How Dogs Became Dogs — And Why It Matters

I’m teaching the history of dog training at the Bergin University, and we’ve spent some time  talking about how dogs and people first hooked up. And, more important, why it matters.

There are several theories, starting with Creationist and Native American beliefs that God or a god designated Dog as Man’s companion, helper, and guardian. A Native American legend has dogs offering to take on that role while other creatures disdained it.

Other theories, collected and dissected in a recent book by Mark Derr, are less flattering to dogs. Dogs hung around the garbage heaps outside early human settlements, scavenging trash and scraps. Dogs slunk around the edges of early human camps, hoping the humans would toss them scraps and let them bask in the warmth of the fire. In these scenarios, early humans might have fed, then “adopted” the friendlier or tamer of the wolves and, eventually, convinced enough wolf/dogs to stick around that they eventually became domesticated.

Other theories focus on wolves’ history as successful hunters — more successful, it must be pointed out, than early humans. Somehow, these theorists suggest, stone-age humans made the wolves stay with them and got the wolves to help them hunt. How the humans, without benefit of tools or metal, convinced full-grown wolves to stick around and how the humans imposed their will on these strong, fierce hunters is left to our imaginations.

Derr does a nice job of identifying the factual and logical holes in these theories, looking at scientific and archaeological evidence (or lack of evidence); read his book, How the Dog Became the Dog, if you want lots of detail.

Timing and historical evidence aside, these theories share a huge problem: They completely ignore the point of view of the wolf/dog, considering only human wants and needs. Why would a successful predator hook up with humans and help them become better hunters (and therefore competitors)? The wolves didn’t need the humans’ help (or meager food scraps)! There had to be something in the deal for the dog.

And here’s where we get to the question of why it matters which theory we adopt.

If you see dogs — or any animals — as humans’ possession to do with what we will, it’s too easy to justify exploiting them, neglecting them, or even harming them or their habitat if their needs conflict with humans’ needs or wants.

If you think of dogs as the descendants of “sniveling offal-eaters” (Derr’s description), parasites that humans took pity on and helped, well, you won’t have much respect for dogs or their abilities.

If you adopt the flip side of that view — that dogs are descendants of fierce hunters that humans had to tame and control so as to bend the wolves to their will, well, you might be one of the dwindling-but-still-too-large pool of people who believe that you have to “get dominance over” your dog and show him who’s boss, lest he wrest back control and become the alpha in your little pack. Through much of history, this view has led to cruel treatment of both wild and domestic canines.

On the other hand, if you look at the early relationship from the wolf/dog’s point of view and acknowledge two things — that the wolf/dog got something out of the arrangement and that the dog’s progenitors freely chose to enter into a relationship with humans — you are more likely to look at that early wolf/dog’s modern-day descendants with respect and treat them as partners rather than as parasites or slaves.