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What We Learned About Dog Domestication From the Farm Fox Experiment

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.

Farm foxes reveal interesting insights on dog domestication.

Farm foxes reveal interesting insights on dog domestication.

The Farm Fox Experiments

There seem to be a lot of theories on how the gray wolf (Canis lupus) morphed into the domestic dog (canis lupus familiaris). Interestingly, historical data shows that one of the earliest pieces of evidence of dogs dates back 14,000 years ago. A mandible found in a Paleolithic grave in Germany attests that dogs existed back then.

While the exact date of the appearance of the first dogs may never be known for certain, the bond between dog and human was clearly demonstrated by the discovery of a Natufian skeleton found buried along with a puppy in Israel, which dated back to 12,000 years ago.

Update: the latest findings seem to suggest that dogs split from wolves into two separate lineages as early as 27,000 to 40,000 years ago.

A Variety of Theories

There are different theories surrounding the type of wolves dogs may have derived from. Canis lupus pallipes, the Indian wolf, could have been a potential ancestor because of their small size and less threatening appearance compared to the larger, more aggressive northern varieties.

Another theory has Canis lupus chanco, the Chinese wolf, as the potential ancestor due to the anatomy of its mandible which is similar to a dogs' and unlike any other mandible of any other wolf subspecies.

Canis lupus lupus is suspected to have played a prominent role in the genome of the many arctic, Spitz-type dogs, whereas, Canis lupus arabus, may have contributed to the development of more modern European breeds according to Steven Lindsey's Handbook of Dog Behavior and Training.

This leads to the theory that dogs may have developed from several subspecies of wolves spread throughout the world in different places and in different eras. Yet, the question of how the wolf morphed into the dog remains unsolved.

Obviously, the process didn't happen overnight. Different theories abound on how wolf and man first met and developed the first stepping stones leading to the strong partnership between dog and human. Following are some theories of how it may have all started.

Theory 1: Wolves as Hunting Partners

One theory has it that as hunters, humans attracted wolves which lagged behind attracted by the wounded animals the humans caught. As time went by, the wolves may have played a prominent role when the bow and arrow first were invented. The hunters likely hit the animals with the bow and the wolves' chore was to track them down and subdue them until the hunters took over.

Theory 2: Wolves as Pets

A romantic theory has it that a child may have found a wolf pup and adopted it in the household. The parents may have found it difficult to say no, and the wolf turned out to demonstrate great qualities such as guarding the home and helping in hunting. This theory may be a tad bit difficult to believe since even as of today, wolves show the ability to be tamed, but not domesticated. It's unlikely that Mesolithic people back then on the brink of survival had the time or will to tame wolves.

Theory 3: Wolves as Scavengers

Another interesting theory is assumed by Ray Coppinger, a biologist and dog behavior expert at Hampshire College. His belief is that wolves domesticated themselves as the human villages became the attractant for wolves. The wolves or proto-dogs were simply attracted by human waste left on the outskirts of villages. The wolves who had less fear were the ones to survive and ultimately flourish.

While we may never know with certainty how 'Canis Lupus' developed into 'Canis lupus Familiaris' farm foxes may provide an intriguing clue when it comes to morphological and behavioral changes. Read on to discover how a farm fox experiment sheds some light on the domestication process of dogs.

The Farm Fox Experiment

It all started when Soviet scientist Dmitry Belyaev started studying Vulpes Vulpes, the 'silver fox' in the late 1950s at the Institute of Cytology and Genetics (ICG) in Novosibirsk, Russia. The purpose of his studies was to identify possible correlations with the process of dog domestication. He decided to start a breeding program using this species of the fox because it was never domesticated before.

He carefully started selecting the tamer foxes while discarding the most vicious ones, in a process meant to mimic the domestication process of dogs. He continued his breeding program for 26 years of his life and such breeding program still continues today. He would be extremely proud if he was still alive!

Some Stunning, Unexpected Changes

As the tamer foxes were selectively bred and the most vicious were discarded, about 50 years later, outstanding changes started taking place. Perhaps the most relevant was the drastic coat changes. Throughout the years, the foxes started losing their distinctive silver coat color and started developing a piebald-colored coat. Because the foxes were tamed and kept in captivity, they no longer appeared to have a need for the silver coat which allowed them to camouflage in the wild!

Several foxes also started developing a "star". Basically, several light-colored hairs started developing on the fox's face, in a similar fashion as the stars horses feature on their foreheads. Dmitry's theory assumed that this mutation was likely occurring in several domesticated species.

But the morphological changes didn't stop there. The foxes also started developing shorter legs, floppy ears, and curled tails! All traits you see in many dog breeds today! The floppy ears were classified as an effect of pedomorphosis. Also, known as "neoteny", this was a tendency to retain juvenile traits through adulthood.

To add a further twist to the studies, the foxes also morphed their behaviors throughout the years. The foxes developed a tendency to whine, bark, and act submissively by licking the caregiver's face. These were more features that suggested a tendency to retain juvenile traits. Dogs in the same way appear to be perpetually juvenile specimens almost as if they froze into a young wolf pup state and never grow up. Dogs as wolf pups whine and bark, retain juvenile morphological traits, and seem to not mature.

Interestingly, the baby foxes also opened their eyes earlier and responded to auditory stimulation earlier than the wild foxes. They also reached their fear phases later than the non-domesticated ones. This allowed longer opportunities for socialization and more bonding time with the humans.

All these changes appear to mimic what may have happened with the domestication process of dogs. Yet; no definite conclusions can be made. While it's pretty evident how with time, domesticated species started developing pedomorphic traits and how their behaviors started changing, one must consider if it was really domestication that changed dogs or rather selective breeding. Yet, one cannot help but be fascinated by the farm fox/dog domestication theory. Continuing at this pace, foxes may soon become a newly domesticated species, a sort of a cross between a dog and a cat .- Watch the video below to see these intriguing fellows- or read more from the American Scientist link.


Steven Lindsey, Handbook of Dog Behavior and Training

American Scientist: Early Canid Domestication: The Farm-Fox Experiment

Watch how the Foxes Changed in this Experiment

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2013 Adrienne Farricelli


Adrienne Farricelli (author) on May 21, 2019:

Yes, Norfolk ears are down, Norwich ears are up.

Lora Clark on March 22, 2019:

Norfolk ears are dropped I believe

Nancy Yager from Hamburg, New York on January 24, 2013:

It is interesting how we can interpret all this information. I found this to be very informative.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on January 09, 2013:

Thanks for stopping by agilitymatch and for the votes up. Yet, the puzzle remains still a bit on the obscure side, as only assumptions and theories are being made. Hopefully, further studies will reveal more.

Kristin Kaldahl on January 09, 2013:

I saw this title in the hub topics, and my first thought was, "Oh no. Someone is saying owing wild foxes are a good thing to own." Then I saw you wrote it and knew it would be about the fox domestication study. Excellent article!!! Voting up and more. Great historical and scientific information for anyone who owns a dog. :)

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on January 08, 2013:

Isn't it amazing? I was amazed too when I first learned about this in an ethology class years ago.

Dolores Monet from East Coast, United States on January 08, 2013:

Behavior is one thing, but the fact that the foxes changes in looks is amazing. Some of them remind me of corgi's. What an interesting hub!

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on January 08, 2013:

Thanks for stopping by. I think it's very interesting the theory that they

changed colors because in captivity there was no longer need to camouflage. Also, those juvenile traits almost seem like they're there so they look irresistible to humans!

Bob Bamberg on January 08, 2013:

An interesting and informative read. I found the physical changes in the silver fox as the experiment evolved to be very interesting.

Back in the 90's when our local zoo had a North American display there was a red fox exhibit. The graphics identified them as vulpes vulpes also.

Very interesting science, presented in a manner that was easy on the brain. Voted up and interesting.

wetnosedogs from Alabama on January 08, 2013:

Wow, I never thought how dogs came into being what they are to us today. Really interesting hub.