How to turn a fox into a dog

In tens of thousands of years humans have domesticated wolves into dogs. Doing the same to foxes is very much harder.

As I have mentioned before, since earliest childhood I have had vigorous interactions with dogs. I described the most dramatic one in this story. After I moved, in my late teens, from my childhood residence in southern India to my father’s native Germany, there were no more dogs to play or socialize with. Until in my twenties I took a few overland trips to Bangalore, where my mother and brother still stayed — in the beautiful family property we had bought in the 1960s, when my father retired.

One of the many outhouses in the very large garden of the family villa in Bangalore

On one trip I found that my brother had caught a fox, which he kept in a large room in one of the property outhouses.

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The fox was leashed on a long chain that allowed it to move all around the room. It was a beautiful creature (like the one in this Wildventures picture) and I immediately sought to befriend it — the way I am always able to do, very easily, with dogs. Typically I will encounter a family dog somewhere, and within a few days it will be mine, following me around, quite enamoured.

The reason is that I treat dogs the way they want to be treated. I occupy them with their favourite pastimes, for instance hunting rats or catching frisbees. I feed them little delicacies, and most importantly: I treat them very roughly, sternly yelling orders and punishing them when they do not immediately obey. “You are cruel!” the owners will sometimes exclaim, and then go on to wonder why the dog has become so fond of me. The explanation: it is looking for an alpha leader that guides and dominates it — at least its genes are.

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So I wanted to try it on the fox. But it fled to a corner and would not allow me to approach it, cowering, growling and viciously baring its teeth, not touching the food I brought before I left the room. In fact, it needed to recover for ten minutes after my visit before eating. Nothing changed over a number of weeks, and the fox retained its priorities: fear, animosity, defensive aggression, flight reflexes — and hunger. In that order.

I was baffled. Why was I not able to bond with the animal? Did it have rabies or something? And then I simply forgot about the encounter. That was shameful: Evolution had been part of my university studies (I specialized in evolutionary epistemology) and the reason why the fox was so unapproachable should have been immediately clear to me.

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Enlightenment came many years later when the May 2017 issue of Scientific American (a magazine I have meticulously read since my early teens) arrived. It had a story: “How to turn a fox into a dog.” In it professor Lyudmila Trut described a decades-long experiment conducted in Siberia (Russia), where foxes had been selectively bred for friendliness towards humans.

In the introduction to the story Lyudmila writes:

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“The animal runs toward me, its curly tail wagging and its loving eyes full of joy. It jumps into my arms and nuzzles my face, like a dog. But it is not a dog. It is a fox — a fox that looks and behaves much like a dog. The animal and its close relatives are the result of 58 generations of selective breeding, performed in an attempt to discover in general the secrets of domestication and in particular how humans may have transformed wolves into the first dogs.” [Image of Lyudmila Trut: The Evolution Institute]

Of course! I should have known that my fox had been unapproachable not because it was diseased, or because I was doing something wrong. It was for purely genetic reasons! Animals that are not principally shy to intra-species contacts — like the birds we once brought up in our garden home in Germany — can be easily tamed. But there are some that have very strong instincts preventing it. They will never accept human interaction.

Here I would like to describe how humans bred wolves into dogs, but as so often Neil deGrass Tyson has done a far better job than I would be able to. So watch this 5-minute video above to find out how it happened.

The first encounters of sapiens with wolves were doubtlessly hostile, but man (and some of the wolves) soon discovered that there was a lot to be gained by friendlier interaction. The wolves got free meals — they would eat left-overs which were less palatable to human beings (bones and scraps). But they also, and more importantly, brought clear advantages for the humans, especially in the camps that arose during the agricultural revolution. They would bark to warn their hosts against intruders, they would assist in hunts, and would generally provide companionship. It became a partnership that deepened over time, and humans started breeding dogs, selecting those that were most suited to the specific needs. They would consistently kill off dogs that could not be trained and breed the dogs that pleased them. Over the generations the dogs evolved, until we had this:

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The poster (by Eric Isselee in Culturenik) depicts over 500 contemporary breeds of dog.

If you are interested: the largest dog is the harlequin Great Dane, up to 42 inches (1.05 meters) tall, the smallest is the Chihuahua, which can as an adult be just 4 inches or 10 cm in height. All these races, big and small, cute and ugly, calm and aggressive, were bred from wolves in around 20,000 years. That’s how fast evolution can work, when it is purposefully guided by human intervention.

Dogs have, in many cases, become extremely docile and even protective. But there are animals that cannot be bred this way. Take the example of horses and zebras: the former, like dogs, can be wonderfully domesticated, the latter, in spite of intense training and effort, remain bad tempered, easily agitated and very aggressive. When cornered they will bite and kick so hard they can easily maim or kill humans. In 2013, a teenager in Virginia used extreme patience and rewards-based training, to get a zebra to bear a human rider. But even she noted: “Some days it’s like he’s been riding for 30 years and other days he acts like he’s never seen a human being.” Zebras are hardwired by evolution in Africa, where there are many large-animal predators, to be cautious and extremely aggressive when they perceive danger. You can read more about horses and zebras in this article.

Now back in 1958 undergraduate Lyudmila Trut joined her charismatic professor Dmitri Belyaev and colleagues in Novosibirsk in an effort to find out whether the general mechanisms of evolution could work to domesticate foxes, one of the most notoriously untameable species on our planet. Collecting litters from fox-fur farms, the team looked out for the ones that showed the least fear and the least amount of aggression towards humans. What they experienced is described by Lyudmila Trut:

“In the first years the vast majority of foxes seemed like fire-breathing dragons: they were extremely aggressive when I approached, and am sure they would have loved to rip my hand off. They cowered in fear at the back of their cages. But a small number remained calm, observing but not reacting one way or the other. These animals were selected to mate and produce the next generation.

Even the calm foxes of the first few generations were not prosocial towards people — they seemed to tolerate, but not enjoy, the presence of humans. But I got a tantalizing hint of what was to come in the fourth and fifth generations: pups barely able to walk would wag their little tails in anticipation as I approached.”

This carried on, generation after generation: in around two percent of the domesticated foxes in the sixth generation the pups eagerly sought contact with humans. After 58 generations that number had risen to around 70 percent. Now they follow human gazes and gestures, and even look up when they hear their names.

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One of the sixth-generation foxes, named Pushinka, stayed in Lyudmila’s house and bonded with her, lying by her feet, waiting for her to scratch her neck. And when Lyudmila popped out for a bit, Pushinka would sit at the window, looking out in anticipation of her return. In July 1974 Pushinka did something completely unique: Lyudmila was reading a book on a bench outside the house, when there were footsteps in the distance. Pushinka sensed danger. She sprinted towards the intruder and barked, “sounding exactly like a guard dog.” This fox, whose story is available in a book, had provided an answer to the question whether living with humans would provide doglike behaviour in domesticated foxes, after fifteen years of selection. Indeed it would.

One thing I need to mention, without trying to draw any conclusions, is that the team discovered that domesticated foxes showed characteristics very similar to that of other domesticated animals, especially dogs. They had curly tails, chunkier limbs, floppy ears and juvenile face characteristics (roundness and a blunted snout). Belyaev and his team had succeeded in their endeavour: to make dogs out of foxes. This has provided insights into how our ancestors tamed other animals.

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If you want to read more about the subject you should start with “How to Tame a Fox and Build a Dog” by Lee Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut in American Scientist, Vol 105/4. You can also read much of the article online here. And you can watch this very moving video on the way Belyaev foxes interact with a random human being — as compared with a less domesticated fox and a dog.

And finally you can sit back and enjoy a wonderful one-hour lecture by Lee Dugatkin that vividly describes what I have been telling you in this article.

Written by

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.

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