Incredible Journey: The Domestication of Children and Dogs

Both children and dogs have to learn how to get along successfully with others.

Posted Feb 26, 2021

 Photo by form PxHere /  Creative Commons CC0
Source: Photo by form PxHere / Creative Commons CC0

It is not farfetched to say that dogs and people were made for each other, although how the partnership between these two vastly different species came about remains an enduring historical mystery. It is known, even so, that biologically speaking, dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) and wolves (Canis lupus) are closely related — so much so, that zoologists agree that modern dogs are basically domesticated wolves — or to say this somewhat tongue in cheek, dogs are wolves in sheep's clothing. If this is true, then the obvious historical question is what on earth happened at some point in the past that turned some wolves into modern dogs? 

The standard story of how we met . . .

How wolves and people first teamed up is a story that evidently begins thousands of years ago back during the Earth's last Ice Age. Science being science, there is much uncertainty and a great deal of debate about how far back in time this pairing of species first occurred. It is also unclear exactly where this partnership first took place. Similarly there is uncertainty about why.

 Photo by Steve from Pexels
Wolves (Canis lupus), commonly known as grey wolves, are native to Eurasia and North America.
Source: Photo by Steve from Pexels
 Photo by Allan Mas from Pexels
Human (Homo sapiens) early in childhood.
Source: Photo by Allan Mas from Pexels

The conventional story of dog domestication told appealingly long ago by the famous zoologist, ethologist, and Nobel Laureate Konrad Lorenz — but also by many others in differing ways — has it that once upon a time, wolves (or in Lorenz's version, jackals) started hovering around the campfires of Pleistocene hunters and their kin to retrieve scraps of food intentionally left out for them, or maybe just thrown away as garbage.

In any case, so the story goes, sooner or later those on the human side of the equation realized that these feisty canids, at least the friendlier ones, could be more than just a nuisance. They could make themselves useful as watchdogs, hunting companions, and so forth. Maybe even something warm to cuddle with on cold winter nights.

A better story?

In truth we may never know how, or why, wolves and humans teamed up thousands of years ago. Moreover, there are now good reasons to think revision of the standard story of the transformation of wolf into dog is needed. It may well be that conventional wisdom has been exaggerating how influential we have been in shaping not just the anatomical characteristics of dogs, but also their behavior. As Martina Lazzaroni at the Domestication Lab in the Konrad Lorenz Institute of Ethology in Vienna, Austria, and her colleagues wrote recently: "Our findings support the idea that domestication has affected dogs’ behavior in terms of their overall interest in being in proximity with a human partner ... However, it remains unclear what the driving motivation to interact with the human may be." 

Image by Steffen L. from Pixabay
Source: Image by Steffen L. from Pixabay
 Photo by Allan Mas from Pexels
Source: Photo by Allan Mas from Pexels

But wait! What exactly is domestication?

By training and employment, I am an anthropologist, not a zoologist or an ethologist. I could well be wrong, but I don't think we really know what brought wolves and humans into partnership beyond the obvious fact that both are highly social animals. Once you can get along and work with others of your own kind, is it really all that hard to believe you may be able to relate, as well, across the divide separating one species from another? 

What I can say, however, is that as an anthropologist I have thought and written — I hope with some insight — about what gets called "domestication."1 

As the archaeologist John Hart and I along with a number of our colleagues have been arguing for years, it is misleading, even quite wrong, to define domestication as inherently a story about genetic change brought about by human means.2 As John and I wrote in 2008:

. . . looking for the beginnings of domestication (and we would add, agriculture) is a research pursuit doomed from the start. Why? Because (a) species do not have to be discernibly altered, morphologically or genetically, before they can be domesticated; (b) morphological and genetic changes that sometimes may be taken as “signs of domestication” take time to develop, and consequently they show up, if they are going to show up at all, after the fact of domestication by human beings; and (c) concluding that only plants and animals exhibiting plainly detectable signs of human use and cultivation can be called “domesticated’ risks underestimating the generality and force of human domestication in the world we live in.3

But then what is domestication?

From this perspective, since we humans routinely make use of many, not just a few, species of plants and animals, domestication does not just mean taming an animal or cultivating a plant: 

  1. How we domesticated other species varies, and has always varied, depending on the species in question and on how extensively we want to exploit them.
  2. Therefore, domestication can be gauged more consistently by its performance — by the manipulative skills characterizing how it is done — than by its (only sometimes discernible) consequences.
  3. Hence any species may be called "domesticated" when another species knows how to exploit it, and furthermore, domestication is a generic fact of life and not a peculiarly human ability or talent.

What is the takeaway message here? Neither dogs nor humans are born into this world knowing how to exploit the other. If you agree with me that domestication is a word for "knowing how to do it," then without any exaggeration, regardless how Canis lupus and Homo sapiens evolved to the point where they could do so, both children and dogs need to learn by experience how to do so — how to domesticate their dealings with the world and the countless species living around them. 

 John Terrell
Calling only species "domesticated" that have been genetically modified by human management ignores how involved our species is in the life of our planet . . . for better or worse, as the case may be (redrawn and modified after Terrell et al. 2003, Fig. 3).
Source: John Terrell


1. I do not know when "domestication" became tied with the idea of genetic change. Historically the word was not so limited in its connotations. For example: domesticate (v.) 1630s (implied in domesticated), of animals, "convert to domestic use, tame, bring under control or cultivation;" 1741, of persons, "to cause to be attached to home and family, accustom to remain much at home;" from Medieval Latin domesticatus, past participle of domesticare "to tame," literally "to dwell in a house," from Latin domesticus   "belonging to the household," from domus "house," from PIE *dom-o- "house," from root *dem- "house, household." Related: Domesticating. (Source:

2. John Edward Terrell, John P. Hart, Sibel Barut, Nicoletta Cellinese, Antonio Curet, Tim Denham, Chapurukha M. Kusimba, Kyle Latinis, Rahul Oka, Joel Palka, Mary E. D. Pohl, Kevin O. Pope, , Patrick Ryan Williams, Helen Haines, and John E. Staller (2003). Domesticated Landscapes: The Subsistence Ecology of Plant and Animal Domestication. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 10: 323–368.

3. John Edward Terrell and John P. Hart (2008). Domesticated Landscapes. In: Handbook of Landscape Archaeology, edited by Bruno David and Julian Thomas, pp. 328–332. Walnut Creek:  Left Coast Press.