Doug Bonderud

Jun 28th 2021

The Domestication of Wolves: How(l), When, Where and Why


Dogs have woofed and wagged their way into the hearts of humans. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), canines top the pet-ownership chart, with almost 50 million domesticated doggos living in homes across the nation. But how(l) did it all start? Where and when did the domestication of wolves happen, and why did we become such fast friends? While we’re not entirely paw-sitive, here’s what current science says about the key drivers of dog domestication.

Here Wolfy, Wolfy

The best relationships have great origin stories, and our unique connection with dogs offers one of the best. As Smithsonian Magazine notes, our first inter-species interactions occurred between 14,000 and 29,000 years ago. It all started with a common ancestor shared with the gray wolf, and this fearsome predator’s hunting grounds overlapped with those of early humans, according to Smithsonian.

Modern gray wolves are evolutionary descendants of this historic canine and share broad similarities, including powerful jaws, substantial stamina and a preference for packs. Many modern dog breeds — think Siberian huskies, German shepherds and even Labrador retrievers — share obvious connective characteristics with wolves, such as long snouts, bushy tails and large paws. Others, such as pugs, poodles and dachshunds, might not look the part but are, in fact, offshoots of the same howling historical tree.

For early humans encountering wolves in the wild, initial conflict was the likely outcome with each side viewing the other as a threat. Domestication offered a path to potential partnership — if humans could tamp down wolves’ natural instinct to kill and eat their two-legged acquaintances, both species could benefit.

But how did the evolution of dogs get from “are there wolves out there?” to “who’s a good boy?”

The Dog Days of Winter

Hunting in northern Eurasia is no easy task for modern humans. Our ancestors faced an even bigger challenge trying to find food during the Last Glacial Maximum, which saw western Eurasia mostly covered by ice and snow. Wolves represented another species of competitive carnivores that had adapted to survive during this seemingly eternal winter. The logical conclusion? A battle to the death for dominance across the glacial tundra.

But that’s not how it played out.

According to a Scientific Reports article, the overlapping — but not identical — diets of humans and wolves made them fast friends. The idea is that humans are “odd” carnivores because our ancestors were also herbivores and insectivores. As a result, our livers have an upper limit for protein metabolization; once we’ve eaten enough meat, the remainder doesn’t serve a useful nutritional purpose. But wolves can live on meat for months on end, providing the ideal ground for an early partnership. Humans could share excess meat with their canine competition and, over time, gain their trust.

Wolves that spent sufficient time with humans became more docile, in turn influencing the next generation. Eventually, this raw meat relationship became more reciprocal. Domesticated wolves offered the benefits of predator protection and the ability to act as pack animals. Over time, wolves evolved to better communicate with their human companions. The familiar phenomenon of “puppy dog eyes” is a result of domestication that “transformed the facial muscle anatomy of dogs specifically for facial communication with humans,” according to a study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In other words, when your furry friend gives you wide eyes and raised eyebrows to get something they want, it’s not by accident — their wolfy ancestors developed the skill over time to facilitate self-domestication.

Alternative Friend Frameworks

While this give-a-dog-a-bone approach to the domestication of wolves has been gaining ground among researchers, it’s not the only theory of furry friend frameworks.

As Smithsonian reports, one option is that humans recruited wolves as hunting partners — after all, if you’re up against an uncaring, frozen tundra, why not take all the help you can get? The other theory holds that, just like today, humans leave trash everywhere. And because these trash piles naturally contained scraps of meat we couldn’t digest, they offered a big-ticket buffet for hungry canines.

But both paradigms have their problems. When it comes to hunting helpers, the jury is out on the benefits of working together. Why let wolves live after the kill when canine coats would be great for warmth? Or why not eliminate a rag-tag bunch of humans to help wolf packs get ahead? The trash theory lines up with human nature, but according to Maria Lahtinen — Finnish Food Authority chemist and archaeologist — there’s must be more to the puzzle.

“In our opinion, the self-domestication in this way is not fully explained. Hunter-gatherers do not necessarily leave waste in the same place over and over again,” she told Smithsonian. “And why would they tolerate a dangerous carnivore group in their close surroundings? Humans tend to kill their competitors and other carnivores.”

The Doggo’s in the Details

So, how did the domestication of wolves start, and what exactly happened? Most likely when humans couldn’t digest excess protein and fed the scraps to nearby wolves.

Where and when did wolf-to-dog domestication occur? Somewhere between 14,000 and 29,000 years ago on the frozen Eurasian tundra.

Why did dog domestication become such a fundamental part of human frameworks? Function and familiarity. Cooperative canines offered benefits for protection and resource packing, while the evolution of dogs delivered an eyebrow raise that helped activate our natural social instincts for connection and companionship.