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Dogs went to finishing school -- in Europe

Two modern dogs, Higgins (left) and Albi.
[Photo credit: AuB]

How were dangerous, man-eating wolves tamed to become the friendly, playful dogs we know and love today?

A new study in the 15 November issue of the journal Science suggests that hunter-gathers played a role, and, importantly, that the work they did to tame dogs happened in Europe.

In pinning doggy domestication to the European continent, this new study sheds light on a longstanding question among scientists, who've debated just where man's best friend first learned to sit and fetch.

A team lead by Olaf Thalmann from Finland's University of Turku wanted to better understand where the first dogs came from. To do this, they used DNA analysis to determine what population of ancient wolves (be it from Europe, Asia or elsewhere) was most closely related to living dogs. Thalmann and colleagues compared the genetic sequences from a wide range of living dogs to genetic material from canine fossils tens of thousands of years old. They also compared genetic material of living dogs to that of a large sample of recent wolves.

The scientists discovered that modern dogs' genetic sequences most closely matched those of either ancient European wolves or modern European ones, but were not a close match to the DNA from wolves outside of Europe.

This suggests a European origin for the process that shaped wolves into man's best friend.

Furthermore, because the dog fossils used in this study are dated to 19,000-32,000 years ago, when the world was full of hunter-gatherers, Thalmann and colleagues suggest that these foragers who got food from wild plants and animals -- may have kick-started canine domestication. Perhaps wild wolves were drawn to them because they could feed on carcasses the hunters left behind.

The work of Thalmann and colleagues contradicts previous thinking that agriculture -- fields full of crops -- brought wolves sniffing around villages, leading to relationships with (and training from) humans. Instead, say the authors, hunter-gatherers in Europe were likely responsible for domesticating dogs to various species we see in dog parks worldwide today.