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Did Dogs Domesticate Humans? Vanessa Woods In National Geographic
Science | March 08, 2013

Did Dogs Domesticate Humans? Vanessa Woods In National Geographic

They're known as 'man's best friend', but as science speaker Vanessa Woods proposes in an opinion piece in National Geographic, we may not have been the ones to initiate the close bond we now have with the canine species. In fact, she says that humans didn't initially take to our new found domestic pets much—choosing to hunt them to extinction rather than befriend them. "In the story of how the dog came in from the cold and onto our sofas, we tend to give ourselves a little too much credit," she writes in the article. "The most common assumption is that some hunter-gatherer with a soft spot for cuteness found some wolf puppies and adopted them." In reality, wolves (which eventually evolved into the domesticated dog) were the ones that probably made first contact with us. And, eventually, both species came to see the benefits of cohabitation.

Woods, the founder of the Duke Canine Cognition Center, proposes that wolves probably first approached humans when they started sniffing around our camps. Since humans were prone to being hostile toward large carnivores, Woods says it was up to the wolves to make nice. Since hostile wolves would be killed, it then became a matter of what Woods calls "survival of the friendliest." The wolves that were bold, but friendly, eventually began to be tolerated by humans. The ones who were bold, but mean, did not fair as well. The longer these friendly wolves hung around with people, the more their physical and cognitive characteristics changed. They acquired the floppy ears and waggy tails we're familiar with today, but moreover, they became adept at reading human gestures. Even more so than bonobos—and that breed of ape shares 98.7 per cent of our D.N.A.!

We eventually began to enjoy having these animals around, Woods explains, and bred dogs for specific tasks. They related to us, protected us, worked for us, and we formed a relationship and bond with these creatures. As the founder of the Duke Canine Cognition Center, she works to test the limits of dog cognition and determine not only what that says about their species—but ours as well. In fact, as she puts forward in the National Geographic piece, "dogs may even have been the catalyst for our civilization." Her newest book on the subject of human-canine relationships, The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think, debuted as an instant New York Times bestseller. In the book, (which she co-authored with her husband Brian Hare) and in her talks, Woods explores the complex relationship humans have with animals. Whether it's dogs or the bonobo ape (which Woods also studies extensively), she upcovers the commonalities and differences between us and animals—and what that means for understanding our place in the world.
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