Scientists argue that friendly wolves sought out humans.

In the story of how the dog came in from the cold and onto our sofas, we tend to give ourselves a little too much credit. The most common assumption is that some hunter-gatherer with a soft spot for cuteness found some wolf puppies and adopted them. Over time, these tamed wolves would have shown their prowess at hunting, so humans kept them around the campfire until they evolved into dogs.

But when we look back at our relationship with wolves throughout history, this doesn't really make sense. For one thing, the wolf was domesticated at a time when modern humans were not very tolerant of carnivorous competitors. In fact, after modern humans arrived in Europe around 43,000 years ago, they pretty much wiped out every large carnivore that existed, including saber-toothed cats and giant hyenas. The fossil record doesn't reveal whether these large carnivores starved to death because modern humans took most of the meat or whether humans picked them off on purpose. Either way, most of the Ice Age bestiary went extinct.

The hunting hypothesis, that humans used wolves to hunt, doesn't hold up either. Humans were already successful hunters without wolves, more successful than every other large carnivore. Wolves eat a lot of meat, as much as one deer per ten wolves every day-a lot for humans to feed or compete against. And anyone who has seen wolves in a feeding frenzy knows that wolves don't like to share.

Humans have a long history of eradicating wolves, rather than trying to adopt them. Over the last few centuries, almost every culture has hunted wolves to extinction. The first written record of the wolf's persecution was in the sixth century B.C. when Solon of Athens offered a bounty for every wolf killed. The last wolf was killed in England in the 16th century under the order of Henry VII. In Scotland, the forested landscape made wolves more difficult to kill. In response, the Scots burned the forests. North American wolves were not much better off. By 1930, there was not a wolf left in the 48 contiguous states of America.

If this is a snapshot of our behavior toward wolves over the centuries, it presents one of the most perplexing problems: How was this misunderstood creature tolerated by humans long enough to evolve into the domestic dog?

The short version is that we often think of evolution as being the survival of the fittest, where the strong and the dominant survive and the soft and weak perish. But essentially, far from the survival of the leanest and meanest, the success of dogs comes down to survival of the friendliest.

Most likely, it was wolves that approached us, not the other way around, probably while they were scavenging around garbage dumps on the edge of human settlements. The wolves that were bold but aggressive would have been killed by humans, and so only the ones that were bold and friendly would have been tolerated.

Friendliness caused strange things to happen in the wolves. They started to look different. Domestication gave them splotchy coats, floppy ears, wagging tails. In only several generations, these friendly wolves would have become very distinctive from their more aggressive relatives. But the changes did not just affect their looks. Changes also happened to their psychology. These protodogs evolved the ability to read human gestures.

As dog owners, we take for granted that we can point to a ball or toy and our dog will bound off to get it. But the ability of dogs to read human gestures is remarkable. Even our closest relatives-chimpanzees and bonobos-can't read our gestures as readily as dogs can. Dogs are remarkably similar to human infants in the way they pay attention to us. This ability accounts for the extraordinary communication we have with our dogs. Some dogs are so attuned to their owners that they can read a gesture as subtle as a change in eye direction.

With this new ability, these protodogs were worth knowing. People who had dogs during a hunt would likely have had an advantage over those who didn't. Even today, tribes in Nicaragua depend on dogs to detect prey. Moose hunters in alpine regions bring home 56 percent more prey when they are accompanied by dogs. In the Congo, hunters believe they would starve without their dogs.

Dogs would also have served as a warning system, barking at hostile strangers from neighboring tribes. They could have defended their humans from predators.

And finally, though this is not a pleasant thought, when times were tough, dogs could have served as an emergency food supply. Thousands of years before refrigeration and with no crops to store, hunter-gatherers had no food reserves until the domestication of dogs. In tough times, dogs that were the least efficient hunters might have been sacrificed to save the group or the best hunting dogs. Once humans realized the usefulness of keeping dogs as an emergency food supply, it was not a huge jump to realize plants could be used in a similar way.

So, far from a benign human adopting a wolf puppy, it is more likely that a population of wolves adopted us. As the advantages of dog ownership became clear, we were as strongly affected by our relationship with them as they have been by their relationship with us. Dogs may even have been the catalyst for our civilization.

Responses to "We Didn’t Domesticate Dogs. They Domesticated Us."

  1. Ruth says:

    Fascinating story. Dogs are a lot more intelligent that we give them credit. Thanks White Wolf. Read you everyday. xx

  2. Unknown says:

    It is said that wolves became the first to approach humans as humans lived in caves where there was warmth and protection from severe weather. The wolves came into the caves toward the fire and soon as you say they became more friendly toward the human as if they were appreciative of their grace. I love the study of history and dogs. Thank you for sharing with us.

  3. Frederik says:

    I'm waiting for the day that some sense-making scientist finally will admit that wolves and dogs (and foxes, hyenas, jackhalses and wild dogs) always have been seperate species! And quit publishing imaginative and confusing stories. Speculations and theories are NOT to be confused with actual facts...

  4. Alex says:

    As heard on the french radio a few weeks ago, it seems that domestication is a two-way process. Scientists have discovered that domesticated animals have smaller brains than wild ones (this being explained by the atrophy of danger-detection areas of the brain) but the funny fact is that through the period of time during which we domesticated dogs, our own brain did lose some weight (it was not the danger-related zone but our sense of smell that diminished)

  5. Anonymous says:

    Frederik, Science from a pre-historic time table is speculation unless they have actual facts such as bones and cave paintings etc. I believe the scientist provided quite a few valid facts about wolves and humans whether pre-historic or modern. I love White Wolf web site..

  6. "Scientists" are wont to flaunt their beliefs as fact and teachers, often stupid people who merely read and regurgitate statements, pass on these "scientific facts". I have long held that "domestication" of wolves into today's dogs was an error and this article further strengthens this. Neither species "needed" one another, Both were highly successful hunters and providers for their respective "packs". That humans were and are sloppy and most often foul their surroundings only provided fodder for scavenging wolves. It is far easier to scavenger than hunt for elusive prey. And, if one or more animals are more disposed to wolf/human contact than a continuing battle then the inevitable will seem to occur.Cats are almost entirely independent whilst dogs, even from birth, more often seek companionship with humans and adapt their needs and responses to that of human packs. Highly intelligent, dogs will almost always, unless presented with often typical brutish human actions, gravitate to the human pack and seek membership. In these cases, and coupled with their highly developed ability to read gestures and movements, are very capable of fitting right into a human family or a human group. That wolves have been victimized as monsters for hundreds of generations is only proof of human's brutishness and limited abilities of adaptation with surrounding fauna.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Now its time to begin educating people to leave the wolves for the wolf packs, in the wild, instead of trying to domesticate them. To many of them revert back to their wild instincts and cause serious problems. To many are killed and put down because of mans greed and ownership status.I watched a black timber wolf brought in to captivity, it was one of the saddest sights to see. He packed non stop in a small pen and would never be tamed, it was cruel what they did to him. They took him from his family, commrades and freedom to be a breeder in captivity. Even he wasn't happy with that arrangement!

  8. And what, @Frederik, is the scientific basis for your assertion that wolves, dogs, jackals, hyenas, etc. have "always been separate species?" I mean, if you go back for enough, there really are no separate species at all.

  9. And what, @Frederik, is the scientific basis for your assertion that wolves, dogs, jackals, hyenas, etc. have "always been separate species?" I mean, if you go back for enough, there really are no separate species at all.

  10. All animals are far more intelligent than we goofy humans would like to believe. Dogs/wolves, like humans, rely on familial groups and being the bright creatures they are probably realized and understood the similarities between our two species. Of course, if we had never fed the beasts they would never have come near us. Even today, food is the main goal of the average dog. If we didn't feed them from day one dogs, cats, and our other "pets" would not much care for us. Food is the unifier, after food comes attention and then love.

    Being the family oriented creatures they are they no doubt fit in perfectly with humans who are also family oriented. After learning they could manipulate the humans out of some food they probably figured they'd stay around the human camps. After a while they most certainly would have learned how to best get along with the humans and would have understood that to continue to live with the creatures that fed them and kept them warm, they too would have to hunt with the humans (humans would most likely have used dogs/wolves because of their superior sense of smell and tracking capabilities).

    There's a strange paragraph in this article that somewhat contradicts a paragraph further down. Paragraph 3 vs paragraph 10. If the original wolves did not have the ability to connect with the humans' body language and would have just competed with the humans, then the "protodog" scenario would not have been possible.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Amazing story! As someone who recently was "diagnosed" with terminal case of hippomania, I went on researching the object of my new-found passion. It appears the similar theory exists regarding domestication of horses. That it was the horse who came to humans and carried him away, teaching him about nomadic existence.

    We do still have a lot of problems in wild animals - human relationships. I would not argue with that. Let me remind you, though, the old shamanic believes - you manifest in the world more of what you pay attention to. I find it amazing, that humanity got to the point when so many individuals have grown to understand nature more, to nurture, revere and protect all that comes from it. To being humble in the face of the power beyond words that animals bring to us. I want to thank you all for being there, for being who you are. May there be more of us.

  12. Anonymous says:

    I find the wolf, to be incredible and far intelligent then other rare animals they love their pack and simply know how to survive taking care of young ones. I respect there right to be here.

  13. Anonymous says:

    I love your page and found this article very interesting. I did note that it said that not a single wolf was left by 1930. It has been my understanding that there were in fact a few hundred wolves still in Michigan and the great lakes area. Am I incorrect in that?

  14. Salma says:

    thank you for sharing. we are at a time in human evolution when we need to realize more than ever before that we dont need to kill any other being to live. we are not designed to eat meat, we have no claws, etc. and when we take from nature the abundance and variety of plant food that she offers, we need to thank her. thank you mother earth. and thank u wolves and all animals.. they all teach us something.. wolves are indeeed so brave.. not even a lion could do that, and now lions are going extincts because they are being killed by tribes in africa because they are threatening to eat their food. a wolf is more brave than a lion. thats why btw they seek wolves and kill them. it is said that native americans put a few wolf hair in the room, and no dark being from other dimension can dare be present in the room.. and the kings and the powerful ones have been using these dark beings to obtain power over the rest of the people. these dark beings dont like wolves.. wolves are ferociously brave and have their own individuality.. wow.. i love wolves :) thank u

  15. Salma says:

    all power unless it is from within though, is temporary and comes back to haunt the person that mis-used it. they are ignorant not powerful.

  16. Anonymous says:

    I have had dogs all my life. They have always been part of my family. Then I adopted a an Alaskan Malamute, Janai. She looked like pictures of Timber Wolves and she acted different from the dogs we had before. She was a hybrid. My relationship with her was one of the most wonderful adventures I have ever had. We had a partnership, in which I held controlling interest based on respect and trust. I had to understand her and work with her because she would never completely behave like a dog. She was more instinctual and less motivated by pleasing. Janai had big heart and she loved with ever inch of it. My family and I became her pack. She took care of us all -- even loved and protected Sid, our cat and Yethei, the maltese.


  17. Anonymous says:

    Native Americans and other aboriginal people (like our ancestors) lived WITH nature, learned from other predators and respected them. Later on in Europe, we killed all (like we are doing now) stupidly thinking the earth can survive without the balance between plants/insects/animals. I am sure the wolf approached humans to scavenge from our left overs and some choose to stay around. Native americans had dogs to pull the travois and probably ate them if not enough food were to be found. To me it is shocking that in the US and Canada, it is allowed to use traps, to kill or capture animals (Wolves and Coyotes etc). That it is allowed to catch (or buy) wolves or other big predators and KEEP them/and or breed them as pets. That is CRUEL! They are NOT domesticated and SUFFER closed up in cages, with no pack around.
    It's like a "normal" dog is not enough, to impress your neighbours, now you need to say I have a REAL WOLF! Would be fantastic if the immigrant population in North America learned from the Native americans how to respect ALL LIFE!
    Read somewhere that more wild animals (wolves, tigers, lions etc) live as PETS in the US than in all the zoos in the world together!! The same is happening now in China...among the rich it is "in" to own predators...and they go extinct.

  18. Unknown says:

    barely wait the time when such a being would be in opportunity to say what is their oppinion about humans, wether we could understand. so sad we are dominated species... without our brothers and sisters animals...
    my english isn't good enough so I appologise for mistakes at writing. hope you will understand what i wish to say...

  19. Anonymous says:

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