What does a linguistics scholar like Dr. Elaine Ostrach Chaika know about dogs? When you think about what a linguist does—study how human language is structured and decoded—and add to this Dr. Chaika’s lifelong love of dogs, it makes sense. Her new book, Humans, Dogs, and Civilization, examines the unique relationship between humans and dogs, and proves that humans could not have built civilization without dogs. For example, dogs’ brains evolved to understand whatever human language their owners spoke, a feat no other animal (or human) can do. Basically, humans and dogs shaped each other’s courses to become our modern selves.
Dr. Chaika spent seven years researching the book, and the result reads like a combination personal memoir, scientific study, and a gripping story of the special communication that exists between species. One of the longstanding ideas that Dr. Chaika challenges is that dogs are direct descendants of wolves. She also demonstrates that early humans couldn’t have tamed wolves to be dogs. Dogs and humans co-evolved for millennia.
Dr. Chaika answered a few questions for the AKC about the differences between dogs and wolves, and how those distinctions determined the modern relationship dogs have with humans.
Why are you so interested in dogs?
I’ve had dogs since I was three years old, and often marveled that they did things nobody trained them to do. I’ve always known that each dog, like each person, is an individual.
In your book, you assert that dogs and wolves are separate species despite the amount of DNA they share, and their ability to mate with each other and produce viable young. Why?
Because even the DNA specialists, who determine such things, say that dogs evolved from extinct wolves. If those wolves are extinct, how can we know what their DNA was and what they were like?
Shared DNA is common in the animal world. Chimps share over 98% of their DNA with humans, but nobody claims that humans and chimps are one species. Even Bonobos and chimps share most of their DNA, but the two animals are entirely different in their behaviors, brain size, aggression, and communication.
How do dogs and wolves differ?
There are many, but the outstanding one is the wolf’s innate aggression. In Denali National Park in Alaska, more than 50% of wolves are killed by other wolves—more than by any other creature. In contrast, dogs, on first meeting, are likely to use a “play bow” to initiate a new dog as a friend. And if you introduce a new puppy into your home, the dogs already there will assert their dominance, such as snuggle rights, but they don’t kill the puppy.
Physically, wolves and dogs are also very different, and this has very little to do with “survival of the fittest.” For instance, wolves have three pads on their paws, and dogs have five. This is how we can tell that the animal following a child into Chauvet Cave was a dog, not a wolf. He (or she) left a paw print in the sand in the cave, which became fossilized over the intervening 26,000 years.
Wolves are monogamous. Dogs are not. Only the alpha male and female in a den mate. The other wolves are celibate and help raise the cubs. Female dogs, on the other hand, not only mate with almost any male, but their litter of pups can be fathered by more than one dog.
For more on the fascinating co-evolution of dogs and humans, check out this video:
Elaine Chaika is a Professor Emerita in Linguistics and English at Providence College. She received her PhD in Linguistics from Brown University, as well as her MAT in English and Social Studies. She is the author of six books and numerous articles, published in academic journals and publications such as Psychology Today and The Boston Globe.