In order to understand the evolution of our best friend we have to understand what makes a dog different from his ancestor the wolf.
Besides the obvious physical differences such as size and coloration, there are some more subtle cognitive differences that make dogs the more ideal companions. These differences have been closely studied by researchers Brian Hare, Adam Miklosi, Michael Tomasello and others.
Imagine you’re playing fetch and your dog runs past the ball, confused as to where it went (probably because it’s red), would you help him by pointing it out? Would he follow your finger to where the ball is? Try it for yourself. Even puppies will glance in the direction you’re pointing, suggesting it’s an innate ability. Dogs can even follow a mere gaze. Research has shown that dogs (and puppies) will use human gestures to help them accomplish their goal. If you had a pet wolf – even a well-socialized one – lots of teaching would be necessary in order to get him to use your point as a communicative gesture.
Both dogs and wolves are intelligent animals. With the right amount of motivation they can be trained to do amazing things. Miklosi et al trained dogs and wolves to obtain a treat from a metal contraption. However, once he made the task physically impossible to accomplish, dogs immediately looked to the human for help. Meanwhile, the wolf kept at it, stubbornly trying to figure it out on his own.
That’s the key difference between dogs and wolves. Dogs look to us for guidance. They understand our perspective and more readily read our communicative intentions. Somewhere along the line, dogs became more in tune with our gestures and expressions. These cognitive differences between dogs and wolves may provide us with some valuable insight as to how these animals evolved from independent creatures into our faithful companions.
More to come on the evolution of dogs.