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Spring 2004 Web Feature Edition
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Recent Research Cited

Are Siberian Huskies "closer" to wolves than
any other breed of dogs?  Here's why not.

When that question was posed on Sibernet-L recently, I thought it was worth sharing with the group some of the research results that I've been reading and writing about concerning the origin of the domestic dog. What follows is what I posted to the list on April 5, 2004, with some additions and editing as well as some more links to related online resources.  [See important update below].

Thank you for posting an important question about Siberian Huskies -- one that reflects the misunderstandings of people who have not read much about wolves, the domestication of dogs or about the Arctic or Northern dog breeds. There are some key points drawn from recent research that are worth noting in trying to answer the question. We all need to be able to reply to people who ask or make statements about our breed, clarifying that, in fact, the Siberian Husky is not "closer to the wolf" than all other dog breeds.

Researchers have identified several characteristics that separate wolves and dogs, and the trait they use with the oldest archaeological evidence is the change in the muzzle and jaws, with the muzzle getting shorter, and teeth getting smaller. On that basis, one group of Russian archaeologists say they believe they have found the oldest archaeological evidence of domesticated dogs -- dated to some 14,000 years age -- in the Bryansk area of far western Russia near the Ukraine and Belarus. The bones were found with the bones of mammoth, reindeer and Arctic fox. [Other early evidence of dog domestication comes from archaeological sites in the Middle East, Germany and England].

On that basis alone, Siberian Huskies are unlike wolves. They have the smaller muzzle, jaw and teeth of domestic dogs. This alone can be a simple and worthwhile answer, when people ask questions or make statements of that sort.

Perhaps the breed or breeds that seem to me most like the wolf -- large size, large head, wolf-like coat -- are the interrelated Eskimo Dog and/or Inuit Sled Dog and/or Greenland Dog. However, a look at the genetics of the female lines of these breeds shows that they are fully dog. [See Peter Savolainen et al., Genetic Evidence for an East Asian Origin of Domestic Dogs," Science, Vol. 298, Nov. 22, 2002, or for the key points see this  scientific summary of the paper].

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What else do researchers use to identify dogs from wolves? Interestingly, the process of taming or domestication actually changes the biochemical make-up of the animals, and those biological chemicals not only influence behavior [reduced aggression, for example] but also aspects of appearance.


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One Sibernet-L reader offered a link to an
overview article that includes detailed references to a research program on the breeding of foxes with just one selection criteria -- tameness with people. [Access to the full article is restricted, but this URL will take you to a Web page showing where the fox research is published.  The research is also discussed briefly in the Harvard Magazine link below]. This same research was discussed in "The Dogs of Rarotonga," an article in the June 2004 issue of Discover magazine. The start of the Dogs of Rarotonga is online.

Getting to a level of reasonable tameness with the foxes took many generations of breeding -- again with selection for just one trait, tameness. So domestication of wolves -- a relative of foxes and dogs -- was not as simple as capturing a wolf pup, taming it, breeding it and in a generation or three you have dogs.

"Getting to a reasonable level of tameness with
the foxes took many generations of breeding --
again with selection for just one trait, tameness."

Ray Coppinger, co-author of Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior & Evolution, and others theorize that some wolves partly tamed themselves by living around human villages for the benefit of scavening for waste food. Those animals that were least afraid of people and least aggressive got the extra food, reproduced successfully and over time created semidomestic dogs that people later more fully domesticated and then developed into many different breeds.

Here again, Siberian Huskies have all the characteristics of the fully domestic dog -- the full tameness that allows them to live integrated with human families. Yes, we occasionally see a Siberian that has not been very well socialized and thus is quite shy. I don't know enough about other breeds to know if poorly socialized Golden Retrievers or German Shepherds or Cocker Spaniels or Pekingese can be quite shy. Does anyone know?

Next, some fascinating research has been done on dogs' ability to "read" human cues or signals. The researchers have compared the following types of animals for that very trait:
·  canine puppies
·  normally socialized adult dogs
·  dogs raised in kennels with little socialization
·  wolves
·  chimpanzees

The test used was fairly simple. The researcher took some food appealing to the test animals, showed it to the animals, then hid the food under one of several cups when the animals could not see their actions . They then brought the animal into the area with the hidden food -- and gave them a "cue" such as pointing to the cup hiding the food. Which group did the best in finding the food?

Yes, normally socialized adult dogs did well on this task, "reading" the helpful hint the human provided and finding the hidden food. But so did the poorly socialized dogs -- and so did the puppies, suggesting this trait is pretty well "wired" into canine behavior. However, chimpanzees -- thought to be our own closest relatives in the evolutionary sense -- did very poorly at this -- and wolves did not do well at all. Harvard Magazine offers a well written article about this research. 

So here is another example of a clear trait that distinguishes wolves and dogs -- a trait that has apparently evolved over the time dogs have lived in close company with humans and gained an ability that improves their own survival.

And you can all repeat the test -- at least with your Siberians or your own breed of dogs -- and report the results to me using the online form at our Contact Us page. How many of your Siberians will find the food under the one of  the 3 cups that hides the dry dog food [dry so low odor]  -- when you pointed at the correct cup? If you send me your results, I'll summarize what you send me and I'll report back to the list.

Finally, the new research on the discovery of "genetic fingerprints" in 85 pure breeds of dogs needs to be mentioned to update this article as of May 2004.  The Siberian Husky and the Alaskan Malamute are among 14 breeds grouped in an "ancient cluster" because their genetic markers are most like the wolves in the study. Researchers surmise that these breeds are rather like early domestic dogs.  But the cluster includes dogs that look nothing like wolves, from the small Pekingese to the tall Afghan Hound.  And the 5 breeds that are considered to be the very oldest are the Chow Chow, Shar-Pei, Akita, Shiba Inu and Basenji.

These 14 ancient dog breeds
with "genetic fingerprints" that are
similar to those of wolves are:
      · Afghan Hound
      · Akita
      · Alaskan Malamute
      · Basenji
      · Chow Chow
      · Lhasa Apso
      · Pekingese
      · Saluki

· Samoyed
Shiba Inu
· Shih Tzu
· Siberian Husky
· Tibetian Terrier

Click for the full article on this very important
new dog research.

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To explore the differences in appearance among these 14 breeds, you can use WorkingDogWeb's new guide to Ancient Breeds that provides information on the standards and characteristics, including diverse coat color, in these breeds. It is worth noting that for most of these breeds, their standards allow all coat colors or at least a wide range of colors and patterns, maintaining their ancient genetic diversity.

I hope that this look at some of the recent research on dogs and wolves is helpful to those on Sibernet-L in knowing for sure that our Siberians -- while their "look" has always been seen as "wolfish" -- are very much domestic dogs. [And the same for visitors to WorkingDogWeb who may own an Alaskan husky or Alaskan Malamute or Inuit Dog or Russian Laika or Karelian Bear Dog or Jamthund or Shikoku or other breeds with something of a wolfish look to them.]  Even the new discovery that the Siberian Husky is in the "ancient cluster" does not mean it is not a dog.

Given the complex dog legislation that is proposed in different state or provincial legislatures from time to time, it is really important that we give a clear, firm answer about our breed when people try to say they are the closest breed to wolves. That's simply not true. They are one of 14 breeds in the new "ancient cluster."  In addition, just 85 breeds were tested, suggesting that more breeds, especially from Asia, will join that grouping if more research is done.

And in fact, one more point. The genetic research makes it clear that once domesticated dogs existed, people typically preferred to breed them to each other rather than starting again with taming wolves or crossbreeding their dogs frequently with wolves.  At least that is what the female canine lineages [based on mitochondrial DNA genetics] show.

Thus, while dogs' closest relative is indeed Canis lupus, the wolf,  domestic dog breeds have been separated from wolves for a very long time, except those like  the Saarloos Wolfdog, a breed developed in the 20th century in the Netherlands through a crossing of a German shepherd dog and two female European wolves as the foundation stock. Or the Czechoslovakian Wolfdog, another breed developed in the 20th century from German Shepherds and wolves.

I hope some of you will take on the "research project" with the hidden food under cups and report to me what you find.  Should be fun to see how good Siberian Huskies or any other dog breeds are in reading human cues!

© 2004 Barbara Bradley Petura,

To Learn More:
   [ Top ]

ORDER THIS BOOK:  Dogs:  A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior & Evolution by Raymond & Lorna Coppinger

READ: A Review of Ray & Lorna Coppinger's "Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origins, Behavior & Evolution" by Barbara Bradley Petura, webmaster

READ: An Interview with Ray & Lorna Coppinger with Barbara Bradley Petura, webmaster

READ: Humans Brought Domesticated Dogs to New World More Than 12,000 Years Ago, Researchers Report and Dogs Evolved in Asia, by Barbara Bradley Petura, webmaster

READ: Dogs May Date Back 100,000 Years by Barbara Bradley Petura, webmaster, 1997 article

LINKS: Try the following for more research or journalistic articles:

· A Guide to the 14 Ancient Dog Breeds
  From WorkingDogWeb

The family tree of the domestic dog has now been laid bare
   Researchers used nuclear DNA rather than mtDNA to differentiate breeds

The Origins of the Domestic Dog
  By Jessie Zgurski, essay citing important, recent research reports

· Dogs Evolved to Read Human Cues & More Dog Research
  Summaries with links to more details

· CNN:    Origin of Dogs Traced to China
  Date:  November 23, 2002 | By the Associated Press

· Nature Science Update:  Stone Age Man Kept a Dog
Date:  November 23, 2002 | By Kendall Powell

· BBC:  Origins of Dog Traced
  Date:  November 22, 2002 | By Christine McGourty

· New York Times:    "From Wolf to Dog - Yes But When?"
  Date: November 22, 2002 | By Nicholas Wade

· Three Dog Eves: Canine Diaspora from East Asia to Americas
  November 23, 2002 | Science News Online

· UCLA News Release:  Humans Brought Domestic Dogs to New World
  Date:  December 2, 2002  |  Contact:  Stuart Wolpert, UCLA

· 10 Progenitor Dog Types Suggested by Researcher with the types
  being sight hounds, scent hounds, working/guard dogs, northern breeds,
  flushing spaniels, water spaniels and retrievers, pointers, terriers, herding
  dogs, and toy/companion dogs.

·  Molecular Evolution of the Dog Family, Science

·  The Multiple and Ancient Origins of the Domestic Dog, Science


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