How Puppies Were Raised in the Wild

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant, and author of "Brain Training for Dogs."

Everything You Need to Know About Puppies: First Days and Weeks

Puppies are very vulnerable creatures. Once they are delivered into this world, they cannot see and they cannot hear. All they can rely on is their sense of touch and smell. Their sense of smell will tell them who their mom is, and their sense of smell will direct them towards their very first source of food—a special type of fluid produced by their mother in the first 24–48 hours.

This type of milk is often known as ''mother's gold'' because it is a thick, yellow-golden substance that provides puppies with all the essential nutrients and immune-system boosters to protect them from diseases for some time.

Do Puppies Get Immunity From Their Mothers?

In a litter of pups, the most assertive pup will suckle more than the others and will, therefore, receive the majority of these antibodies while the submissive ones will receive the least. In a domestic setting, this colostrum covers the timeframe from the when the puppy is born until the time the puppy has completed its whole vaccination boosters. However, there will be a delicate window where the antibodies taper off and the vaccines are not yet effective. This small window of opportunity may cause disease to strike.

"Mother's Gold" or Colostrum

In the wild, the level of antibodies absorbed through the colostrum will diminish gradually and the puppy must rely only on its own strength and immunity to make it in the tough world of survival. Quite often out of a litter, some puppies may not make it either because of disease, a hereditary disorder, or a malfunctioning organ. These puppies may appear to be healthy and strong the first day suckling the colostrum well, and in the next days, they may weaken and stray away from their mother and siblings.

As cruel as it may seem, the mother may help this pup up to a certain point. Because in nature, dogs must rely on survival, the mother may give up on the puppy if it appears not to be healthy and strong enough to suckle. Her energy must be concentrated on the stronger pups allowing them to feed and survive.

"Fading Puppy" Syndrome

In a domestic setting, such puppies are often called ''fading puppies.'' They sometimes can be helped by owners. If they do get better, they may gain enough strength to go back to their mom and siblings and continue to suckle. However, in nature, such puppies are not given this opportunity.

Are Dogs Den Animals?

In nature, the mother dog will rely on her instinct to keep the den clean. She will stimulate the puppies to urinate and defecate by licking their rear. Licking the pups is also a great way for her to bond with them. She will also ingest the pup's waste to ensure a good level of hygiene. Dens indeed are never dirty, mother dog works hard on keeping it clean. In a domestic setting, this is what helps puppies with crate training. Because a crate is similar to a den, puppies have an inherited instinct to not want to soil where they sleep and live.

In nature, mother dogs are generally quite protective about the puppies during their first few days and weeks. All it takes sometimes is to give other dogs a stare, to keep them away from her litter. The pups are very vulnerable creatures at that time, mostly feeding and sleeping 90% of the time. In a domestic setting, this is when the mother dog may growl at the owners. However, this behavior often gradually dissipates as the puppies grow more independent and are less vulnerable.

When Do Puppies Open Their Eyes?

After about 15 days, a puppy's eyes will open and a few days later they will capable of fully hearing. This is when the pups start to be able to eliminate without their mother's intervention. They also start to stand on their legs.

Common Puppy Behavior: Disciplining and Correcting

As the pups grow, a mother dog must teach them limitations. The mother dog will have no problem disciplining her pups consistently and effectively. She will grab the pups by the scruff and give a light but effective correction with an inhibited mouth.

Why Is the Mom-Dog Growling at Her Puppies?

As time goes by, the mother dog will start taking distance from the pups. The pups will grow interested in meeting other pack members. A pack of dogs is often composed of eight to ten members. Meeting various other dogs often creates mixed feelings. There will be dogs that may not tolerate the pups and will growl to be left alone, whereas there will be other pack members willing to play with the pups or simply accept their company.

Why Do Puppies Roll on Their Backs and Pee?

When dealing with the older dogs, the pups will roll on their back showing their bellies in submission and respect and sometimes may urinate as well. These are the first signs of submission. In a domestic setting, this sometimes takes place when owners scold pups or intimidate them with their body posture. This is defined as ''puppy submissive urination.''

Members of Wolf Packs Often Lend a Hand in Rearing Puppies

In nature, dogs perform ''alpha rolls'' on their own. No dog forces a dog to do an alpha roll as humans do. Forced alpha rolls in nature are rare events and only take place when one dog has a serious intent to injure or kill by biting the neck. This mostly occurs in captivity. In a wolf pack, other pack members would naturally step in to lend a hand in raising the pups. Pack members with strong nurturing instincts would assume the role of ''nannies'' and take over.

Pre-adolescence is a critical stage in dogs. Most dogs reach adolescence from the age of 6 to 8 months. Dogs are teenagers often until the age of three. Puppy-hood is a very short period of time in a dog's life. This is when the pups will want to explore more and join the pack in longer walks.

They also learn to further respect the elder pack members. A pup that gets too close to another dog while eating will be quickly corrected with a growl or snap. The puppy learns quickly. They will, therefore, wait to inspect for leftovers once the elder ranking dog has left the scene. Corrections rarely draw blood. They are mostly symbolic gestures of force without doing major harm. This is referred to as "ritualized aggression."

As the dog becomes an adolescent, he will reach his rebellious stage. He will display testing behaviors such as putting his head on the other dog's shoulder or attempting to take another dog's food. If they are interested in a mate, they will even challenge elder dogs. Once an adult, the adolescent dog may separate from the pack, mate, and form its own pack. The birth of a new litter will, therefore, unfold another life cycle, repeating over and over again.

© 2009 Adrienne Farricelli

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 26, 2020:

Hi tofu, thanks for bringing this to my attention. As a dog trainer and behavior consultant, I must admit that yes, this article is very outdated.

Indeed, I wrote this over 10 years ago at a time when there wasn't much of the research out as of today and I wasn't even yet a dog trainer, but just a very passionate dog lover working for a veterinary practice, where even there, info was pretty much outdated.

This articles needs a lot of editing, so I am going to un-publish it shortly or maybe even delete it for good. I will decide what to do in the next few days.

Once again, thanks for pointing this out to me.

t0fu on August 17, 2020:

As a canine behaviorist and trainer, I want to address a couple very important things in this article that are outdated

The first issue here is that dogs are not wild when not raised by humans but feral as they are a domestic species. This is true for any "wild" domestic animal such as cats, horses, etc.

The section on wolves and alpha rolling is very outdated and does not match with any current wolf or dog research (See research by David Mech). Wolves live in a pack of a family unit, and in captivity are often compromised of wolves pulled from different places and put together. This means what we observe in captivity is not true to their behavior. They may establish something ofg a pecking order but really what we're seeing is things like resource guarding from each other instead of "alpha" or "elder" behavior. In true wold nature, wolves live in a family unit. They are made up a breeding male and female, followed by their offspring of various ages who may help raise young but these are not random adult wolves. A wolf pack may tolerate another breeding pair in their pack but it's not the norm.

Additonally, dogs do not always pin or "alpha roll" (a very outdated term) to correct each other and it is usually through a scuffle or fight. Dogs, in recent studies, have found to not even be true pack animals as they lack the fundamentals that other wild canids have of staying together and raising young together until the young are adults. Males play no active role in puppy rearing and females will stop being active much quicker than any wild canid, usually starting around 8 weeks of age. Feral dogs are social creatures and like to congregate during the day, and they don't have a dominance structure. Dogs can change their dynamics between each other, one dog who is dominant to a certain dog may be submissive to a different dog which has nothing to do with rank as age does not play a factor in who they are submissive to.

It is important to dispel these myths as training and attitude based on these false, outdated theories is damaging to dogs and their welfare. the American Society of Veterinary Behaviorists have position statements stating they do not agree or encourage training around these methods. David Mech is also working hard to educate about how his study on wolf behavior in the past was inaccurate to advocate for dog welfare in training. Multiple studies have shown that dogs respond better and thrive of of positive reinforcement based training.

Kathryn L Hill from LA on January 11, 2012:

very insightful.

Rock on September 07, 2010:

Awesome article, it really gave me some insight and ideas to use in my own dog training.

Taming the Wild

Only a handful of wild animal species have been successfully bred to get along with humans. The reason, scientists say, is found in their genes.

"Hello! How are you doing?" Lyudmila Trut says, reaching down to unlatch the door of a wire cage labeled "Mavrik." We're standing between two long rows of similar crates on a farm just outside the city of Novosibirsk, in southern Siberia, and the 76-year-old biologist's greeting is addressed not to me but to the cage's furry occupant. Although I don't speak Russian, I recognize in her voice the tone of maternal adoration that dog owners adopt when addressing their pets.

Mavrik, the object of Trut's attention, is about the size of a Shetland sheepdog, with chestnut orange fur and a white bib down his front. He plays his designated role in turn: wagging his tail, rolling on his back, panting eagerly in anticipation of attention. In adjacent cages lining either side of the narrow, open-sided shed, dozens of canids do the same, yelping and clamoring in an explosion of fur and unbridled excitement. "As you can see," Trut says above the din, "all of them want human contact." Today, however, Mavrik is the lucky recipient. Trut reaches in and scoops him up, then hands him over to me. Cradled in my arms, gently jawing my hand in his mouth, he's as docile as any lapdog.

Except that Mavrik, as it happens, is not a dog at all. He's a fox. Hidden away on this overgrown property, flanked by birch forests and barred by a rusty metal gate, he and several hundred of his relatives are the only population of domesticated silver foxes in the world. (Most of them are, indeed, silver or dark gray Mavrik is rare in his chestnut fur.) And by "domesticated" I don't mean captured and tamed, or raised by humans and conditioned by food to tolerate the occasional petting. I mean bred for domestication, as tame as your tabby cat or your Labrador. In fact, says Anna Kukekova, a Cornell researcher who studies the foxes, "they remind me a lot of golden retrievers, who are basically not aware that there are good people, bad people, people that they have met before, and those they haven't." These foxes treat any human as a potential companion, a behavior that is the product of arguably the most extraordinary breeding experiment ever conducted.

It started more than a half century ago, when Trut was still a graduate student. Led by a biologist named Dmitry Belyaev, researchers at the nearby Institute of Cytology and Genetics gathered up 130 foxes from fur farms. They then began breeding them with the goal of re-creating the evolution of wolves into dogs, a transformation that began more than 15,000 years ago.

With each generation of fox kits, Belyaev and his colleagues tested their reactions to human contact, selecting those most approachable to breed for the next generation. By the mid-1960s the experiment was working beyond what he could've imagined. They were producing foxes like Mavrik, not just unafraid of humans but actively seeking to bond with them. His team even repeated the experiment in two other species, mink and rats. "One huge thing that Belyaev showed was the timescale," says Gordon Lark, a University of Utah biologist who studies dog genetics. "If you told me the animal would now come sniff you at the front of the cage, I would say it's what I expect. But that they would become that friendly toward humans that quickly… wow."

Miraculously, Belyaev had compressed thousands of years of domestication into a few years. But he wasn't just looking to prove he could create friendly foxes. He had a hunch that he could use them to unlock domestication's molecular mysteries. Domesticated animals are known to share a common set of characteristics, a fact documented by Darwin in The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication. They tend to be smaller, with floppier ears and curlier tails than their untamed progenitors. Such traits tend to make animals appear appealingly juvenile to humans. Their coats are sometimes spotted—piebald, in scientific terminology—while their wild ancestors' coats are solid. These and other traits, sometimes referred to as the domestication phenotype, exist in varying degrees across a remarkably wide range of species, from dogs, pigs, and cows to some nonmammalians like chickens, and even a few fish.

Belyaev suspected that as the foxes became domesticated, they too might begin to show aspects of a domestication phenotype. He was right again: Selecting which foxes to breed based solely on how well they got along with humans seemed to alter their physical appearance along with their dispositions. After only nine generations, the researchers recorded fox kits born with floppier ears. Piebald patterns appeared on their coats. By this time the foxes were already whining and wagging their tails in response to a human presence, behaviors never seen in wild foxes.

Driving those changes, Belyaev postulated, was a collection of genes that conferred a propensity to tameness—a genotype that the foxes perhaps shared with any species that could be domesticated. Here on the fox farm, Kukekova and Trut are searching for precisely those genes today. Elsewhere, researchers are delving into the DNA of pigs, chickens, horses, and other domesticated species, looking to pinpoint the genetic differences that came to distinguish them from their ancestors. The research, accelerated by the recent advances in rapid genome sequencing, aims to answer a fundamental biological question: "How is it possible to make this huge transformation from wild animals into domestic animals?" says Leif Andersson, a professor of genome biology at Uppsala University, in Sweden. The answer has implications for understanding not just how we domesticated animals, but how we tamed the wild in ourselves as well.

The exercise of dominion over plants and animals is arguably the most consequential event in human history. Along with cultivated agriculture, the ability to raise and manage domesticated fauna—of which wolves were likely the first, but chickens, cattle, and other food species the most important—altered the human diet, paving the way for settlements and eventually nation-states to flourish. By putting humans in close contact with animals, domestication also created vectors for the diseases that shaped society.

Yet the process by which it all happened has remained stubbornly impenetrable. Animal bones and stone carvings can sometimes shed light on the when and whereeach species came to live side by side with humans. More difficult to untangle is the how. Did a few curious boar creep closer to human populations, feeding off their garbage and with each successive generation becoming a little more a part of our diet? Did humans capture red jungle fowl, the ancestor of the modern chicken, straight from the wild—or did the fowl make the first approach? Out of 148 large mammal species on Earth, why have no more than 15 ever been domesticated? Why have we been able to tame and breed horses for thousands of years, but never their close relative the zebra, despite numerous attempts?

In fact, scientists have even struggled to define domestication precisely. We all know that individual animals can be trained to exist in close contact with humans. A tiger cub fed by hand, imprinting on its captors, may grow up to treat them like family. But that tiger's offspring, at birth, will be just as wild as its ancestors. Domestication, by contrast, is not a quality trained into an individual, but one bred into an entire population through generations of living in proximity to humans. Many if not most of the species' wild instincts have long since been lost. Domestication, in other words, is mostly in the genes.

Yet the borders between domesticated and wild are often fluid. A growing body of evidence shows that historically, domesticated animals likely played a large part in their own taming, habituating themselves to humans before we took an active role in the process. "My working hypothesis," says Greger Larson, an expert on genetics and domestication at Durham University in the United Kingdom, "is that with most of the early animals—dogs first, then pigs, sheep, and goats—there was probably a long period of time of unintentional management by humans." The word domestication "implies something top down, something that humans did intentionally," he says. "But the complex story is so much more interesting."

The fox-farm experiment's role in unraveling that complexity is all the more remarkable for how it began. The Soviet biology establishment of the mid-20th century, led under Joseph Stalin by the infamous agronomist Trofim Lysenko, outlawed research into Mendelian genetics. But Dmitry Belyaev and his older brother Nikolay, both biologists, were intrigued by the possibilities of the science. "It was his brother's influence that caused him to have this special interest in genetics," Trut says of her mentor. "But these were the times when genetics was considered fake science." When the brothers flouted the prohibition and continued to conduct Mendelian-based studies, Belyaev lost his job as director of the Department of Fur Breeding. Nikolay's fate was more tragic: He was exiled to a labor camp, where he eventually died.

Secretly, Belyaev remained dedicated to genetic science, disguising his work as research in animal physiology. He was particularly consumed with the question of how such an incredible diversity of dogs could have arisen from their wolf ancestors. The answer, he knew, must lie at the molecular level. But even outside the Soviet Union, in the 1950s, the technology to sequence an animal's genome—and thereby try to understand how its genes had changed through history—was an impossible dream. So Belyaev decided to reproduce history himself. The silver fox, a fellow canid and close cousin of dogs that had never been domesticated, seemed the perfect choice.

Lyudmila Trut's first job as a grad student, in 1958, was to travel around to Soviet fur farms and select the calmest foxes she could find, to serve as the base population for Belyaev's experiment. The prohibition on genetic studies had thawed since Stalin's death in 1953, and Belyaev set up shop in Siberia at the newly minted Institute of Cytology and Genetics. Still, he was careful to frame the study only in terms of physiology, leaving out any mention of genes. Trut recalls that when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev arrived to inspect the institute, he was overheard to say, "What, are those geneticists still around? Were they not destroyed?" Protected by the careful politics of Belyaev's boss and favorable articles on genetics written by Khrushchev's journalist daughter, the fox-farm experiment quietly began.

By 1964 the fourth generation was already beginning to live up to the researchers' hopes. Trut can still remember the moment when she first saw a fox wag its tail at her approach. Before long, the most tame among them were so doglike that they would leap into researchers' arms and lick their faces. At times the extent of the animals' tameness surprised even the researchers. Once, in the 1970s, a worker took one of the foxes home temporarily as a pet. When Trut visited him, she found the owner taking his fox for walks, unleashed, "just like a dog. I said 'Don't do that, we'll lose it, and it belongs to the institute!'" she recalls. "He said 'just wait,' then he whistled and said, 'Coca!' It came right back."

Simultaneously, more of the foxes began to show signs of the domestication phenotype: floppy ears retained longer in development and characteristic white spots on their coats. "At the beginning of the 1980s, we observed a kind of explosion-like change of the external appearance," says Trut. The research had expanded to include rats in 1972, followed by mink and—for a brief period—river otters. The otters proved difficult to breed and the experiment was eventually abandoned, but the scientists were able to shape the behavior of the other two species in parallel with the foxes.

Just as the genetic tools became available to accomplish Belyaev's end goal of tracing that connection to the animal's DNA, however, the project fell on hard times. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, scientific funds began to dwindle, and the researchers could do little more than keep the fox population alive. When Belyaev died of cancer in 1985, Trut took over the research and fought to keep it funded. But by the beginning of the 21st century, she was in danger of having to shut down the experiment.

Around the same time, Anna Kukekova, a Russian-born postdoc in molecular genetics at Cornell, read about the project's struggles. She had been fascinated with the fox-farm work for years, and now decided to focus her own research on the experiment. With help from Utah's Gordon Lark and a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), she joined Trut's effort to try and finish what Belyaev had started.

Not all the foxes on the farm in Novosibirsk, it turns out, are as friendly as Mavrik. Across the small road from him and his fellow tame foxes is an identical-looking shed full of wire crates, each holding one of what the researchers refer to as the "aggressive foxes." To study the biology of tameness, the scientists needed to create a group of decidedly untame animals. So in a mirror image of the friendly foxes, the kits in the aggressive population are rated according to the hostility of their behavior. Only the most aggressive are bred for the next generation. Here are the evil twins of the tail-wagging Mavrik, straight out of a B-grade horror film: hissing, baring their teeth, snapping at the front of their cages when any human approaches.

"I'd like to draw your attention to this fox," says Trut, pointing to one snarling creature nearby. "You can see how aggressive she is. She was born to an aggressive mother but brought up by a tame mother." The switch, the result of the aggressive mother being unable to feed its kit, serendipitously proved a point: The foxes' response to humans is more nature than it is nurture. "Here," she says, "it's the genetics that change."

Identifying the precise genetic footprint involved in tameness, however, is proving extremely tricky science. First the researchers need to find the genes responsible for creating friendly and aggressive behaviors. Such general behavior traits, however, are actually amalgamations of more specific ones—fear, boldness, passivity, curiosity—that must be teased apart, measured, and traced to individual genes or sets of genes working in combination. Once those genes are identified, the researchers can test whether the ones influencing behavior are also behind the floppy ears and piebald coats and other features that characterize domesticated species. One theory among the scientists in Novosibirsk is that the genes guiding the animals' behavior do so by altering chemicals in their brains. Changes to those neurochemicals, in turn, have "downstream" impacts on the animals' physical appearance.

For now, though, Kukekova is focused on the first step: linking tame behavior to genes. Toward the end of every summer, she travels from Cornell to Novosibirsk to evaluate the year's newborn kits. Each researcher's interaction with a kit is standardized and videotaped: opening a cage, reaching a hand in, touching the fox. Later, Kukekova reviews the tapes, using objective measures to quantify the foxes' postures, vocalizations, and other behaviors. Those data are layered on top of a pedigree—records that keep track of tame, aggressive, and "crossed" foxes (those with parents from each group).

The joint American-Russian research team then extracts DNA from blood samples of each fox in the study and scans for stark differences in the genomes of those that scored as aggressive or tame in the behavioral measures. In a paper in press in Behavior Genetics, the group reports finding two regions that are widely divergent in the two behavioral types and might thus harbor key domestication genes. Increasingly, it appears that domestication is driven not by a single gene but a suite of genetic changes. "Domestication," the paper concludes, "appears to be a very complex phenotype."

As it happens, 2,800 miles to the west in Leipzig, Germany, another laboratory is at the exact same juncture in understanding domestication genes in rats. Frank Albert, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, obtained 30 descendants of Belyaev's rats (15 tame, 15 aggressive) in two wooden boxes from Siberia in 2004. "What we found were regions of the genome that influence tameness and aggression," says Albert. "But we don't know which genes cause these signals." Like Kukekova's group, he says, "we are in the process of whittling down the number."

Once either group is able to pinpoint one or more of the specific genetic pathways involved, they or other researchers can look for parallel genes in other domesticated species. "In a perfect situation, we'd like to define specific genes involved in tame and aggressive behaviors," says Kukekova. "Even when we find those, we will not know if they are the genes for domestication until we compare them in other animals."

Ultimately, the biggest payoff of the research may come from finding similar genes in the most thoroughly domesticated species of all: human beings. "Understanding what has changed in these animals is going to be incredibly informative," says Elaine Ostrander, of the National Human Genome Research Institute at NIH. "Everyone is waiting with great excitement for what they come out with."

Not all domestication researchers believe that Belyaev's silver foxes will unlock the secrets of domestication. Uppsala University's Leif Andersson, who studies the genetics of farm animals—and who lauds Belyaev and his fellow researchers' contribution to the field—believes that the relationship between tameness and the domestication phenotype may prove to be less direct than the fox study implies. "You select on one trait and you see changes in other traits," Andersson says, but "there has never been proven a causal relationship."

To understand how Andersson's view differs from that of the researchers in Novosibirsk, it's helpful to try and imagine how the two theories might have played out historically. Both would agree that the animals most likely to be domesticated were those predisposed to human contact. Some mutation, or collection of mutations, in their DNA caused them to be less afraid of humans, and thus willing to live closer to them. Perhaps they fed off human refuse or benefited from inadvertent shelter from predators. At some point humans saw some benefit in return from these animal neighbors and began helping that process along, actively selecting for the most amenable ones and breeding them. "At the beginning of the domestication process, only natural selection was at work," as Trut puts it. "Down the road, this natural selection was replaced with artificial selection."

Where Andersson differs is in what happened next. If Belyaev and Trut are correct, the self-selection and then human selection of less fearful animals carried with it other components of the domestication phenotype, such as curly tails and smaller bodies. In Andersson's view, that theory understates the role humans played in selecting those other traits. Sure, curiosity and lack of fear may have started the process, but once animals were under human control, they were also protected from wild predators. Random mutations for physical traits that might quickly have been weeded out in the wild, like white spots on a dark coat, were allowed to persist. Then they flourished, in part because, well, people liked them. "It wasn't that the animals behaved differently," as Andersson says, "it's just that they were cute."

In 2009 Andersson bolstered his theory by comparing mutations in coat-color genes between several varieties of domesticated and wild pigs. The results, he reported, "demonstrate that early farmers intentionally selected pigs with novel coat coloring. Their motivations could have been as simple as a preference for the exotic or selection for reduced camouflage."

Right: Natural Colored Sheep

In his own hunt for domestication genes, Andersson is taking a close look at the most populous domesticated animal on Earth: the chicken. Their ancestors, red jungle fowl, roamed freely in the jungles of India, Nepal, and other parts of South and Southeast Asia. Somewhere around 8,000 years ago, humans started breeding them for food. Last year Andersson and his colleagues compared the full genomes of domesticated chickens with those of zoo-based populations of red jungle fowl. They identified a mutation, in a gene known as TSHR, that was found only in domestic populations. The implication is that TSHRthereby played some role in domestication, and now the team is working to determine exactly what the TSHR mutation controls. Andersson hypothesizes that it could play a role in the birds' reproductive cycles, allowing chickens to breed more frequently in captivity than red jungle fowl do in the wild—a trait early farmers would have been eager to perpetuate. The same difference exists between wolves, which reproduce once a year and in the same season, and dogs, which can breed multiple times a year, in any season.

If Andersson's theory is correct, it may turn out to have intriguing implications for our own species. Harvard biologist Richard Wrangham has theorized that we, too, went through a domestication process that altered our biology. "The question of what is the difference between the domestic pig and a wild boar, or the distinction between a broiler chicken and a wild jungle fowl," Andersson told me, "is very similar to the question of what is the difference between a human and a chimpanzee."

Human beings are not simply domesticated chimpanzees, but understanding the genetics of domestication in chickens, dogs, and pigs may still tell us a surprising amount about the sources of our own social behavior. That's one reason the fox-farm research being conducted by Kukekova is underwritten by the NIH. "There are over 14,000 genes expressed in the brain, and not many are understood," she points out. Ferreting out which of those genes are related to social behavior is a tricky business obviously one cannot perform breeding experiments on humans, and studies purporting to find innate differences in behavior among people or populations are at the very least problematic.

But delving into the DNA of our closest companions can deliver some tantalizing insights. In 2009 UCLA biologist Robert Wayne led a study comparing the wolf and dog genomes. The finding that made headlines was that dogs originated from gray wolves not in East Asia, as other researchers had argued, but in the Middle East. Less noticed by the press was a brief aside in which Wayne and his colleagues identified a particular short DNA sequence, located near a gene called WBSCR17, that was very different in the two species. That region of the genome, they suggested, could be a potential target for "genes that are important in the early domestication of dogs." In humans, the researchers went on to note, WBSCR17 is at least partly responsible for a rare genetic disorder called Williams-Beuren syndrome. Williams-Beuren is characterized by elfin features, a shortened nose bridge, and "exceptional gregariousness"—its sufferers are often overly friendly and trusting of strangers.

After the paper was published, Wayne says, "the number one email we got was from parents of children suffering from Williams-Beuren. They said, Actually our children remind us of dogs in terms of their ability to read behavior and their lack of social barriers in their behavior." The elfin traits also seemed to correspond to aspects of the domestication phenotype. Wayne cautions against making one-to-one parallels between domestication genes and something as genetically complex as Williams-Beuren. The researchers are "intrigued," he says, and hoping to explore the connection further.

In 2003 a young researcher at Duke University named Brian Hare traveled out to Novosibirsk. Hare is known for his work cataloging the unique behaviors of dogs and wolves, showing the ways in which dogs have evolved to follow human cues like pointing and eye movements. When he conducted similar tests on fox kits in Siberia, he found that they did just as well as puppies of the same age. The results, while preliminary, suggest that selecting against fear and aggression—what Hare calls "emotional reactivity"—has created foxes that are not just tame but that also have the doglike ability to engage with humans using their social cues.

"They didn't select for a smarter fox but for a nice fox," says Hare. "But they ended up getting a smart fox." This research also has implications for the origins of human social behavior. "Are we domesticated in the sense of dogs? No. But I am comfortable saying that the first thing that has to happen to get a human from an apelike ancestor is a substantial increase in tolerance toward one another. There had to be a change in our social system."

Hare's research came to mind on my last afternoon in Novosibirsk, as Kukekova, my translator Luda Mekertycheva, and I played with Mavrik in a pen behind the fox farm's research house. We watched him chase a ball and wrestle with another fox, then run back so we could grab him up and let him lick our faces. But we all had flights to catch, and after an hour, Kukekova carried him back toward the sheds. Mavrik seemed to sense that he was headed back to his cage and whined with increasing agitation. Here was an animal biologically conditioned for human attention, as much as any dog is. Now that we'd provided it, I suddenly felt guilty for taking it away.

The fox-farm experiment is, of course, just that: a scientific experiment. For decades the project has been forced to manage their population by selling off to real fur farms those foxes not friendly or aggressive enough to be research candidates. For the scientists, deciding which ones stay and which ones go is a harrowing process Trut says she has long since passed on the job to others and stays away from the farm during selection time. "It is very difficult emotionally," she told me.

In recent years the institute has been working to obtain permits to sell the surplus tame foxes as pets, both domestically and in other countries. It would be a way not just to find a better home for the unwanted foxes, they suggest, but also to raise money for the research to continue. "The situation today is we are just doing our best to preserve our population," Trut says. "We do some genetic work with our partners in America. But this experiment has many more questions to resolve."

As for Mavrik, Luda Mekertycheva was so enthralled by the chestnut-colored fox and another playmate that she decided to adopt them. They arrived at her dacha outside of Moscow a few months later, and not long after, she emailed me an update. "Mavrik and Peter jump on my back when I kneel to give them food, sit when I pet them, and take vitamins from my hand," she wrote. "I love them a lot."

Why domesticated foxes are genetically fascinating (and terrible pets)

Cultures across the globe consider foxes to be incorrigibly wild. In both ancient fables and big-budget movies, these fluffy mammals are depicted as being clever, intelligent and untamable. Untamable, that is, until an unparalleled biology experiment started in Siberia almost 60 years ago.

The tale begins with Dmitry Belyaev, who was studying genetics during a very dangerous time in the Soviet Union. State officials campaigned actively against genetic research with a tactic known as Lysenkoism, under which hundreds of biologists were either thrown in prison or executed. After Joseph Stalin’s death, the government’s grasp on genetic research loosened, and though it was still controversial, Belyaev was finally able to test a hypothesis he had been secretly pursuing.

Dmitry Belyaev, the brains behind the breeding. Photo by Institute of Cytology and Genetics

As director of the newly-minted Institute of Cytology and Genetics, Belyaev was curious as to how dogs first became domesticated. He decided that to fully understand the process, he must attempt to replicate the early days of domestication. He picked foxes for the experiment because of their close family ties with dogs (both are canids). His research team visited fur farms across the Soviet Union and purchased the tamest foxes on hand. They figured using the most docile of the wild foxes for their breeding program would hasten the pace of domestication, relative to the thousands of years it took to breed dogs.

To prove the foxes’ friendly demeanor was the result of genetic selection, Belyaev’s team began to breed foxes that showed opposite traits of the tame pups. Instead of being outgoing and excited by encountering people, these foxes were defensive and aggressive. This result showed certain aspects of the fox’s behavior could be tied to genetics and spotted during breeding.

What does the (tame) fox say?

Unfortunately, Belyaev died before seeing the final results. But today, 58 years after the start of the program, there is now a large, sustainable population of domesticated foxes. These animals have no fear of humans, and actively seek out human companionship. The most friendly are known as “elite” foxes.

“By the tenth generation, 18 percent of fox pups were elite by the 20th, the figure had reached 35 percent,” Lyudmilla Trut, one of the lead researchers at the Institute of Cytology and Genetics, wrote in a paper describing the experiment in 1999. “Today elite foxes make up 70 to 80 percent of our experimentally selected population.”

University of Illinois biologist Anna Kukekova has been studying these domesticated foxes since the late 1990s. Her lab digs into the genes behind the desirable traits in the animals.

Two domesticated foxes, produced as part of a long-term breeding program in Russia, begging for pets. Photo by Judith A. Bassett Canid Education and Conservation Center

One of the lab’s most interesting findings is that the friendly foxes exhibit physical traits not seen in the wild, such as spots in their fur and curled tails. Their ears show weird traits, too.

Like puppies, young foxes have floppy ears. But the ears of domesticated foxes stay floppier for a longer time after birth, said Jennifer Johnson, a biologist who has worked with Kukekova since the early 2000s.

As the researchers peered into the reasons behind the behavioral traits, they found there isn’t just one gene responsible for the friendly and outgoing behavior.

“The tameness (the nice versus mean) is actually separate from the bold animals versus the shy animals, and the active animals versus quiet animals,” Johnson said. “When these [tame and aggressive] animals are bred, we see a lot of interesting new behaviors.”

Johnson said it has been difficult to decipher these genetic secrets, because unlike for humans and dogs, no one has sequenced the genome of foxes … yet. Kukekova’s lab expects to publish a fox genome sometime soon.

Fly foxes, fly!

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the domesticated fox experiment fell on hard times as public funding for the project evaporated. The researchers realized quickly that keeping more than 300 foxes is an expensive enterprise. In the 1990s, the lab switched to selling some of the foxes as fur pelts to sustain the breeding program.

“The current situation is not catastrophic, but not stable at the same time,” Institute of Cytology and Genetics research assistant Anastasiya Kharlamova told BBC Earth last year. Now, the lab’s primary source of revenue is selling the foxes to people and organizations across the globe.

One customer is the Judith A. Bassett Canid Education and Conservation Center, located near San Diego. The center keeps six foxes — five of which are domesticated — as ambassadors for their species, so that people can get an up-close-and-personal view of the animals.

“We have a fox whose name is Boris, and as soon as someone walks in, he’ll run up to them like a dog will,” said David Bassett, president of the Conservation Center. “He wants to be scratched and if you don’t scratch him he’ll make you.”

Boris the domesticated fox. Photo by Judith A. Bassett Canid Education and Conservation Center

Want a domesticated fox of your own? Remember these rules. First, bringing one into the United States costs almost $9,000. Several states outright ban people from keeping foxes as pets, including California, New York, Texas and Oregon. And of course, while domesticated foxes are friendlier than those in the wild, they can still be unpredictable.

“[You can be] sitting there drinking your cup of coffee and turning your head for a second, and then taking a swig and realizing, ‘Yeah, Boris came up here and peed in my coffee cup,’” said Amy Bassett, the Canid Conservation Center’s founder. “You can easily train and manage behavioral problems in dogs, but there are a lot of behaviors in foxes, regardless of if they’re Russian or U.S., that you will never be able to manage.”

Left: A domesticated fox, produced as part of a long-term breeding program in Russia, being cuddled. Photo by Judith A. Bassett Canid Education and Conservation Center

Wild Dogs in Captivity Are Still Wild Dogs

A number of people have asked me to write something about the absolutely horrific tragedy that occurred at the Pittsburgh Zoo when a two-year old boy was killed by a pack of African wild dogs (also called painted dogs). I was going to write something the day it happened, but after reading the account through teary eyes I simply couldn't sit down and write anything at all.

Now, a few days later with a clearer perspective, I'm glad to respond to these requests with a short piece about this tragedy in particular and zoos in general. A number of people have blamed the mother for apparently holding him up so that he could get a better view of the dogs. I honestly don't see any reason to blame Maddox Derkosh's mother. She did what countless parents and adults do when they go to a zoo. It's easily understandable that they want their children to have the best experience they can have.

Playing the blaming game is unproductive

An interesting essay I just read called "'Well-mannered predators'" and other speciesist notions about animal captivity" by Kathleen Stachowski raises a number of questions about zoos, people's attitudes toward animals in zoos, and what people think about whether or not the wild dogs should be killed for what they did. She points out that these tragedies are "human tragedies - and needless ones but for our speciesist insistence on keep wild beings for our own pleasure and profit." She goes on to write: "It’s almost impossible to contemplate the two year old child who fell into the African wild dog exhibit at the Pittsburg zoo. This horrendous incident has prompted all sorts of online chatter–everything from mommy/baby forums ('Poll question: Do you think the African painted dogs should be put down?') to gun owner forums ('If you’re carrying, open carry or concealed carry, in a zoo…and you see something like this happening…do you draw and fire at the animals to stop the attack?'). Argh. One article alone generated 660+ comments. There’s compassion for the mother as well as condemnation that goes beyond cruel. There’s bravado, there’s anguish. Would-be wildlife experts abound. The dogs have many defenders, as does the zoo. 'Sue the zoo,' others advise. And so it goes". (For more on speciesism please click here.)

In the poll about whether or not the dogs should be killed, as of now 90% of the respondents say "No". I agree. There is nothing to be gained by killing the dogs. What's interesting is that the question asks if the dogs should be euthanized, but this is not euthanasia because euthanasia is mercy killing, or a "good death", when individuals need to be relieved of interminable pain. This killing would actually be an example of what I call "zoothanasia" and must not be confused with euthanasia.

Nothing is to be gained by blaming the dogs who are condemned to captivity and killing them. This zoo and other zoos have to take more precautions if they choose to house natural born predators. And, one can easily argue that these and other animals simply do not belong in zoos.

Christine Dell'Amore, writing for National Geographic Daily News wonders Why Did African Wild Dogs Attack Boy? The answer really is pretty simple. The dogs were doing what they've evolved to do, and they shouldn't be blamed for what they did after Maddox Derkosh fell into their home. These captive dogs are still wild animals and "you can't take the wild out of the animal." (The same is true for exotic pets they are still wild animals even if they're living in the cushy confines of someone's home.) And, it's interesting that experts do not think this was a predatory attack. It's also not known if Maddox died due to the fall or due to the attack.

What are zoos good for?

The real question at hand once again is why zoos exist and what they do, if anything, for the animals who find themselves living in totally unnatural spaces. While people take sides on the value of zoos it remains a fact that in the long term, they do little, if anything, for educating the public about their residents or for the conservation of the residents' wild relatives (see also). The animals are what can be called "faux animals", or fabricated animals, and they are not at all representative of their wild relatives. Sure, we hear stories from people how going to the zoo changed their opinion about animals, but very few go on to have careers in related fields or make meaningful financial contributions to conservation efforts. If zoos are to have a meaningful or significant impact numerous more people have to "walk their talk".

Going to zoos is not part of the process of rewilding our hearts. Be that as it may, zoos are here to stay at least for a while and all of their residents must be given the very best lives possible, and if that means removing them from public display and placing them in sanctuaries where they can live out their lives safely and in peace and dignity, so be it.

And while the debate goes on, please light candles for Maddox Derkosh.

Thanks for this article

While I'm far from some bleeding-heart granola type, I consider myslef a person who is usually pretty conscious about animal's wellbeing. This is, in part, why I've been a pescetarian for over a decade and why I'd never go to a Ringling Bros. circus.

So, I guess I'm kind of surprised that all this time I took at face value claims about the benefits of zoos. Thanks for raising my awareness about this. I'm going to look into this topic some more so I can gain a better understanding of the issues. But I feel like there definitely needs to be someone who gets a more public dialogue started about this.

I wonder, though, if you know anything about the money zoos raise for conservation efforts? I guess I always thought that while zoos are run in a less than ideal manner, their accessibilty is what allows them to generate income from visitors. And I imagined a good chunk of this income goes into conservation. I don't know if I'm right on that at all. But if so, it would seem like sanctuaries would not generate enough profit to be put into conservation efforts.

Thank you for your comment

yes, some zoos do generate some funds for conservation but it comes at the cost of trading off the lives of numerous individuals for the 'good of their species' - and it's not clear at all how many conservation projects are successful - and people vary on what they call 'success' - and i've been told that a lot of the money that comes in goes to food venues and other projects that do nothing for the well-being of the animals - i tihnk these data are public information - and they surely don't need as many animals and never ever should be breeding and then killing animals who they call 'surplus' animals - it's like some state wildlife agencies that make money by selling hunting and fishing licenses and claim they are saving all the wildlife in the state - not true at all because the animals who are killed are wildlife . thanks for asking a very interesting question .

Hello, Dr. Bekoff!

Firstly, off the top of my head, I could name several conservation success stories that have been spearheaded by zoos California Condors, Arabian Oryxes & Golden Lion Tamarins come immediately to mind. I'm sure after a few minutes Google research I could produce a slew of other species that have been brought back from the brink of anthropogenic extinction. The bottom line is due to anthropogenic climate change and habitat destruction we are experiencing a mass extinction. Hence, the assurance populations that have been established in zoos are going to be needed now, more than ever.

Secondly, the income generated by zoos that gets poured back into these "food venues" that you so eloquently referred to does, in fact, benefit the wildlife. People who visit zoos do so for recreational purposes. Zoos accomodate their wants and needs by serving up food and providing souvenirs at gift shops. Having an enjoyable experience will hopefully mean a return visit, thusly, generating more revenue in admissions for the zoo, which are usually not-for-profit organizations.

Lastly, these state wildlife agencies manage the populations of game species. If these game species populations were not managed by these agencies their numbers would be exhausted right away. Millions of Americans hunt and fish for recreational purposes and this game management is essential to maintain healthy populations of said species.

It's way more complicated.

All zoos BAD or all zoos GOOD is too simplified and also generalized a view to be correct. Some zoos are HORRIBLE, others aren't so bad--I think I work(as a zookeeper) in one of the better ones, BUT, there certainly is room for improvement(in my low-in-the-hierarchy opinion) regarding animal welfare in various areas--I HOPE(without getting fired!) to help influence that over the years. Our zoo also DOES do significant conservation work(elephants in the Cameroons, Cross-River gorillas, Red Wolf restoration, etc--providing the funds, people, and field work necessary), plus has rescued various animals that would have been euthanized had we not taken them(polar bears, grizzlies, cougars, etc.), as well as provided better homes for animals from WORSE captive situations. There will ALWAYS be a need to rescue some animals--of which the only other option they have is DEATH. Some Animal Rights radicals think death IS preferable--I know many animals who would disagree! Is their life perfect in a (good) zoo? Of course not--NONE OF OUR LIVES is perfect! Life in the wild is also far from perfect! There are pros and cons to both. Most modern Western humans live much like zoo animals nowadays, and they would be as apalled(and doomed!) as many zoo animals if you took them and released them in the nearest wilderness area! As for education being effective--depends on WHAT propaganda studies you read! "Animal Rights" based studies say no zoo funded studies say yes! Go figure! I can say as a zookeeper daily in contact with the general public(aggravating as they can be sometimes!) that yes, people DO learn things and gain something of a better perspective and sympathy that they might not have otherwise, and peoples' ignorance and contact with anything even remotely(if artificially produced) that can be considered "natural" is getting less and less-zoos provide many urban people their ONLY(pitiful as that is!) contact with any view of nature, and are needed more than ever(I think)! These people may not have much money to contribute, or go into animal related fields in their careers, but they still VOTE, and public opinions are HUGE in getting ideas across about conservation and animals--zoos DO help in these regards! Do zoos need to keep improving the quality of life they give their animals, and do BETTER at educating the public? Heck yes-- and I hope to be a part of that!

Great Discussion

Thank you Dr. Becoff for your article.
Of course the dogs should not be put down. "Captivity" of wild animals occurs for diverse reasons, some selfish, some useful, some of pure compassion and need of the animal. They are always still wild animals people do not understand the vast difference between "domesticated" and "tamed". Captive does not always even equal tamed to any degree.

Zoo's are a discussion that must also include the barriers our agencies, regulations and industries have put between the public, and in most cases for their own personal gain and profits. Farm animals are showing us this. Another example: urban wildlife and the biased role of state wildlife management. The public NOT having any connection or compassion for these animals makes it much easier to propegate public support for barbaric hunting & trapping activities that should have been banned long ago (trapping, trophy hunts, hound hunting, bow-hunting. ). In this world today where humans are so hard to reach on an emotional level how do we raise compassion without "sensationalized" experiences and no interaction at all? A challenge.

A question

Reading this article I am under the impression that your issue with zoos is that people can view the animals? I wonder if there are/have been studies done on the effect of visitors to animals well being? Normally, I believe people have issue with the 'captivity factor', which, zoo or sanctuary does not change both being captive situations. I never really thought about the 'visitor factor'. I've read a lot in the media lately condemning zoo's and putting sanctuaries up on a pedestal. Personally, I don't think there is a big difference. Good zoos and good sanctuary are doing the best they can for the captive animals in their care. Bad zoo's and bad sanctuary exist. good zoos and good sanctuary's exist. I guess my question is, how do you believe having a facility open to the pubic effects the welfare (negatively and positively) of the animals being viewed? Thanks

Can't Have It Both Ways

Zoos in theory are supposed to both offer conservation and educational opportunities, but there is a great failure in many of our zoos. I am in Canada and there is great debate at this time as it seems our zoos cannot even offer a semblance of a proper enclosures or natural environment for many of the animals we are housing. It pains and disturbs me to think of all of the animals lingering and indeed suffering because of egos and a fear of losing the $ they generate if they were to be transferred to sanctuaries or more appropriate climate and surroundings. Some zoos really need to re-assess what they are doing and "why" they are doing it - it seems there is great prestige and ego involved in housing large animals like elephants. As for the public, we can't have it both ways. We can't expect to go to zoos to see wild animals and then ask them to act or perform like gentle housepets when they encounter humans in their territory. Very sad for the baby who died.

I think many people are

I think many people are simply incapable of conceiving of, or admitting that we may be viewed as prey by animals. How many shark documentaries are there describing the attack as confusion on the part of the shark? Mistaking the human for something else because no shark could possibly want to eat a slow, clumsy, easy target like a human. Easy calories gained, few expended.

How many shows are there were someone's pet tiger turned on them and the tiger was said to have simply played too roughly?

Human beans are interesting animals.

To think that these Painted Dogs should be killed because they were brought into captivity, or bred to be kept in captivity, and then acted like the Painted Dogs that they've evolved to be, is simply ridiculous.

Ancient Mayans may have kept jaguars, dogs as pets — or eaten them

Archaeologists find fossils, Mayan relics in underwater cave. Video provided by AFP

Jaguars may have been kept as pets by the ancient Maya. (Photo: Associated Press)

Sure, you may say that to your house cat, but the ancient Maya may have said that to a jaguar.

According to a new study, the Maya kept animals such as jaguars and dogs in their homes, but whether they were pets, eaten as food or used for sacrifices — or all three, remains unknown.

The large cat in the study was found in a pyramid and may have been a jaguar. It likely lived off a corn-based diet.

"This may be evidence that wild cats were raised in captivity throughout Mesoamerica for many centuries, probably for the kings and other elites to show off their power," said study lead author Ashley Sharpe of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. "So in a way, they may have been pets — although particularly dangerous pets."

The study also uncovered the first evidence of dogs traded among the Maya and used in their ceremonies.

"The first Spanish explorers reported that dogs were commonly eaten by people living in the Maya area, but we also know there were different dog breeds, so very possibly there were 'food' dogs and 'hunting' dogs."

Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute staff scientist Ashley Sharpe shows some dog bones collected from Mayan archaeological sites in Guatemala at her lab on March 14, 2018. (Photo: Sean Mattson, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute)

One of the most important aspects of the study, according to Sharpe, is that the ancient Maya appear to have been "manipulating animals a lot more often and a lot earlier on than we had thought."

By analyzing bones of animals found in Ceibal, Guatemala, Sharpe found that animal trade and management began in the Mayan pre-classic period some 2,500 years ago and intensified during the classic period. This means it was likely that organized ceremonies involving animal and human sacrifice and raising animals for food played important roles in the development of Mayan civilization.

She said the new study shows they were raising animals for meat as well, and probably some of these animals — like the cat — served non-food functions as pets or for ceremonial display.

"It's interesting to consider whether humans may have had a greater impact managing and manipulating animal species in ancient Mesoamerica than has been believed," Sharpe said. "Studies like this one are beginning to show that animals played a key role in ceremonies and demonstrations of power, which perhaps drove animal-rearing and trade."

The study was published Monday in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The remains of dogs were found in the Guatemalan highlands at Ceibal, a lowland site, indicating that the Mayas were moving or trading dogs for ceremonial use. (Photo: Ashley Sharpe)

Watch the video: Three-Year-Old Girl Abandoned By Her Parents Was Raised By Wild Dogs For The Next Five Years

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