but nothing has been more valuable than what I have learned through my undergraduate studies in Biology. Evolution in particular has begun to shed light on several aspects of dog behavior. The ideas that power the theory of evolution have been through the test of time and thousands of experiments and is still being tested and explored.

The origin of dogs has recently been adopted into serious scientific research, especially in anthropology. Scientists believe if we can understand the domestication of dogs, it may help us understand how humans came to be the dominant species on the planet.

But first we have to break a common misconception about the origin of dogs:

Did dogs evolve from the gray wolf?

Dogs share many behavioral and morphological traits with gray wolves, and even some of their genetics, but they did not directly evolve from the gray wolf. We can think of it this way: humans share 98% of their DNA with chimpanzees. We can even see similarities in how we look and behave, but we are not chimpanzees, in much the same way that dogs are not wolves. When we talk about dogs evolving from gray wolves, what we really mean is that they share a common ancestor.

The basic idea of evolution is that a single species, in this case a now-extinct canid, evolved over millions of years and eventually diverged into two separate species that adapted to their particular environment. The leading theory about the domestication of dogs suggests that the environment dogs lived in was different from that of the gray wolves. The ancestor of dogs began to benefit from scavenging off garbage dumps outside human villages. By doing this they could consume energy (food) without expending the energy required during hunting. They adapted to the life of a scavenger.

Scavenger vs. Hunter

Yes, dogs can hunt; if you’ve never seen a dog snatch a bird or a rabbit, this may make you raise your eyebrows. However, dogs are not particularly good at hunting (it is important to keep in mind that there is variety within every species – in other words, some dogs will be better hunters than others).

Dogs have adapted to living with humans in an extreme way that other canids have not. This is the entire premise of dog evolution, after all. We have been able to trace the dog/human relationship back an estimated 15,000 years. Humans at this time would have favored dogs for protection as well as for the seeking, retrieving, and flushing out of game. Dogs that not only killed but ate the food intended for human consumption would not have been favored by hunter/gatherer humans. Dogs that ate what they were given, however, would have been prized.

Over thousands of years dogs have become extremely good at scavenging for the scraps humans left behind and/or being completely dependent on humans for their food. In fact, this is how many feral dogs live across the world. It’s not often that they catch a rabbit for dinner, not nearly as often as a coyote. Wolves, coyotes, jackals, foxes, etc. don’t often venture close to human populations, and when they do they avoid people. This is not the case with dogs and it has everything to do with the differences in their evolutionary past.

So what does this mean for us? This means that training with treats and other rewards is a useful tool. This also means that dogs have learned a few ways to adapt to the human environment, such as learning how to read our mood, facial expressions, hand gestures, etc.


In part two, Sarah will explore how to use your dog’s evolutionary traits to your advantage in training, and how that can strengthen the human/dog bond.


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