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A female socialized gray wolf scent rubbing. photo: Hamilton
The Aboriginal Dog as a Domesticate:
Its Biobehavioral Position between Wild Canids and Cultured Breeds
Had I only known fifty years ago where my interests were ultimately going to take me I might have considered the career change that would have resulted in the above title as my PhD thesis work. But I didn’t. It is what it is. However, behavioral and evolutionary scientists are on the verge of exploring what I see as the link between wild, domestic-aboriginal and domestic-cultured canids. Published on June 3, 2019, “Behavioural correlations of the domestication syndrome are decoupled in modern dog breeds”, hints at this subject.
As this is an open access publication, I am allowed to reproduce sections here. But you can read the entire paper here.
The abstract says:
“Domestication is hypothesized to drive correlated responses in animal morphology, physiology and behaviour, a phenomenon known as the domestication syndrome. However, we currently lack quantitative confirmation that suites of behaviours are correlated during domestication. Here we evaluate the strength and direction of behavioural correlations among key prosocial (sociability, playfulness) and reactive (fearfulness, aggression) behaviours implicated in the domestication syndrome in 76,158 dogs representing 78 registered breeds. Consistent with the domestication syndrome hypothesis, behavioural correlations within prosocial and reactive categories demonstrated the expected direction-specificity across dogs. However, correlational strength varied between dog breeds representing early (ancient) and late (modern) stages of domestication, with ancient breeds exhibiting exaggerated correlations compared to modern breeds across prosocial and reactive behaviours. Our results suggest that suites of correlated behaviours have been temporally decoupled during dog domestication and that recent shifts in selection pressures in modern dog breeds affect the expression of domestication-related behaviours independently.”Because I struggled through this paper, I wrote to the corresponding author to ask for a lay interpretation and to suggest how much more interesting it would be to repeat the premise of the research using authentic aboriginal dogs. Her group’s research used data from the Swedish Kennel Club’s administration of a standardized behavioral testing program done on over 76,000 dogs of 77 Swedish Kennel Club breeds, seven of which were defined as “ancient” and the rest “modern”. Understandably, identifying and then accessing statistically meaningful numbers of aboriginal dogs presents a host of daunting challenges such as cost, logistics and accounting for environmental variables. So it appears no research project is prepared to move in that direction no matter how conceptually tantalizing it sounds. Oh well, I still didn’t think it was a bad thing to put a bug in the ears of scientists who might be able and willing to find a way to make it happen.
Inuk in a caribou parka, with a dog and komatik in the background.
Kugluktuk (formerly Coppermine), Nunavut 1949-1950
photo: Richard Harrington / Library and Archives Canada / PA-146586
I received a cordial email reply from, Dr. Christina Hansen Wheat. She thanked me for my interest and referred me to a lay summary published by ScienceDaily on June 7, 2019 which, as a press release, I am able to reproduce in its entirety in The Fan Hitch PostScript.
“Scientists since Darwin have been intrigued by the simultaneous alteration of multiple morphological, physiological and behavioural traits across a wide range of domesticated animals, such as horses, pigs and dogs. For instance, reduced brain size, floppy ears, increased docility and hormonal changes are commonly seen in domesticated animals but not their wild ancestors. This phenomenon is known as the domestication syndrome, and the traits within this syndrome are assumed to change together in a correlated fashion during domestication. But surprisingly, whether or not any of these traits are in fact correlated has never been formally tested.
Materials provided by Stockholm University
Dr. Wheat explained to me, “For the question about the categorization of ancient breeds, please see the papers, Genome sequence, comparative analysis and haplotype structure of the domestic dog and Genome-wide SNP and haplotype analyses reveal a rich history underlying dog domestication, defining ancient and modern breeds based on their detectable genetic admixture with wolf – ancient breeds have this, modern breeds do not. We specifically mention this division, and the background for it, in the paper.
For this study we had the unique opportunity to work with an extraordinarily well-represented behavioural dataset of more than 76.000 dogs tested in Sweden. We are, however, fully aware of the limitations of our dataset and acknowledge that many other dog breeds and types could potentially be tested with the purposes of expanding our study. In that respect, your point about including landraces is certainly interesting, but beyond the scope of the present study. We want to stress that we ourselves did not collect this data, but that the data was made available to us through a database.
We think the important point of our study is that, even though “highly manipulated”, ancient breeds behaviourally standout from modern breeds. Specifically, ancient breeds have stronger signatures of the behavioural correlations as expected in from the domestication syndrome compared to modern breeds, indicating that these behaviours might have been of significant importance during earlier stages of dog domestication. Extrapolating from these findings, it is possible that behavioural correlations would be even stronger in earlier dog types, but we have limited means to formally test this.
On another note, we have done other work in which we have compared behaviour in wolves and Alaskan huskies, with a large percentage of Greenland Dog, which might interest you: Dogs, but Not Wolves, Lose Their Sensitivity Toward Novelty With Age.
Christina Hansen Wheat, PhD
Ethology Group Department of Zoology Stockholm University, Sweden
Why is all this important, to me anyway? I am convinced that the aboriginal landrace dog represents a distinct intermediary between the wild (wolf) and the profoundly human-tweaked cultured breed dog. I can’t quite buy into calling the seven registered breeds identified by this research as “ancient”. To me truly ancient domesticate dogs were indeed landraces and all that those lifestyles represent. The domestication syndrome described by Adam Wilkins, PhD and the work of Dmitry Belyaev demonstrates the changes from wild to domestic dog. But what about from the first domesticates/landraces to cultured breeds? The data from those 76,000+ Swedish Kennel Club dogs and the research’s definition of “ancient” doesn’t quite do it for me. But it does recognize the difference between their version of ancient and modern breeds and was a good move in the right direction.
Alaskan Malamute photo: Hamilton