How Studies on Animal Domestication Can Help Us Understand Our Dogs


I recently read a very interesting National Geographic article about animal domestication. It’s a subject I’ve been very interested in since college…simply because our dogs are the very best example of domestication!

A study, which this article features, has been performed on silver foxes, begun by Dmitri Belyaev more than half a century ago. In short, researchers selectively bred for tame foxes, which has led to a group of foxes that greet people like dogs, crave human attention, and have changed in physical appearance with droopy ears, curled tails, and piebald coloring.

To read the article, Click Here.

Though this study is very interesting, there’s one point in particular that I found the most intriguing…which can directly effect the way we understand and train our dogs. I’ve copied this bit below.

“I’d like to draw your attention to this fox,” says Trut, pointing to one snarling creature nearby. “You can see how aggressive she is. She was born to an aggressive mother but brought up by a tame mother.” The switch, the result of the aggressive mother being unable to feed its kit, serendipitously proved a point: The foxes’ response to humans is more nature than it is nurture. “Here,” she says, “it’s the genetics that change.”

Identifying the precise genetic footprint involved in tameness, however, is proving extremely tricky science. First the researchers need to find the genes responsible for creating friendly and aggressive behaviors. Such general behavior traits, however, are actually amalgamations of more specific ones—fear, boldness, passivity, curiosity—that must be teased apart, measured, and traced to individual genes or sets of genes working in combination. Once those genes are identified, the researchers can test whether the ones influencing behavior are also behind the floppy ears and piebald coats and other features that characterize domesticated species. One theory among the scientists in Novosibirsk is that the genes guiding the animals’ behavior do so by altering chemicals in their brains. Changes to those neurochemicals, in turn, have “downstream” impacts on the animals’ physical appearance.

It makes me consider what our dog breeds were originally selectively bred for. Many were used for hunting, guarding, and fighting. What this study denotes, is that even though a fox is raised by a tame mother, if she was bred to be aggressive, she will grow up aggressive. Therefore, her genetic makeup has a large impact on her temperament than her upbringing.

Now, keep in mind, this is an extreme case. The aggressive foxes in this study have been selectively bred for aggressiveness over generations.

However, we must consider our selectively bred, domestic dog breeds. Like I said, each one was bred for specific traits, and in some cases that included strength, stubbornness, or combativeness. And what this study is saying, is that despite how an animal is raised, his genetic makeup will likely effect his temperament. That’s why it’s very important that we consider what each breed was bred for when we choose a new dog. And as trainers, we will have to consider the same with every dog we work with and customize how that dog is trained based on his current temperament, as well as the traits of his breed. As for those of you who have “mystery breeds,” well you can’t consider their predisposed breed traits and have to just wait and see what they will be like!

However, we are fortunate in that our dogs have been so well domesticated and our culture has allowed for many options to improve our dogs’ temperament and make them a happy part of our family. And though some breeders still breed for sport, in most cases a dog’s main “job” now is simply to be a companion to humans, and we can hope that most breeders are simply breeding their dogs to be healthy, even-tempered, and happy companions : )

It is scarcely possible to doubt that the love of man has become instinctive in the dog.

Charles Darwin