By K. Nepsa
I was recently petting my beloved pup, when I realized that every time he looks at me it seems like it’s “love,” which of course makes me feel all gooey inside and makes me want to pet him some more. This made me wonder if I was anthropomorphizing his loving looks, or if there is actually a deeper connection between human and beast. Domestication of dogs, from their wolf ancestors, has been a hot topic of discussion among scientists for a long time. However, the overall picture may be finally taking shape as scientists continue to explore this fascinating subject. When did wolves start their journey to becoming the adorable dog breeds we enjoy today?
The oldest known dog fossils were found in Goyet Cave in Belgium and were dated to be approximately 36,000 years old. Some fossil records found in other regions suggest that the domestication of wolves may have happened more than once in human history, in different parts of the world. Pat Shipman, who wrote The Invaders (an Archeology Bestseller), discusses the alliance we developed with wolves or wolf-dogs. She suggests this alliance was a key factor in outcompeting Neanderthals in Europe. She further suggests that, as the partnership between species progressed, friendliness in wolf-dogs was specifically selected and the bonds grew deeper between man and beast.
Research has also suggested that wolves gained some advantage in shadowing the hunter-gatherer packs of humans. This, in turn, may have led wolves to eventually evolve that friendliness in themselves, including physical features that drew humans to them, such as floppiness in their ears, various color patterns, etc. This would mean we had less to do with their domestication than previously thought. They may have, in part, domesticated themselves, motivated by their advantage to stay close to humans, and thus, strengthening their bonds with us through time.
Genetic evidence has also been found: Bridgette Von Holdt, at Princeton, found a disruption in a genomic region for “friendliness” in dogs. This region remains intact for more aloof wolves. More interesting is that humans can have similar variations and can experience what’s called Williams-Beuren syndrome. This human condition causes them to be exceptionally trusting and friendly.
Through time dogs have also hijacked human brains, more specifically the brain’s maternal bonding system. This means that our dogs can truly feel more like our babies.
When humans and dogs gaze lovingly into each other’s eyes, oxytocin is secreted in both brains, mimicking the same process that happens between human mothers and their babies. This is the only known case of this happening between different species.
So, as you gaze into your dog’s eyes and you see that big toothy doggy grin that signals their happiness, just know the love is real!
Brian Handwerk, August 15, 2018, How Accurate is the Theory of Dog Domestication in ‘Alpha’?, Smithsonian Magazine, accessed April 1, 2022, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/how-wolves-really-became-dogs-180970014/
K. Nepsa has a B.S. in Geology and a Master’s in GIS. She has lived in Arizona, HI, CA and Shanghai, China. Her hobbies include enjoying the outdoors via Jeep, Kayak, horse or foot. She has been a Vail resident since 2005.