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Wolf to Woof: The Evolution of Dogs
Step into the world of writers and photographers as they tell you about the best, worst, and quirkiest places and adventures they encountered in the field.

By Karen E. Lange Photographs by Robert Clark

After wild dogs learned not to bite the hand that fed them, French poodles weren’t far behind.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

About 12,000 years ago hunter-gatherers in what is now Israel placed a body in a grave with its hand cradling a pup. Whether it was a dog or a wolf can’t be known. Either way, the burial is among the earliest fossil evidence of the dog’s domestication. Scientists know the process was under way by about 14,000 years ago but do not agree on why. Some argue that humans adopted wolf pups and that natural selection favored those less aggressive and better at begging for food. Others say dogs domesticated themselves by adapting to a new niche—human refuse dumps. Scavenging canids that were less likely to flee from people survived in this niche, and succeeding generations became increasingly tame. According to biologist Raymond Coppinger: “All that was selected for was that one trait—the ability to eat in proximity to people.”

At the molecular level not much changed at all: The DNA makeup of wolves and dogs is almost identical.


The dog evolved in the company of humans and cannot exist without them. Even the vast majority living “wild” as village scavengers depend on proximity to humans. That relationship has become so intimate that dogs are often viewed as creatures apart, writes biologist James Serpell. “The domestic dog exists precariously in the no-man’s-land between the human and nonhuman . . . neither person nor beast.” The ancients saw dogs as messengers between the living and the dead. Today dogs are often used in experiments that might threaten human lives.

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Point of View
Photographer Robert Clark tells how he coaxed the perfect pose out of a Maltese and a wolf.

Final Edit
The one that got away from our coverage of dogs is this month’s Final Edit.

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

The basenji, a compact hunter whose ancestry is depicted in Egyptian tombs 5,000 years old, is the only dog that does not bark. It isn’t mute however. It often chortles or yodels, even snarls, and it has other unusual characteristics. Like the wolf, another non-barker, the basenji can only be bred once a year, not twice like most dogs.

—Jeanne E. Peters

International Wolf Center
This site gives information about wolves and their association with humans and other animals.

American Museum of Natural History
Visit the museum in New York City whose paleontology department collected some of the best specimens of early dog precursors, such as Borophagus.


Fogle, Bruce. The New Encyclopedia of the Dog. Dorling Kindersley, 2000.

Morey, Darcy F. “The Early Evolution of the Domestic Dog.” American Scientist (July/August 1994), 336-347.

Olsen, Stanley J. Origins of the Domestic Dog. University of Arizona Press, 1985.

Sheldon, Jennifer W. Wild Dogs: The Natural History of the Nondomestic Canidae. Academic Press, 1992.

Thurston, Mary Elizabeth. The Lost History of the Canine Race. Andrews and McMeel, 1996.


Foster, Joanna. Dogs Working for People. National Geographic Books, 1972.

Linehan, Edward J. “Dogs Work for Man: Intelligent and Eager, Man’s Oldest Friend Learns New Ways to Catch Thieves, Find the Lost, and Master Other Tricky Tasks,” National Geographic (August 1958), 190-233.


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