Duke Canine Cognition Center

The Domestication of Dog Social Cognition

The unusual skills dogs exhibit in spontaneously using human social gestures led our group to wonder what the origins of these skills might be. One hypothesis we have tested is the idea that dogs acquired these skills through the process of domestication. We have tested this hypothesis by examining the use of human communicative gestures in wolves, various populations of dogs (i.e. New Guinea Signing dogs), dogs of various ages, and in a unique population of experimentally domesticated foxes. The foxes have provided the strongest test of the effect of domestication on social cognition.

Dmitri Belyaev fled Moscow in Stalin’s Russia post-World War II when Darwinian theories of evolution were prohibited. Hidden in Siberia, he continued testing Darwinian ideas under the disguise of a fur farm. While breeding foxes for the fur industry, he covertly began breeding a population of foxes with the hopes of revealing the genetics of domestication. He chose foxes for breeding based on a single criterion. He only bred them if they fearlessly approached humans. To his surprise, he stumbled onto the very cause of domestication. After a few generations of breeding, his foxes began displaying many dog-like characteristics. They developed floppy ears, spotted coats, curly tails – they even wag their tails and bark even though he never selected for any of these traits. This experimental domestication is viewed by many biologists as the most important behavioral genetics work of the past century.

We compared the experimentally domesticated foxes to a control line of foxes that was not experimentally domesticated. We found that the experimental foxes were as skilled at using human communicative gestures as dogs while the control line performed more like chimpanzees and wolves. Experimentally domesticating the foxes to be "nicer" made them "smarter"!

This discovery has shaped the way we think about the evolution of chimpanzee and bonobo cognition as well as the evolution of our own species psychology. See Hominoid Psychology Research Group for more.