It never ceases to amaze me how incorrect information sticks like glue and correct information seems to slide off the consciousness like oil off metal. An erroneous study from the 1940s is deeply etched into the collective psyche so that the myth of the alpha dog is still current and still causes dogs to be abused. Studies that are almost as old that form the basis for non-aversive training of all sorts of animals – including dogs and humans – still have not trickled down to the far corners of the murkier aspects of the dog world.
Some aspects of the origin of the domestic dog are still controversial but one thing we have known for a while: the dog domesticated itself probably approximately 15,000 – 30,000 years ago, possibly in China, then in the Arctic, then in the fertile crescent.
The great Charles Darwin knew that domestication caused outwards changes in plants and animals; he wrote two volumes on the subject. However, it was the unprecedented longitudinal study of silver foxes by Dimitri Konstantinovich Belayev that proved that, in essence, selecting for tameness alone produced foxes that began to resemble collies more and more with each succeeding generation. Floppy ears, piebald coats, smaller skulls (and brains), shorter muzzles and curly tails all came along for free.
Now new research has shown that this occurs in mice too and one of the indicators of tameness was the appearance of white hairs in the coat. Unlike the silver fox fur experiment, the researchers were not intervening in the way that the mice lived their lives other than to release the initial population of 12 mice into an uninhabited barn where they would come into contact with humans. The mice were free to come and go as they pleased through specially constructed “mouse doors” that provided protection from predators and access to freely available food. In just a few generations, the mice became more and more habituated to humans, even running over their feet, and white hairs appeared in their coats, whilst their heads became smaller.
This study is important for dogs because it provides further proof that dogs initially self-domesticated. Along with genetic evidence that points to a now extinct mega fauna wolf as the progenitor of the dog on the hearth, it further removes dogs from the myth that early man tamed wolf cubs until they evolved into a dog. Experiment after experiment has always failed to produce tame wolves: they always revert to the wild, although they can be socialised.
So, as it bears repeating until finally the myths are scotched for ever:
- No dog on the planet is related directly to any wolf on the planet
- 13 basal “breeds” of dog evolved without intervention from man but no modern dog can be traced back directly to these evolutions
- Dogs do not live in packs, although they, like wolves and humans, are social animals
- Dogs to not breed in alpha and beta pairings because, unlike wolves, they are fertile all year round
- Dogs do have distinct personalities that may favour one type of behaviour in the majority of circumstances
- The way that a dog behaves is not just down to genetics and inherited temperament but varies with many environmental factors.
Repeat after me: “DOGS ARE NOT PROTO-WOLVES. DOGS ARE NOT SEEKING TO DOMINATE YOU – OR ANYTHING ELSE – FOR THEIR ENTIRE LIVES. DOGS DO NOT NEED TO BE PUNISHED.”
Once you really, truly believe this, distribute the information to as many dog-punishers as possible and remember that mice helped you to get there.