How We Really Tamed the Dog
August 6, 2017 11:38 AM   Subscribe

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.
posted by ellieBOA (37 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
 
Previously. (This new article, by the way, is by Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut.)
posted by languagehat at 11:52 AM on August 6 [2 favorites]


I was listening to a podcast about this earlier this week. Fascinating stuff. Science is awesome.
posted by Fizz at 11:58 AM on August 6


Shame foxes stink so badly. They'd be the perfect dog-cat.
posted by leotrotsky at 12:13 PM on August 6 [3 favorites]


Can you imagine breeding foxes for size like Great Danes?
posted by leotrotsky at 12:15 PM on August 6 [4 favorites]


That was a fascinating look at epigenetics. And cute foxes.
posted by Burhanistan at 12:43 PM on August 6


Selective breeding, choose 1 of 2 options for each animal: pet, or fur piece.
posted by hank at 12:55 PM on August 6 [3 favorites]


These are all very cute but I look at my own genuine basic dog and she is so wonderful, and the shelters are full of dogs like her and thousands are killed every day. She is my perfect dog, and most of those others are someone's perfect dog if they only had the chance, and while this experiment is interesting I find the framing rather problematic.
posted by The otter lady at 1:05 PM on August 6 [10 favorites]


I'm curious--read the article but don't have my close reading hat on today so I glossed some parts. Did the experiment ultimately look into or offer any findings on whether the observed effects were epigenetic or involved deeper genetic changes?
posted by saulgoodman at 1:15 PM on August 6


What does the fox say, about this?
posted by TedW at 1:16 PM on August 6 [26 favorites]


I remember in Herzog's documentary "Happy People" a big focus was on finding the right dog that could excel during extended man-dog trecks through the taiga (though a process of trial-and-error, mostly)
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 1:19 PM on August 6


These are all very cute but I look at my own genuine basic dog and she is so wonderful, and the shelters are full of dogs like her and thousands are killed every day. She is my perfect dog, and most of those others are someone's perfect dog if they only had the chance, and while this experiment is interesting I find the framing rather problematic.
This is a derail, but I just recently talked with an immigrant from America about this. Places outside USA are not all full of stray dogs and/or dog shelters. Where I live there is literally not one stray dog or abandoned dog*, and thus not one dog shelter in the American sense of the world. I have no idea how the situation is in Russia.

On topic, those foxes are so cute. When I was a teen and often wandered about in national parks, I sometimes came upon fox cubs. They are the sweetest little things you've ever seen, and I'm a bit jealous of those scientists. It seems like the perfect job.

Like everyone else, I love my dog who is snoring on the couch next to me. He is the least wolf-like dog ever. Once there was a mouse in the house, and he made a whiny tiny bark at it until I came and removed it. On the other hand, he is a mix of various sheep dogs and he herds and guards just about everything in spite of my total lack of sheepdog knowledge, if that mouse had been in a bunch and out in the yard, he would have corralled them into a nice tight herd and easy to bucket. Sometimes I feel I should get us some sheep because it's clear he really wants a job and my training efforts aren't enough for all of his energy and initiative. What I'm trying to say is that breeding and genetics are fascinating, it seems really weird that one can breed a dog for herding sheep, or for catching rats, but you can, just as you can breed a cuddly companion fox. The article seems to suggest that this has some implication for humans as well, and I guess it does, though I can't personally figure it out.

* every pup that is born here needs to get a chip implanted and a dog-ID, so authorities can follow the ownership of the dog. Obviously there are some criminals who try to avoid the law, and sadly their dogs are usually euthanized when found.
posted by mumimor at 2:00 PM on August 6 [1 favorite]


Shame foxes stink so badly. They'd be the perfect dog-cat.

Dogs smell pretty strongly as well. Perhaps humans are just used to their odour?
posted by acb at 2:32 PM on August 6 [1 favorite]


Dogs smell pretty strongly as well.

Not all dogs have (waterproofing) oils in their coats. Mine don't, and their fur smells like fresh hay.
posted by vers at 2:40 PM on August 6 [1 favorite]


Can you imagine breeding foxes for size like Great Danes?


Let me introduce you to the maned wolf.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 3:08 PM on August 6 [9 favorites]


^definitely watch the video in that maned wolf link. Roar-bark!
posted by Burhanistan at 3:19 PM on August 6 [1 favorite]


leotrotsky: According to Scientific American the domesticated foxes lost their "musky fox smell."
posted by Grimgrin at 3:24 PM on August 6 [6 favorites]


Many dogs' footpads smell like Doritos.
posted by hippybear at 3:42 PM on August 6 [5 favorites]


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

Checkmate, cat jerks. WE LOVE MORE THAN YOU, YOU ARE DEAD INSIDE ACCORDING TO SCIENCE
posted by middleclasstool at 3:44 PM on August 6 [12 favorites]


There's a link in the comments to Slate from 2012, detailing some of the financial issues the experiment has had and what its end point might be - apparently, though friendly, the foxes weren't actually trainable at that point. Fair warning - It's a little darker in tone than the nautil.us article
posted by Sparx at 3:47 PM on August 6 [1 favorite]


Checkmate, cat jerks.

*throws cats at you until your eyes are clawed out and then two more Greek tragedy plays are written about you while I pet my cats*
posted by hippybear at 3:47 PM on August 6 [20 favorites]



^definitely watch the video in that maned wolf link. Roar-bark!

My pup was really scared by that roar-bark, and first he left the couch, then he made the scared-dog fart, and finally when the video was over he came back needing a cuddle still all stinky. In short: do not watch this with your dog.

The links provided by Grimgrin and Sparx show the foxes in tiny cages. It doesn't seem ethical to me.
posted by mumimor at 4:01 PM on August 6 [1 favorite]


I don't even want to think about all the foxes they went through.
posted by Burhanistan at 4:52 PM on August 6


I have no idea how the situation is in Russia.

Lots of wild and feral dogs since the collapse of the USSR. There was a good article on here some years back about the fall back into wildness - that some wild dogs were becoming more like wolves, fearing people and gathering in packs, while some played the human card for free handouts and sympathy.
posted by Meatbomb at 5:28 PM on August 6 [1 favorite]


I've actually been lucky enough to meet Lyudmila! She fed me cookies and coffee in her lab in Siberia and told us stories about Dmitry. I traveled to Siberia with my good friend and mentor to work on a story about domestication in animals for Nat Geo back in 2009. We spent over a week photographing her foxes and her research lab and then traveled to St Petersburg to meet a woman who owns several of her domesticated foxes. Lyudmila was the research assistant for Dmitry Belyaev and the lab she runs dates back to Soviet era Russia - it's a thing of beauty. It's like something out of a Wes Anderson movie. Belyaev started the domestication project with his brother who at some point butted heads with the Soviet government and ended up dying in prison. Lyudmila took the research over in the mid-80's when Dmitry passed. And it's not just Lyudmila working with the foxes. There's 8-10 women who care for the foxes and that includes cleaning and feeding the foxes that have been bred for aggressiveness. Foxes that are so aggressive that when you walk towards the cage they start hissing and spitting from 5 feet away. Lyudmila and Dmitri also breed rats for passive and aggressive behavior. We started calling the aggressive ones weaponized rats after spending a day photographing them. They would back into the corner of the cage and then launch themselves at the camera/ your face. When we first arrived, we informed Lyudmila that we were going to photographed the angry rats she was dismissive and told us it was impossible. When we shared the images we made of the aggressive rats she jumped up and down and told us we were the first to ever capture what she had seen over 40 years. Anyway, not to burst anyone's bubble but to say the foxes are "pet" friendly is a stretch. If you live in the north where there's snow on the ground 5-6 months of the year and you've got room to build a massive enclosure you might be ok with a few of Lyudmila's foxes. They are curious and will cry when they see you like a dog might but they have the attention span of a squirrel. They bounce around everywhere jumping on and off things and hate being indoors. The fox we photographed indoors in St Petersburg ran around panting the whole time and peed everywhere. And they definitely have an odor but not any worse than the odor of a large dog. IMO they're an animal that was domesticated for scientific research but fall into the category of animals that people want to be domesticated for no other reason than to say they own one.

You can check out a gallery Vince Musi put together of the work we produced for the larger story. I really need to write down my experience from that trip. So many things happened: hung out with dairy cows in Norway, saw St Petersburg from the inside of a van (looks kids, the Hermitage!), paid off cops to get our lighting gear into Kazakstan, held against our will by the brother of a small-time oligarch in Kazakstan, had a psychotic break in the back of a car in Kazakstan because I thought the driver was going to kill us (Kazakstan is not a nice place), went to the opera in Novosibiersk, watched a 1200 lbs wild hog slaughtered before my eyes in South Carolina, was bitten by blind pig in St Paul and had foxes jumping on my back and nibbling on my ears in St. Petersburg It was an epic trip to say the least but it was also an absolute nightmare that took me months to recover from.
posted by photoslob at 6:30 PM on August 6 [132 favorites]


I've been aware of the fox domestication experiment for several years, but I just flagged photoslab's comment as fantastic because it was wonderful to see additional photos and hear a more personalized take on the experience. Thanks for the both the post and the great comments.
posted by xyzzy at 6:36 PM on August 6 [2 favorites]


Seriously, photoslob: When you write all of that up, please post it to MeFi Projects, and if possible, to this thread. I'm dying to read it!
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 9:32 PM on August 6 [4 favorites]


All wild mammals breed within a particular window of time each year, and only once a year.
Except most rodents and who knows how many other mammals?
posted by sjswitzer at 9:59 PM on August 6 [1 favorite]


leotrotsky, I think I might have perfect dog-cat sleeping at home: Norwegian Puffin Dog (Norsk Lundehund). Well, actually, my brother-in-law's first reaction when seeing the pup over Skype was "why have you bought a fox?"
posted by Harald74 at 10:42 PM on August 6 [1 favorite]


Didn't they try commercially selling foxes bred from Lyudmila's foxes some years ago? I recall the price being something like $8,000 for a (neutered) cub.
posted by acb at 2:32 AM on August 7


I recall reading in a previous article that as the foxes began to exhibit morphological differences in their facial and fur features, the strength of their musk odor was also reduced. That stink appears to be a feature of wildness, not foxes in particular.
posted by I-Write-Essays at 5:04 AM on August 7


I believe they were selling foxes to select people but it seemed like Lyudmila was very picky about who she'd sell to. She is an amazing researcher but not always warm and fuzzy. :)

And there are definitely morphological differences in the tame foxes. The easiest to identify is the ears. A wild fox has pointy ears that stand up much of the time but a domesticated fox's ears are rounded and a little floppier.

The cover of the issue featured a photo we didn't shoot of a wild fox. Pointy ears and no signs of domestication. This is still a very sore subject for us and there is a story behind that as well.
posted by photoslob at 5:58 AM on August 7 [3 favorites]


photoslob, could you explain the photo issue some more?
posted by Omnomnom at 6:17 AM on August 7 [1 favorite]


middleclasstool: Checkmate, cat jerks. WE LOVE MORE THAN YOU, YOU ARE DEAD INSIDE ACCORDING TO SCIENCE

Lemme catsplain something to you, dog boy...
posted by clawsoon at 7:45 AM on August 7 [1 favorite]


photoslob, could you explain the photo issue some more?

memail incoming.
posted by photoslob at 7:59 AM on August 7


I like the fox smell.
posted by Wolfdog at 1:08 PM on August 7


Phosgene also smells like musty hay!
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 1:15 PM on August 7


I think the Norwegian Puffin Dog might deserve its own FPP.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 12:45 AM on August 9 [1 favorite]


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