Men and Dogs: What's Behind Our 26,000-Year Partnership?

Credit: Photograph by Peter Amend

If you ever want to be humbled by the strange and improbable arc of human history, just take a look at your dog. Pound for pound, it is a much stronger, faster, and more efficient killer than you are. (Yes, even your goldendoodle.) At the top of its game, a dog can run down prey over long distances while maintaining a speed of 25 miles per hour. (The average marathon runner tops out at half that pace.) A dog can detect scents as subtle as a spoonful of sugar dissolved in enough water to fill two Olympic-size swimming pools. To top it off, its teeth are practically armored, with enamel crosshatched like ballistic nylon, making them capable of snapping bones and gnawing them to the marrow.

All we have are hands. And brains, of course. Large brains, complex brains, but brains that light up like the Vegas skyline when we're frightened, which tends to happen a lot when we encounter anything with large, bone-snapping jaws. That our highly risk-averse species, which spent millions of years either killing or fleeing animals with sharp teeth, yoked its fate so completely to a creature as formidable as the dog makes no sense at all, at least in terms of self-preservation. Nowhere else in nature do two predators consistently work together, let alone share a destiny. But casting our lot with the dog's ancestors was the best decision humans ever made. Without them, we might not be here in the first place.

While we know that the dog was the first animal to be domesticated, exactly where and how this happened is still a matter of debate. Fortunately, fossil records give us a range of clues. The oldest-known human footprints, stamped in the earth roughly 26,000 years ago inside the Chauvet Cave in southern France, belonged to a child. What's right beside them? The prints of a large canid — maybe not quite a dog yet, but an animal on its way to becoming one. DNA analysis of canid fossils found in Siberia point even further back, to about 35,000 years ago, when ancient wolves roamed much of what is now Asia and Europe, bringing them into regular contact with nomadic hunter-gatherers. These fossils weren't wolves, however. Their snouts were shorter, and their genes had taken a detour. They were most definitely dogs.

Until recently, there were two competing theories about how this change occurred. The first — which posits that a number of clever Homo sapiens either found orphaned wolf cubs or snatched them from their dens and tamed them — gives people all the credit. The second — which suggests that wolves lurked around human camps, scavenging on refuse and essentially taming themselves — attributes it to the canid.

Neither scenario makes solid sense. Even in the strictest laboratory conditions, tweaking the behavior of any animal via selective breeding is a slow, arduous process, and there are always more misses than hits. Just ask the Russian geneticists who have been attempting to domesticate silver foxes since 1959. They've had a great deal of success, but the process still isn't complete, and they started with a captive, rather than a wild, population. How likely is it that our ancestors, whose lives were the epitome of "nasty, brutish and short," would share their dinners with animals that could easily kill them? They sure didn't try it with jackals or hyenas.

That leaves us with the self-domestication theory: that friendlier wolves hit the evolutionary jackpot by dumpster-diving outside human settlements. The problem here is that human camps wouldn't become permanent for 20,000 years after the first dogs appeared. Would early nomads have allowed a hungry pack of predators to follow them from camp to camp without, at some point, busting out the stones and spears?

In the past decade or so, many scientists have settled on a third, more likely, possibility: that, in different locations and at different times, it was always a little of both. Some humans tamed wolves while other wolves allowed themselves to be tamed. Each interaction was different, but together, over time, they added up. The arrangement worked out better than it should have because both of our species rely on tightly knit social groups, cooperation, and communication to survive. We also seem to share a biological predisposition to travel long distances. And both the human and the canine brain seem to experience a runner's high after exercise. It was only natural, then, that these in-between creatures, these "proto-dogs," helped us hunt and that we kept them fed, the balance of power shifting back and forth in a continuous loop.

After many generations of this evolu­tionary two-step, the progenitors of today's gray wolf (Canis lupus) had morphed into a new subspecies (Canis lupus familiaris) that no longer fled from us but actively sought us out. It watched, listened, and learned from us in ways we are only just beginning to decipher. Did you know, for example, that when your dog looks at you, it is tracking the movement of your eyes? Or that dogs far surpass even chimps when it comes to understanding certain human gestures, like pointing? After so many years traveling alongside us, our canine companions are literally wired for human cooperation. Because of this, dogs steadily expanded across the globe, wherever man roamed, while wolf populations dwindled.

Even more remarkable, however, is that dogs defended us, even from other members of its own kind. It was only when our settlements were safe from marauding outsiders that finally, after thousands of years wandering the planet, we put down stakes and began to build. Once anchored, we learned to plant and farm and write. And then, well, the speed with which we took over the planet was unprecedented.

In other words, humans didn't yank dogs toward civilization; we staggered toward it together. Were it not for the protection and partnership dogs provided us, civilization might not have been possible.

For the past two centuries, we've managed to wring some of the wonder out of this dynamic process by focusing not on the marvel of the dog itself but on our control over it. Victorian dog breeders, in particular, fussed over its shape as a way of projecting their own vanity onto nature. The first half of the 20th century was devoted to portraying dogs as a dumbed-down servant in a dominance hierarchy of alphas and betas, a model that has been roundly debunked by behavioral science. Dogs, it turns out, aren't constantly fighting to be "pack leader." Their social groups are nearly as flexible as ours, if not more so.

Fortunately, a relatively new crop of researchers at places like the Family Dog Project in Hungary and the Canine Cognition Center at Duke University are studying all the parts of the human-canine bond that have withstood thousands of years of global turmoil, and their conclusions are pretty clear. The dog is no more a dumbed-down wolf than a human is a "dumbed-down" chimp. What each of our species lacks in brute strength, it makes up for in finely tuned problem-solving skills, one of which is our ability to work with other creatures and learn from them.

The writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote, "You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed." But you also owe a debt of gratitude to that which tamed you. Thanks to the dog, there's still a little wildness left in all of us.