At different times and places, humans have domesticated a a fair number of animal species, from goats to guinea pigs, horses to chickens. The dog, however, seems to be the oldest of the domesticated animals, and by far the most versatile. Man’s best friend, it is called, and with a good reason.
Dogs hunt with us, guard us and our livestock, herd sheep and cattle, guide the blind and hear for the deaf. They act as therapists, diagnose cancer, look for bombs and drugs, catch criminals. They will even find truffles. Dogs are so smart and adaptable they can be taught to do almost anything.
Maybe it’s exactly because of this versatility that canids, or members of the dog family, have been domesticated multiple times. Archaeological finds and historical records provide interesting details of tame canids from the time before dogs.
In Lebanon, digging up 16 500-year-old graves has revealed foxes (Vulpes vulpes) that were buried with humans. The way the graves were arranged suggests they were buried as companions, not food, though foxes are also found from contemporary midden piles. When some the bodies have later been moved to new graves, the foxes were carefully moved with them. They were apparently considered important.
It is not known for sure if the Lebanon foxes were from a domesticated population or just tamed individuals. Given how easily Belyaev’s experimental fur farm foxes were domesticated (the first fully tame animals were born in the fourth generation), it might not be surprising if is has been done before.
Perhaps even more exciting were the Fuegian dogs of Patagonia. In Victorian times, indigenous people still lived in Patagonia, and they had their own dogs. They looked like “a very stunted cross between an Alsatian police dog and a wolf”, as the author and explorer Lucas Bridges described them. They were often piebald, sometimes even white, and apparently helped their masters in hunting. But they were no dogs. They were foxes. The Fuegian “dog” was actually a domesticated Andean fox (Pseudalopex culpaeus).
Sadly, European colonists dutifully exterminated first the foxes (as they were considered dangerous to livestock), and soon afterwards, also the people who kept them. Only one stuffed Fuegian dog has survived in a Chilean museum and gives a vague idea of what these animals looked like. The top picture of this article is my recreation of a Fuegian dog.
Perhaps surprisingly, no other canids have been domesticated so that we know of it, though it is plausible some ancient populations could have vanished without a trace.
The bush dog (Speothos venaticus) is a chubby, short-tailed dog of the Amazonian rain forests (photo by Markus Bonnevier/Wikimedia Commons) The indigenous people of Amazonia sometimes keep them as pets ans hunting companions, but no stable pet populations exist. I remember hearing somewhere, though I can’t find the source now, that bush dogs kept as pets suffer from stress and often die young and without breeding.
The arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus) would also seem like a promising candidate, being adaptable, notoriously tame even when wild, and ridiculously cute. Aptly, for Inuits, the fox does not symbolize stealthiness or cunning as in the Western cultures, but bravery and willingness to help. For some reason, no indigenous peoples of the arctic region have domesticated the fox.
In modern times, interest in wild canids as exotic pets is considerable, and it just might be that more of them will be domesticated. Besides Mr. Belyaev’s domesticated foxes, there is also a market for captive-bred, more or less tame fennec foxes (Vulpes zerda), arctic foxes, dingoes and New Guinea singing dogs (Canis lupus dingo) in the countries at allow keeping wild animals.
Domestic dogs have also been interbred with wolves, jackals and coyotes, but since the undomesticated personality appears to ne dominant, these experiments have been mostly unsuccessful. The first generation hybrids are in general pretty hard to get along with.
Some wolf-German shepherd hybrid breeds have established themselves, however. Maybe the best known are the Saarloos wolfdog, Czechoslovakian wolfdog (photo by Margo Peron) and Lupo italiano. All of these breeds are mentioned to be intelligent, but hard to train because they easily lose their motivation if they can’t see the purpose of what they are doing. The Sulimov dog used by Russian airport security officers is a mix of Lapponian herder dog and golden jackal (Canis aureus). It is said to endure extreme climates and have an exceptionally good sense of smell.
Apparently wolfdogs can also be kept as city pets. I live in a mid-size city, and on nighttime walks, I have a few times seen a woman walking with three (probably) Saarloos wolfdogs. The first time I met them, two of the dogs were running free, and for a rather terrifying second, I was sure I had run into a pack of wolves in the park.
A shorter version of this text was originally published as a sidebar for the previous article on the genetics of domestication. Fuegian dogs were just too cool to miss, so I expanded it a bit for the blog.
Also, I removed moderation of comments, and they’re now instanty published. It makes discussion a lot easier.
Sources and further reading:
L. A. Maher, J. T. Stock, S. Finney, J. N. Heywood, T. M. Miracle & E. B. Banning (2011) A unique human-fox burial from a pre-Natufian cemetery in the Levant (Jordan). PLoS ONE 6(1): e15815.
Clive Roots: Domestication (2007). Greenwood Publishing Group.
Tetrapod Zoology: Identifying weird stuffed carnivorans is often not easy. (a short article about Fuegian dogs, with a photograph of the stuffed one)
Patagonian Monsters: The Fuegian “dog”. Contains about everything Victorian explorers wrote about the Fuegian dogs.