From the book: The 100 Silliest Things People Say About Dogs Copyright 2009 by Alexandra Semyonova — All Rights Reserved
Myth 4: The domestic dog is a hunting species.
We’ve seen that the evolution of the specifically domestic dog probably began when a few of his ancestors discovered human dumps as a new source of safe and easy food. It’s possible that these first dump animals were able to exploit the new food source because they were especially smart. It’s also possible that he was just especially lazy. Which explanation you prefer will depend on your opinion about present day dogs.
In any case, the decision to switch from the old habits to living on human food waste was an extremely important one. The dump animals had to dare come fairly close to humans, and to be able to eat in the presence of our smell. This led to the relative isolation from the members of their kind who did continue to roam and to shun humans. In the beginning, as humans roamed to hunt with their bows and arrows, the domestic dog’s ancestor could probably trail along at some small distance, waiting until we moved on to descend upon our waste pile. This new ecological niche he’d found meant he was subject to a different kind of natural selection than the ancestor who continued to live far away from us. Our dump animal may still have supplemented his diet by roaming occasionally, but even the occasional hunting of small prey was much less important to him now. At this point, he still needed a body fit for traveling long distances since we still did, but Nature was already selecting for a brain that dealt differently with both aggression and fear.
When our own ancestors discovered agriculture and then began to keep cattle, the dog’s development shifted into high gear. The great efficiency of our food production, which enabled us to fan out across the Earth, meant that we threw away much more still edible food. The dog’s ancestor could now abandon roaming and hunting altogether and take up permanent abode near the dump This meant he had to come live very close to us. We weren’t leaving dumps behind and moving on anymore. The village dweller doesn’t feel like walking very far with his trash, and it was probably still dangerous to do so, so the dumps were established close to where we lived. This meant that the pre- domestic dog had to be able to eat while we were just around the corner and could show up any minute with a new load of trash. The fact that he could do this means that the fear parts of his brain had already changed. It also meant that he wouldn’t run into relatives anymore who did still shun humans and their smell.
Reproductive isolation was now a fact. The pre-dog’s genes now became subject to a completely different regime of natural selection than in the old roaming, sometimes hunting niche. This animal no longer needed to be fit for the traveling or the hunting life. The pre-dogs’s skeleton, muscles and brain could now start adjusting to the sedentary life. He no longer needed to kill even occasionally to eat. The ability to deliver a crushing bite, necessary to grab and kill prey, began to disappear. His jaws and teeth became smaller, as did his head and his brain.
But it wasn’t just the change in food that caused the killer bite to disappear. Humans do not, right up to the present day, tolerate animals in their surroundings who are a danger to themselves and their cattle. Our ancestors probably added their own selective pressure to Nature’s by killing off any of these pre-dogs who attacked humans or the animals they kept. If he wanted to be able to stay near humans and eat easily and safely at our dumps, the early dog had to get rid of aggression altogether. He not only had to refrain from attacking humans, but also from attacking our chickens, sheep and cows. Killer aggression was not only superfluous, it was now actively dysfunctional, working to reduce the early dog’s chances of survival. The dog lost the inclination to kill anything at all.
Fact: The domestic dog is not a hunter.He is a scavenger.
- Beck, AM, The ecology of “feral” and free-roving dogs in Baltimore, Ch 26, in Fox MW (ed), The Wild Canids, Van Nostrand Reinhold Co, MY, 1975. Beck, AM, The Ecology of Stray Dogs: A Study of Free-ranging Urban Animals, York Press, Baltimore, 1973.
- Coppinger, R, Coppinger, L, Dogs: a startling new understanding of canine origin, behavior, and evolution, Scribner, New York, 2001.
- Nesbitt, WH, Ecology of a feral dog pack on a wildlife refuge, in Fox MW (ed), The Wild Canids, Van Nostrand Reinhold Co, MY, 1975.
- Rubin, HD, Beck, AM, Ecological behavior of free-ranging urban dogs, Appl An Ethol 8:161-168, 1982. Scott MD, Causey K, Ecology of feral dogs in Alabama, J Wildlife Management 37:252-265, 1973.
- Semyonova, A, The social organization of the domestic dog; a longitudinal study of domestic canine behavior and the ontogeny of domestic canine social systems, Carriage House Foundation, The Hague, The Netherlands, 2003.
- Sibly, RM, Smith, RH, Behavioral Ecology: Ecological Consequences of Adaptive Behavior, Blackwell Scientific Publications, Oxford, 1985.