Nautilus

How We Really Tamed the Dog

Suppose you wanted to build the perfect dog from scratch. What would be the key ingredients in the recipe? Loyalty and smarts would be musts. Cuteness would be as well, perhaps with gentle eyes, and a curly, bushy tail that wags in joy in anticipation of your appearance. And you might toss in a mutt-like mottled fur that seems to say, “I may not be beautiful, but you know that I love you and I need you.”

You needn’t bother trying. Lyudmila Trut and Dmitri Belyaev have already built it for you. The perfect dog. Except it’s not a dog, it’s a fox. A domesticated one. They built it quickly—mind-bogglingly fast for constructing a brand new biological creature. It took them less than 60 years, a blink of an eye compared to the time it took for wolves to become dogs. They built it in the often unbearable negative 40 degrees Fahrenheit cold of Siberia, where Lyudmila and, before her, Dmitri, have been running one of the longest, most incredible experiments on behavior and evolution ever devised.

Let us travel back to 1974. One clear, crisp spring morning, with the sun shining on the winter snow, Lyudmila moved into a little house on the edge of an experimental fox farm in Novosibirsk, Siberia, with an extraordinary little fox named Pushinka. Pushinka was a beautiful female with piercing black eyes, silver-tipped black fur, and a swatch of white running along her left cheek. She had recently passed her first birthday, and her tame behavior and dog-like ways of showing affection made her beloved by all at the fox farm. Lyudmila and her fellow scientist and mentor Dmitri Belyaev had decided that it was time to see whether Pushinka was so domesticated that she would be comfortable making the great leap to becoming truly domestic. Could this little fox actually live with people in a home?

Man’s best friend: Lyudmila Trut with one of her beloved domesticated foxes.Vasily Kovaly

Dmitri Belyaev was a visionary scientist, a geneticist working in Russia’s vitally important commercial fur industry. Research in genetics was strictly prohibited at the time Belyaev began his career, and he had accepted his post in fur breeding because he could carry out studies under the cover of that work. Twenty-two years before Pushinka was born, he had launched an experiment that was unprecedented in the study of animal behavior. He began to breed tame foxes. He wanted to mimic the domestication of the wolf into the dog, with the silver fox, which is a close genetic cousin of the wolf, as a stand-in. If he could turn a fox into a dog-like animal, he might solve the long-standing riddle of how domestication comes about. Perhaps he would even discover important insights about human evolution; after all, we are, essentially, domesticated apes.

Fossils could provide clues about when and where the domestication of species had occurred, and a rough sense of the stages of change in the animals along the way. But they couldn’t explain how domestication got started in the first place. How had fierce wild animals, intensely averse to human contact, become docile enough for our human ancestors to have started breeding them? How had our own formidable wild ancestors started on the transition to being human? An experiment in real-time, to breed the wild out of an animal by mating the tamest among them, might provide the answers.

By far the most intense affection and loyalty forms between owners and dogs.

Belyaev’s plan for the experiment was audacious. The domestication of a species was thought to happen gradually, over thousands of years. How could he expect any significant results, even if the experiment ran for decades? And yet, here was a fox like Pushinka, who was so much like a dog that she came when her name was called and could be let out on the farm without a leash. She followed the workers around

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