Dogs: A Short History from Wolf to Woof - Evan Ratliff, Angus Phillips

My parents know me quite well, so their Christmas gift to me was a trip to a wolf and wildlife rescue center. (Best present ever.) As I was petting a 105-pound timberwolf, I found myself amazed by the similarities and differences between wolves and dogs. The wolf--they kept emphasizing that he was not a tame animal, but he definitely knows how to sit for photographs and be adorable for training treats-- displayed startlingly similar body language to dogs. He wagged his tail, did "play-bows," rubbed and leaned into us (although that usually meant knocking us over), he licked our hands, and he tried to lick us in the face. He also went into my dad's pockets and tried to steal his gloves.


We also went to another wildlife preserve that had larger packs of wolves, and witnessed the rather terrible treatment of the omega. The poor omega wolf was lying alone on a far off rock, but at one point, he tried to approach the rest of the pack, who were curled up together in a heap of fur, his tail and ears down. The pack immediately jumped up and attacked him. He showed every sign of submission, even rolling on his belly, and even so, they bit him, growled at him, and chased him back off to his lonely rock.


All of it left me with a multitude of questions.  Is a German Shepherd more closely related to a wolf or a chihuahua? Given that most of the common beliefs about pack dynamics are utterly mistaken, how does the pack really function? If even small wolf groups designate an omega to abuse, why don't we tend to see omegas in our "home packs", even when the household has four or five dogs?


I decided on a New Year's resolution: to understand more about wolves, pack dynamics, and the origin of dogs.


Dogs: A Short History from Wolf to Woof, which is basically just a few National Geographic articles and a cover, was the only such book available in my library's ebook collection. It's a fast and easy read--I think it took less than a half an hour. The articles are mostly puff pieces, with a lot of "man in the street" dog stories, but I also picked up a few fun facts:

  • It's not clear when humans began to domesticate dogs, but 14,000-year-old fossils of humans and dogs have been found together, including a 12,000-year-old burial of a woman with a puppy cradled in her arms.
  • Dogs have "tinkertoy genetics": most of the distinctive traits that characterize the dog breeds are controlled by a single gene. Some examples of single-gene switches include the dachshund ("badger dog") stumpy legs, floppy versus erect ears, the "ridge" of Rhodesian ridgebacks, and more.
  • The explanation for the "tinkertoy genetics" is mostly human intervention: humans selectively bred dogs for herding, hunting, etc, even in the early phase of domestication. At the same time, dogs with genetic mutations (such as really short legs) were able to survive in human villages where they might not have survived in the wild. When, about 200 years ago, people became very interested in creating new breeds, single-switch genes were the easiest to find and manipulate.


Overall, I enjoyed the read, just as I ordinarily enjoy National Geographics articles, but my quest to understand dogs and wolves is far from complete.