National Geographic Daily News
A Yorkshire terrier and a researcher face off.

Who made the first moves toward friendship, humans or dogs?

Photograph by Vincent J. Musi, National Geographic

Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods

for National Geographic News

Published March 3, 2013

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. (See "How to Build a Dog.")

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.  (See "Wolf Wars.")

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. (See "People and Dogs: A Genetic Love Story.")

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.

Dr. Brian Hare is the director of the Duke Canine Cognition Center and Vanessa Woods is a research scientist at Duke University. This essay is adapted from their new book, The Genius of Dogs, published by Dutton. To play science-based games to find the genius in your dog, visit www.dognition.com.

71 comments
Michael Garvey
Michael Garvey

My dog killed 3 huge horseflies today and ate one of them and tore the head off another one. He is a long-hair miniature blonde dachshund. Awesome.

Sarah Hatherill
Sarah Hatherill

Wolf research is taking me to some fascinating places!

Elaine Chaika
Elaine Chaika

I AGREE THAT WOLVES HAD TO APPROACH HUMANS & DO THEM SERRVICES LIKE SCENTING OUT A WOUNDED PREY THAT HAD GONE TO COVER SO THAT HUMANS COULD THEN KILL THE PREY--AND TOSS SOME OF THE MEAT OR PERHAPS LEAVE THE CARCASS TO THE CANIDS.  SEE MY BLOG dogsandwolves-smartoldlady on blogspot.com

Elaine Chaika
Elaine Chaika

I agree! I've been researching dog evolution for the past 5 years. and have a blog http://dogsandwolves-smartoldlafy.blogspot.com.  My thesis is that humans couldn't have tamed wolves or controlled their mating practices.  Wolves had to have willingly given up denning, and move nearer to humans .  They initiated the human-dog bond.

Raphael Mandela
Raphael Mandela

I think, humans and dogs have come a long way together, but the catalyst for human civilization is not a dog, it is survival for the fittest...the more intelligent an individual is the more fit he is. I can attribute the intelligence of a dog to human training, though indirect, being an animal and living with another intelligent animal, the dog had to learn.  The fact that dogs also sort their mates, genetically intelligent dogs also came up and with time, we will see these dogs get more intelligent, perhaps more than any other animal (of course except humans). Evidence is, they're trainable, fast in understanding and friendlier than other animals. I'm not fond of cats but, I don't think they measure to the intelligence of a dog. I'm tempted to think that cat's intelligence is driven by instincts than observation

Craig Paup
Craig Paup

Baboons in Egypt capture and domesticate wild dogs (there's a youtube video). It seems just as reasonable to suppose that the first humans already had dogs. No matter who chose who, we go way back and it seems like we may have co-evolved dependently on each other.

judylee peters
judylee peters

Seriously.......On the 6th day GOD made all animals!  Dogs have been around a long time!  : )  Have a nice day!

judylee peters
judylee peters

Seriously.......On the 6th day GOD made all animals!  Dogs have been around a long time!  : )  Have a nice day!

judylee peters
judylee peters

Seriously.......On the 6th day GOD made all animals!  Dogs have been around a long time!  : )  Have a nice day!

Denise Cummins
Denise Cummins

I have always wondered whether omega wolves (those lowest on the wolf social hierarchy) were the origins of the modern dog. As this article points out, approaches by aggressive wolves (as alphas and betas tend to be) would probably not have been tolerated by early humans. But gentler, more timid omegas may have been not only tolerated, but welcomed for companionship. Cross-species friendships are not that infrequent in the animal world. 

Ardith Peterson
Ardith Peterson

I think that one of the best points of this story is not that the strong survive and the weak perish it's that the intelligent survive.  Humans survived and the Neanderthals died out.  Wolves on the other hand came along and we killed off the strong and aggressive ones then the intelligent members of the pack became friendly to the humans and they were the ones to survive.  

Which means:  Intelligence = Suck Up = Survival of the Species.  

Joe Ciolino
Joe Ciolino

OK, so Love pussyct's, they're sooo sweet, soft & sooo friendly, yes, they even come over if I feed them & never return to their little Lion trainer'. Why, tell me why?. Well tell them it's because they are starving for a lack of Whales & some endangered feathered friends. Point is, there are feline admin's here too, that must live in a major city & don't have a clue as to what I'm referring to? I guess small animals don't count in Nat. world. Maybe good bye contributions for the un-called for, sensorship potential.

birds? Hypocrits.

Joe Ciolino
Joe Ciolino

Truth is, they have severely decimated song bird populations. Sadly, most cat owners are really proud when their liitle lion brings home a Gold Finch, Painted Bunting (now believed to be extinct) or similar). I have several bird feeders & have to be very vigilant that their lion handler / owner, stuff paper in the collar bell? Over one million song birds are killed yearly domestically, as when baby birds leave their nest, they are poor flyers for three or so days. So enjoy that, useless Kil'er. If people were responsible it would be fine, but there's always one to ten% that don't care. No worse, I guess, to the Japanese Whalers. But, I bet many of you pissed off readers are super angry with the Whalers Eh? Save the Whales, kill the birds? Hypocrits.

Gene Ewald
Gene Ewald

Love it when people have their own theories. Art, look up anecdotal. 

Two things come to mind; the friendly aspect and the motivation of the humans. Why would anyone make an effort to tame the unfriendly wild animal? Maybe I'd work with a wild animal that seemed to want to hang out with me.

Second, the work has already been done by a Russian Vet that worked with a line of foxes … canines  of their own line. She kept may generations over fifty years. She only bred the friendliest of any litter. Eventually, she had a line of floppy ears, mottled coats and were to all appearances-puppies.

Art Riechert
Art Riechert

I have my own theory on what happened and it has to do with the fact that puppies like to eat human feces.  They love it in fact and the more meat humans eat the more puppies like to eat human manure.  I think young wolves followed humans to clean up after them so to speak and this was probably welcomed by human tribes of hunter gatherers.   I think the domestication of the wolf can be directly attributed to the propensity of puppies like to eat human excrement. 

Shane Korthals
Shane Korthals

What?  You mean that civilization didn't come from wheel, fire, and BEER?  This is a blasphemy against Ninkasi!

Ray Audette
Ray Audette

The physiological differences between wolves and dogs are the same as between Neanderthals and Modern Humans.  These are as a result of the most common mutation in both plants and animals, neoteny.  Tame wolves and those humans who tolerated them would have a distinct advantage in hunting.  The neotenized humans would also need distinctly different tools to take advantage of this new symbiosis.  These new tools are evident in the archeological record during the transition from Neanderthal to us.

Ray Audette

Author "NeanderThin"

Keith Cameron
Keith Cameron

Sorry Cat people, but your pet of choice has made no serious impact upon Humans.

El Howard
El Howard

I think it is more accurate to say that dogs and humans have co-evolved for tens of thousands of years, to the point that we are now in a symbiotic relationship. The canines that were allowed to survive in close proximity to humans were selected for non-aggressiveness, which changed them as a species. And dogs are one of a few species that understands what it means when a human points; our closest relatives chimpanzees don't even understand that! (I think it requires putting yourself into someone else's mind and trying to see things from their viewpoint.)

Bon Bovi
Bon Bovi

It seems much more intuitive to presume humans noticed the wolves ability to hunt, their keen senses and perhaps their tendency to be social, then began trapping wolves, and breeding them as guard dogs and assistants in the hunt. This would probably only take a few generations of pups before you had a fairly domesticated animal. What seems harder to explain is how we ended up with so many breeds of dog of all shapes and sizes if the initial domesticated dog did descend from wolves. 

Bill Skywatcher
Bill Skywatcher

We are often so ignorant when we think of evolution. Turn back the clock, and what you see today is not what was seen then. Maybe there was a creature that was evolved into BOTH wolves and dogs years and years ago? That would account for both their different natures and different appearances. All we need to do is find the evidence.

Andrei Bilderburger
Andrei Bilderburger

The authors are full of it. Cats domesticated people.  People domesticated dogs.


We breed dogs to do different tasks, most were working dogs until quite recent times, and we dominate and control dogs.


Cats do what they want, when they want, don't do work, and come and go as they please.  We cater to them.  


We made dogs work, then fed them.


We built special structures (barns and silos) to attract rats so cats could have a snack any time they wanted one.   Nowadays we feed cats things they could never catch in the wild (salmon, beef, pork, lamb, tuna) while giving dogs the leftovers of critters they could take down just fine if we let them run free.

Eric Smith
Eric Smith

Misinterpretation of "survival of the fittest".  "Fittest" means the organism that most successfully fills a niche.  Not necessarily the strongest.  E.g. Panhandlers are fit, in that they are adept at exploiting our waste, excess resources, and social safety net without working.

Also, why talk about "humans" categorically?  Just because some humans killed wolves doesn't mean they all did.  Most humans don't mind smashing spiders, but some of them put them in cups and transport them outside.

Ernie Ostuno
Ernie Ostuno

"By 1930, there was not a wolf left in the 48 contiguous states of America." This is incorrect. Wolves survived in the "arrowhead" of northeast Minnesota, even after they were wiped out in the northern Rockies.

Patrick O'Connor
Patrick O'Connor

Humans were dogs method for securing sofas and central heating.

Adam Colon
Adam Colon

The measurement of "fittest" is inseperatble from the environment of the subject.  In the case of wolves around humans, fittest means "friendliest" or (more accurately) most beneficial to humans (whether this is helpful via hunting or companionship)

Ana R Cixi
Ana R Cixi

I think it is more likely that wolves/dogs literally adopted some humans.  The story of Romulus and Remus would be a mythic memory of this event.  Among hunter-gatherer-warriors, a man who had been raised by wolves and was allied with them would be a formidable competitor.  The wolves would tend to select humans who were submissive to pack authority, which we observe plenty of in daily life even today.


However, it was cats that made civilization possible.  The long-term storage and transport of grain, necessary to the life of established towns (cities, forts) would have been impossible due to the ability of small rodents to invade, eat, and multiply rapidly, unless cats kept their numbers down.  The power of rodents is remembered mythically in the person of Apollo, originally a mouse god, and the bringer of pestilence (see the beginning of the Iliad).  It is not surprising that early Egypt, dependent on the storage of grain, made gods of their cats.

Krypto Thesuperdog
Krypto Thesuperdog

"Dogs may even have been the catalyst for our civilization." Now that's a fascinating and huge implication! Could it be that wolves taught us that we could coexist and partner with others? Surely back then, we as humans did not have the construct that we were superior to other animals, nor did we understand how we could benefit from tribal relationships with each other. So perhaps wolves did teach us that, hence, were the catalyst for civilization. 

Amanda Stone
Amanda Stone

@Art Riechert Love it!  When we had our babies I would sometimes leave the rolled up dirty nappy on the changing mat to clear after sorting out my baby.  One day when I returned it had been opened and the contents eaten by our dog!  You never look at your dog the same way after that. 

John Kaplun
John Kaplun

Ray, Neanderthals had pretty much the same tools as us. And we did not evolve from them, although we interbred at some point. We split from them about 500,000 years ago. Thanks for the reference to neoteny, it was interesting reading.

George Antrobus
George Antrobus

@Keith Cameron --  Do you count civilization as a "serious impact?"  Before agriculture, our ancestors had to devote almost all available time and energy to survival.  Agriculture increased the amount of food that an average person's labor could produce, and also increased the stability of food supply -- and that freed up time for things like writing, art, building, and other things we associate with culture.

Part of what makes agriculture work, is the ability to store the harvest, both to spread the availability of food across the calendar, and to provide seed for next year's crop.  But large grain stores attract rodents whose population would increase rapidly, and consume most of the grain.

If the ancient Egyptians didn't have cats guarding their granaries, could they have built the monuments at which we still marvel today?

Jos Poortvliet
Jos Poortvliet

@Bon Bovi You assume that the humans seeing these wolves' ability to hunt etc had any clue that it'd be possible to breed them into a different animal. Considering plenty of people on this planet STILL don't believe that that is possible it is quite a stretch to assume humans tens of thousands of years ago, before we ever had any successful example of breeding animals or plants, came up with that idea AND did it. The idea that wolves ate our waste and started to become domesticated that way seems far less unlikely to me.

Doreen Lathrop
Doreen Lathrop

Not quite correct.  While all cats will hunt rodents, they like to roam.  If a farmer wanted a good mouser to stay around, he had to feed them extra.  Or they would move on.

El Howard
El Howard

@Eric Smith I think people misinterpret survival of the fittest as survival of the fittest individual, when really evolution is driven by the survival of groups (tribes, herds, packs, etc.) Altruism favors survival of the group, not the individual, and yet it is part of our nature. In the case of dogs, groups comprised of humans and dogs working in a symbiotic relationship survived better than humans or dogs on their own; thus the dogs and humans co-evolved. Humans did kill the aggressive wolves, leaving only the least aggressive (and cutest) canines to survive in close proximity to humans. Selectively breeding only the least aggressive animals quickly changes the species, just like in the Russian domesticated silver fox experiment.

Cassandra Barndt
Cassandra Barndt

That is an interesting point. We do have a habit of mimicing other species to figure things out. There is a chance we developed a pack-like relationship with the more "docile" wolves and they were one of the many catalysts to push us towards modern day.

El Howard
El Howard

@Krypto Thesuperdog And all this time I thought agriculture (aided by irrigation) was the catalyst for civilization... silly me!

Chris Coles
Chris Coles

@Phillip Corona @judylee peters  I think it's much easier and logical to believe that God placed animals on the earth than to believe they evolved from a magical soup of bacteria over millions of years. Magically everything came alive? I believe YOUR religion of evolution requires MUCH more faith.

Cassandra Barndt
Cassandra Barndt

I'm a Livestock Major of sorts. Doreen, I have to agree with you completely. Any good barn mouser now adays is on the fat end because we fed a stray at some point. And the barns were developped to help us handle and store or food, both plant and animal forms.

Samantha Collins
Samantha Collins

@El Howard @Krypto Thesuperdog 

Beasts of burden made a huge impact on agricultural, architectural, and economic development in a culture; and the adoption of livestock is one of the (admittedly many and nuanced) factors that powered history's great civilizations.  The dog was one of the first such beasts, so it may not be a mutually exclusive explanation.

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