Is the Dog our Closest Animal Kin?

May 29, 2008 at 9:02 pm Leave a comment

In an article just published in the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, authors Monique A.R. Udell and C.D.L. Wayne of the University of Florida propose that, behaviorally speaking, the domestic dog may be our closest animal kin.

The article starts by noting our very long association with the dog:

Humans and dogs share a long intertwined history. Fossil and DNA evidence suggests domestic dogs most likely diverged from wolves in different places at different times beginning as long as 135,000 years ago (Vila et al., 1997). This is when the morphological structure of certain groups of wolves began to change to more closely resemble the modern domestic dog. Anthropologists and archaeologists have argued that this is an overestimate, claiming that the best way to determine the time of domestication is to look for signs of a close association between dogs and humans (Morey, 2006). One way this has been done is by looking for evidence of dog burials (Morey, 2006). The earliest burial remains of a domestic dog are 14,000 years old and were found in Bonn-Oberkassel, Germany (Nobis, 1979). The dimensions of the well-preserved lower jaw and teeth suggest that this animal was domesticated and could be compared to a small sheep dog, making it the oldest known domesticated animal and a companion of the Cro-Magnon Man in the late Paleolithic age (Nobis, 1979).

If the dog has been our companion since Cro-Magnon times when the Neanderthal still walked the earth — indeed, since homo sapiens first evolved, we shouldn’t be surprised that our species share a unique emotional and psychological bond. 

Dogs play an integral part in today’s society:

Although the exact location and lineage of the first domesticated dog is still under debate, the impact that humans have had on the domestic dog as a species is undeniable. Dogs play an astonishing range of roles in human society. Many individuals put their faith in rescue dogs when stranded in the wilderness or capsized in cold water. Others rely on guide dogs to get them safely to multiple destinations on a daily basis. Drug dogs, de-mining dogs, police dogs, termite- and even cancer-detecting dogs are trained and utilized as substance detectors even in the face of competition from the latest technology. There are herding dogs, hunting dogs, sled dogs, and various other specializations that are crucial to the livelihoods of many individuals, not to mention the role dogs play in entertainment and the pleasures of individual dog ownership – sufficiently reinforcing to sustain 74.8 million dogs in the United States, at a cost to their owners of over $100 billion (American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, 2007).

But despite their importance as companions and co-workers there has been surprisingly little research into just what makes the domestic dog so uniquely suited to life with human beings.  According to Udell and Wynne:

The causes of the characteristic behaviors of dogs can be understood at two levels. First are the phylogenetic influences on behavior that arise as a result of the unique evolutionary past of domestic dogs. Second, and perhaps more importantly (at least in the sense that they are available for modification in real time), are the ontogenetic causes that are the history of contingencies of reinforcement each domestic dog experiences within human society during its lifetime.

The phylogeny of dogs is particularly interesting because, instead of natural selection by the environment, artificial selection by humans is responsible for the hundreds of breeds of domestic dog that exist today. There is also evidence that selection for desirable physical and behavioral traits has led to many changes in social behavior as unexpected byproducts (Hare & Tomasello, 2005). This has led some scientists to attribute the propensity of dogs for human social interaction to convergent evolution, where the two genetically distinct species were shaped by similar selective pressures (Hare & Tomasello, 2005).

There is, of course, no question that genes play a role in the behavior of domestic dogs, but a dog’s individual environmental history plays a major role in shaping its behavior over its lifetime. From the time a puppy is brought into a human household it is completely dependent on human caretakers for all of its needs. The majority of reinforcers a dog will have access to throughout its life are controlled, either directly or indirectly, by humans. This is comparable to the situation of young human children, and may explain in part the similarities in sensitivity to human social stimuli shown by dogs and children. However, unlike children, domestic dogs remain dependent on humans for primary reinforcers, such as food, water, access to mates, and even touch, throughout their lifetimes. Consequently, their access to reinforcers is contingent upon appropriate behavioral responses within the human social environment.

Unlike our close biological cousins the great apes, dogs seem to have innate abilities in attending to and correctly responding to human glancing and gestural cues even without prior training or conditioning.  They also appear to have an innate sense of how to use glances and gestural cues to communicate with humans and other dogs.  According to Udell and Wynne:

One of the most interesting behavioral characteristics of the modern domestic dog is its predisposition to attend and respond to human social gestures and cues.

Ever since Darwin (1859) the search for human-like social cognition (behavior controlled by human and conspecific social cues similar to that observed in humans) has focused on our closest genetic relatives, particularly chimpanzees. Though much remains controversial in this field, it seems clear that chimps and several other species of primates are only modestly successful on many tasks designed to test for human-like social reasoning. Thus, chimpanzees are only able to follow gaze and show joint attention under a limited set of conditions (Barth, Reaux & Povinelli, 2005; Tomasello, Call, & Gluckman, 2001).

 Dogs, in contrast, though they share much less of our genetic material than do chimpanzees, nonetheless show a spontaneous ability to follow human gestures to find reinforcing objects, even in the absence of training in the laboratory. Most remarkably, even dogs raised with minimal human contact can follow a human point and gaze gesture without explicit training (Hare, Plyusnina, Ignacio, Schepina, Stepika, Wrangham, & Trut, 2005).

So, why do dogs have stronger innate skills to communicate with us than the apes that we share so much of our genetic heritage with?  The study discusses several theories:

The possibility that dogs learn to attend to human social cues simply because of the intensity of their interactions with humans is refuted by the observation that even puppies and domesticated fox kits that have had only minimal exposure to human beings, nonetheless respond very accurately to human cues in choice paradigms (Hare et al., 2005).

Hare and Tomasello (2005) considered the possibility that domestic dogs’ high sensitivity to social cues is an evolutionary legacy inherited from wolves, the dog’s closest wild relative and progenitor. If general social traits common to wild canids have simply been inherited by domestic dogs, then wolves also should do well on tasks involving social cues. However, when compared to wolves and wild foxes, domestic dogs (including puppies) make significantly more correct responses on choice paradigms where social cues serve as the discriminative stimuli (Hare & Tomasello, 2005; Hare et al., 2002). This is true even though the wolves tested had been socialized and raised by humans in their homes as pets. Thus it does not seem that domestic dogs simply inherited the predisposition to attend to social stimuli from wolves.

Research was also performed on foxes that were selectively bred over several generations for tameness but not raised in captivity.  Studies found that fox kits selectively bred for tameness performed just like domestic dog puppies on tests designed to test their abilities to correctly attend to and interpret human gestural cues.  So, according to Udell and Wynne:

These results suggest that during domestication, traits that were often selected by humans, such as lack of aggression and fearlessness towards people, may have carried with them other genetic traits that led to a heightened responsiveness to human social stimuli (Hare & Tomasello, 2005; Hare et al., 2002). It also is possible that by removing genetic tendencies towards aggression and fear towards humans, other pre-existing social behaviors were no longer blocked and thus could increase in frequency.

Yes!  Even though cats have been domesticated for 8,000 to 10,000 years they don’t pay attention to or respond to humans in the way that dogs do.  But then, we don’t have a history of training — or breeding — cats to hunt, track, herd or protect us.

Dogs co-evolved with humans.  Our species belong together.  The human world is the dog’s natural environment.  We humans are responsible for making them what they are through a long history of selective breeding and by our day to day interactions with them.  Deep within our evolutionary roots we understand them and they understand us, perhaps much more than any other pair of species on this earth.

What about dogs that “go bad”?  Are some breeds more prone to aggressiveness?  Is breed profiling any more accurate than human racial profiling?  Udell and Wynne note that:

So if there is a genetic component to some aspects of behavior that have a clear impact on human-dog interaction, what about bans targeting “bad dog” breeds such as pit bulls, or profiling based on genes in general? Can these be justified by maintaining the position that behavior is a product of genetic tendencies as well? Evidence suggests that the answer is no.


….. even in times where one breed may show proportionally higher levels of aggressive behavior, there is evidence that this is not solely due to an inherited “bad dog” gene. In fact, the type of owner, not the breed of the dog, is the best predictor for dog attacks (Gladwell, 2006; Siebert, 2004). In a quarter of fatal dog attacks, the owners previously had previously been arrested for illegal fighting, and many aggressive dogs are ones that have been abused, starved, or deprived of medical attention. In addition, some owners seek out breeds that have a reputation as “bad dogs” and then shape the aggressive behaviors that later seal their fate. According to Randall Lockwood, a senior vice-president of the ASPCA, “A fatal dog attack is not just a dog bite by a big or aggressive dog. It is usually a perfect storm of bad human-canine interactions—the wrong dog, the wrong background, the wrong history in the hands of the wrong person in the wrong environmental situation” (cited in Gladwell, 2006, p. 26).

Gladwell, Siebert and Lockwood all correctly place the blame in the right place.  On the shoulders of humankind.  These studies on the power of interspecies gestural cues demonstrates very strongly that our dogs quite literally look to us for guidance on how to navigate a world that becomes increasingly more difficult for them to live in.  When humans beings fail them through a lack of proper socialization, harsh treatment and neglect — sadly it is our dogs who pay the price.

The dog truly is our best friend.  Let’s remember to treat him like one.


Entry filed under: behavior science, bsl, dog, dogs, pit bull, pit bulls, pitbull, science.

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