How Wolves Made Themselves Dogs

Kristen Traband

Dogs have long been known as “Man’s Best Friend,” and for good reason. The canine species has developed a reputation over the past few centuries of loyalty to its human counterpart, offering man not only protection and companionship but also entertainment and fun. Dogs were not always the lovable creatures we know them as today, however. Genetic research has shown that dogs are descendants of wolves, and that a few wolves from eastern Asia are the mothers of all modern dogs (Pennisi 1540). How wolves became dogs is a contestable issue among scientists; some theories claim that man domesticated dogs, bringing them into their societies as a means of protection and an aid in hunting, while other theories suggest that dogs domesticated themselves, insinuating themselves into groups of humans. While the theory that humans domesticated dogs is plausible, I believe that dogs were the real agents of domestication, assimilating into human civilization after finding a niche to fill.

The theory that early humans were responsible for domestication is certainly a conceivable argument. Human beings in a hunter-gatherer or primitive agricultural society would have surely benefited from wolves becoming dogs, so it is not far-fetched to think that they may have instigated the changeover. Humans may have decided to raise wolf puppies of attempt to tame docile wolves in order to protect themselves from other groups of humans or wild animals. They also may have initiated domestication in order for assistance with hunting (Pennisi 1540). Or they may have raised the wolves for intention of raising a pet, although this purpose is not as functional as the others. Human beings may also have been learning to control fire around the same time that dogs were domesticated, suggesting that humans may have been learning how to control their environment more and more, which supports the notion that humans were responsible for dog domestication. While each of these arguments supports the theory of humans domesticating dogs, I still believe that dogs were more responsible for their domestication than humans, because dogs had more to gain from domestication than humans did.

By becoming domesticated, wolves stood a much better chance at survival because food would be more easily available to them. Wolves that were not afraid of people were able to insinuate themselves into human encampments, and were able to benefit from increased amounts of food, warmth, and protection. Wolves that were bold enough to venture into human settlements thrived, and eventually separated from wolves that were wary of humans, therefore domesticating themselves and becoming dogs (Wade 2). It is also possible that the wolves that eventually became humans were the outcasts of their pack, and that they gravitated toward human encampments as a means of survival (Casey). These dogs may have been poor hunters or unable to keep up with the pace of the pack, and for these reasons were cast away from the rest of the pack.

Either way, whether the wolves that eventually became dogs did so because they had to or because they simply found it an easier way of life, it is almost certain that these wolves had at least some sense of agency in the domestication process. It is hard to imagine a human being domesticating a wolf that did not want to be domesticated; the wolf would certainly fight captivity or capture. It is for this reason that I believe that dogs domesticated themselves, and that human beings were not solely responsible for this evolutionary change.

One interesting aspect of the theory that dogs domesticated themselves is that dogs were able to find a niche in human society; they were able to fill some void in the lifestyle of early humans that encouraged humans to keep them around. I believe that the void that dogs were able to fill was an emotional one, and that the relationship between man and dog closely associated with modern times was present thousands of years ago when dogs first became domesticated.

It has been proven that modern dogs have the ability to “read” human emotions (Pennisi 1542), and most scientists agree that dogs developed this trait because it was evolutionarily beneficial: dogs that had the ability to read humans were more likely to be kept as pets than those who did not. If early man recognized the ability of dogs to pick up on his signals or read his unspoken cues, he would probably have been more inclined to take a dog in as a pet. The world of early humans was a cruel and lonely one, so it does not surprise me that humans would seek companionship in the form of a dog. Even today, many humans at times prefer the companionship of a dog to that of a human, so this may have been the case back then.

Over the course of the last 15,000 years, dogs have become an integral part of human civilization, providing humans with protection, assistance, and companionship. The relationship that has developed between man and human is a symbiotic one: dogs and humans have each benefited from living closely together. Human beings do not have this kind of a relationship with any other animal, and it is easy to see why. The benefits of having a dog for a pet are numerous, yet the underlying component of man’s relationship with dogs may be the fact that in a dog, man sees his equal in another species, strengthening the bond between humans and canines and allowing it to persist for thousands of years in the past and certainly for the distant future.



Casey, James. “From Beast to Best Friend.” 2006.

Pennisi, Elizabeth “A Shaggy Dog History.” Science Magazine. 10/22/02.

Wade, Nicholas “From Wolf to Dog, Yes, But When?” New York Times. 10/22/02.

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last updated 02/08/08