top of page

The Human-Canine Partnership: A Template for Evolutionary Success Through Cooperation

"Competition has been shown to be useful up to a certain point and no further. Cooperation, which is the thing we must strive for today, begins where competition leaves off." – Franklin D. Roosevelt

The long-held but changing perception is that people, in a relative position as gods, created Caninekind by way of selective breeding practices. However, both scientific and anecdotal evidence is reshaping the way we understand the origins and shared history of dogs and human beings. We are unearthing clues that point to a co-evolutionary relationship far more reciprocal and symbiotic than one-sided and human-controlled. The evolution of ancient humans’ hunting collaboratively with dogs seems to have coincided with the evolution of social cooperation among humans. Could each of these two developments have influenced the other? While it is undeniable that humans are responsible for the vast genetic diversity in the dog, which presently accounts for nearly 300 distinct species, anthropologists and evolutionary biologists are piecing together new theories that also consider how wolves-turned-dogs played a fundamental role in “domesticating” early humans just as we domesticated them. The influence dogs have on humans to be a more connected and cooperative species continues today, thereby giving those of us who commune with dogs an “adaptive advantage” over those who do not.

Although biologists offer a wide array of definitions for the term fitness in evolution-speak, they agree broadly on the essence of the idea. In the crudest terms, fitness involves the ability of organisms – or, more rarely, populations or species – to survive and reproduce in the environment in which they find themselves (Orr, 2009). For over a century after Charles Darwin wrote the book on evolution, we accepted “every man for himself” as the fundamental tenet of natural selection, the process by which species evolve through the propagation of individuals’ genes. Then, in 1975, Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson published a new evolutionary manifesto called Sociobiology. In it, he laid out an alternative to Darwin’s theory that accounted for the seemingly contradictory tendency humans have to cooperate with one another. Wilson offered a new perspective, which was that certain types of social behaviors – including altruism – are genetically programmed into species to help them survive. To counter the “selfish gene” ideology, E.O. Wilson outlined a concept called “kin selection”, which determined that the genetic victory of the family group was dependent on the survival of those family members who would fight and die on behalf of others. This phenomenon of beneficial altruism became knows as inclusive fitness. Still, though, this idea couldn’t account for people’s innate drive to band together with friends, or for one to risk one’s own life to save a stranger’s. In 2010, Wilson himself denounced the kin selection theory he had developed decades earlier, as new research pointed to altruism as an evolutionary trait that evolved for the good of the community, rather than the good of the individual. Wilson discussed humans as a eusocial species whose social structure is analogous to that of ants in the sense that it is biologically hard-wired. Much of today’s research on canine evolution suggests that when dogs originally came into humans’ lives, the interspecies relationships we fostered capitalized on our both our and (then wolves’) genetic predisposition to cooperate… as “pack animals”.


While no theory has definitive authority over another on the domestication of dogs from wolves, scientists Wolfgang M. Schleidt and Michael D. Shalter say in their 2003 article Co-Evolution of Humans and Canids, “Instead of perpetuating our traditional attitude that ‘domesticated animals’ are intentional creations of human ingenuity, we propose that initial contacts between wolves and humans were truly mutual, and that various subsequent changes in both wolves and humans must be considered a process of co-evolution” (Shatler, 2003). The grueling environmental conditions of Europe and Asia during the Ice Age offered gray wolves the spot as top predator among many others who hunted and scavenged on large, herding ungulates as they migrated across the continents. Homo hunters were originally omnivorous scavengers, who at some point, learned to hunt in interdependent groups, allowing them to become fearsome predators in their own right. Developing (what was presumably) a biological instinct to cooperate with others in their foraging group, some scientists today speculate, may have enabled humans’ earliest partnerships with wolves. Say the authors, “We do not claim to know “The Truth” but we offer in this paper a different view, with emphasis on companionship rather than human superiority” (Schleidt and Shalter, 2003).

When one examines the cooperative social structure of wolves, it makes a lot of sense to assume that humans could’ve learned some critical adaptations from them. Wolves’ ability to cooperate in a variety of situations, not only in well coordinated drives in the context of attacking prey, carrying items too heavy for one individual, provisioning not only their own young but also other pack members, babysitting, etc., is rivaled only by that of human societies. In addition, similar forms of cooperation are observed in two other closely related canids, the African Cape hunting dog and the Asian dhole. Therefore it is reasonable to assume that canid sociality and cooperativeness are old traits in terms of evolution, predating human sociality and cooperativeness by millions of years (Schleidt and Shalter, 2003).

Some scientists speculate that we humans may owe our very existence to this initial (and ongoing) contact with dogs, and point to the rise and fall of Neanderthals as a context for their argument. Why humans came to be while Neanderthals declined is a pervasive mystery in evolutionary history. That one Homo species would survive while another, almost identical species went extinct in the same habitat at the same time begs the question, what did we do differently that made our group able to out-compete the other? Neanderthals lived and evolved successfully for over 200,000 years before modern humans came into the picture. European Neanderthals were replaced by modern human populations from Africa approximately 40,000 years ago (Mellars and French, 2011). Many plausible theories exist as to how humans survived while Neanderthals died out, which include the well accepted notions that climate change isn’t a new threat and might’ve set a chain reaction in motion that eventually took out our primitive cousins; and/or that we humans beat out the competition “technologically”, with our tools and weapons simply outshining theirs. Cambridge researchers Paul Mellars and Jennifer French have another idea. They say “numerical supremacy alone may have been a critical factor in human dominance (Mellars andFrench, 2011). Anthropologist Pat Shipman takes their theory to the next level by proposing that dogs might have been the technology that allowed early humans to flourish. Shipman analyzed fossilized canid skeletons found at a 27,000 year-old site in the Czech Republic that showed people and dogs buried together ritualistically; meanwhile drill marks in the teeth of canids suggest that people may’ve worn them as jewelry, which is not something they would’ve done had dogs been valued only as food, rather than perceived as beings worthy of worship. Dogs presumably not only helped bring down large game as hunting cohorts, but likely also transported animal carcasses from kill sites. With this energy-intensive task covered, humans could concentrate their energy on the more productive endeavors of hunting, gathering and reproducing. The possible result, Shipman argues, was a virtuous circle of cooperation – one in which humans and their canine friends got stronger, together, over time.

While some of these theories are wrought with conjecture, they tend to make sense when pieced together with theories of how humans evolved via specific adaptations. In what is knows as the “cooperative eye hypothesis”, researchers from Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology conducted a study in 2006 in which they compared the sclera of human beings to those of other primates. Since humans communicate through non-verbal cues, like gazes in one direction or another, the whites of human eyes being more prominently visible than those of other apes could’ve advanced our coordinated hunting strategies, thereby giving us an evolutionary advantage. While no proof exists yet to support the idea, perhaps Neanderthals never developed the sclera advantage, which would’ve left lone Neanderthal hunters out in the cold while more communicative hunters had all the success.

Scientific studies show that dogs follow human gazes and points, while chimpanzees test poorly in these challenges, suggesting that while apes may be our closest genetic relatives, it is dogs who have co-evolved alongside us in mutually beneficial parallel. In a letter to Konrad Lorenz, world renown primatologist Jane Goodall notes that similarities between the way humans and wolves relate to one another, and ways in which humans relate to dogs and to each other, are of a different kind than our closest living ape relatives, the chimpanzees. Says Dr. Goodall, “(Dogs) have descended from wolves. They are pack animals. They survive as a result of teamwork”. Whereas, “Chimpanzees are individualists. They are boisterous and volatile in the wild. They are always on the lookout for ways to get the better of each other. They are not pack animals” (Schleidt and Shatler, 2003).


In the tens of thousands of years since our original partnership with dogs took shape, the relationship itself has adapted, and becomes relevant to whatever environmental challenges present themselves at any given time. Dogs’ influence on human-the-cooperator manifests in countless areas of the modern lives we share. One example, a set of qualitative and quantitative data from a unique study out of Australia, illuminates the ripple effect dogs have on neighborhood interactions and people’s sense of community. In their paper, researchers from the University of Western Australia discuss the fact that most studies measuring the positive impact dogs have on people only consider one-on-one interactions. This group focused on the human-canine bond as a potential platform for enhancing the health of communities. The study looked not at the psychological factors that affect individuals with pet dogs, but at the association between pets, and positive effects on psychosocial factors that define a sense of community and social capital. The researchers gathered qualitative data through focus groups conducted at community centers in the suburbs. Discussions explored perceptions and experiences of sense of community and elements of social capital such as trust and community involvement. Pets emerged as a theme within these discussions (Wood, et al., 2007). Their results determined that pet dogs acted as facilitators of social contact and interaction among neighborhood residents, who agreed that they were more likely to meet and chat with strangers when dogs were present. They also noted that pets act as catalysts for reciprocity. There was evidence that providing pet-related favors contributes to neighborhood goodwill and trust (Wood, et al. 2007). The qualitative data garnered many examples of informal community activity associated with pets, ranging from using parks to regularly meeting up with other dog owners (Wood, et al. 2007). In essence, people with dogs get out and walk those dogs. And then they run into other people walking dogs (or not), and people chat. One might not find it so far out then, to draw a parallel between primitive human communities evolving around cooperative hunting, and the integration of dogs into modern humans’ communities as a foundation for neighborhood health initiatives. According to Wood et al., the visible presence of people walking dogs and the impetus dogs provide for people to walk contribute to increased feelings of collective safety and have a positive effect on generalized sense of community (Wood, p. 53). Similarly, we presume our ancestral dogs provided protection around camps, which it makes sense to presume had a similar effect.

Dogs tend to enhance social interactions between people, increasing or strengthening social networks and social provisions, thus elevating psychological well-being (McNicholas & Collis, 2000). ”In particular, research has identified a role for pets, especially dogs, as catalysts for human-human interactions which, in turn, might promote a feeling of social integration (2000). Other studies indicate that a person’s likeability and approachability increase when their personality is bolstered by the presence of a dog. A compelling example of this involves overwhelming trends in social interaction with people in wheelchairs by non-disabled people. Able-bodied people often exhibit avoidance behaviors around physically disabled strangers, such as dodging eye contact or crossing the street to veer out of a disabled person’s path. But when assistance dogs accompanied people in wheelchairs, non-disabled people’s reactions changed dramatically; smiles and conversations increased substantially. These findings suggest that the benefits of service dogs for their owners extend beyond working tasks to include enhanced opportunities for social exchange (Boltz, 1988).

Keeping in mind that cooperative social groups will outcompete others, it makes sense that relying on the human-canine bond for increasing human health and fitness on many levels is a viable strategy for continuing our evolutionary success. In all of the aforementioned ways, and so many more, the convergence of humans and dogs continues to inform humans’ development, lifting us ever-higher and pushing us ever-farther to become the cooperative, connected collective we were always meant to be. Whether dogs domesticated us or we them (or both), one thing is certain: two together are stronger than one alone. And within a wolf pack, a human family, or a human-canine hybrid family-pack, members must cooperate, coordinate, communicate, and agree on a common goal if their respective species’ members are going to carry their legacy forward.


Reliance on head versus eyes in the gaze following of great apes and human infants: the cooperative eye hypothesis. Tomasello, Michael. Hare, Brian. Lehmann, Hagen. Call, Josep. Journal of Human Evolution 52 (2007) 314-320. Received 13 January 2006, accepted 6 October 2006

The Effects of Service Dogs on Social Acknowledgments of People In Wheelchairs. Eddy, Jane, Hart, Lynette A., Boltz, Ronald P. The Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied. Volume 22, Issue 1, pgs 39-45. 1988.

Fitness and Its Role in Evolutionary Genetics. Orr, H. Allen. National Review Genetics (Author Manuscript). August 2009; 10(8): 531-539.

Tenfold Population Increase in Western Europe at the Neanderthal-to-Modern-Human Transition. Mellars, Paul and French, Jennifer. Science. Volume 333, Issue 6402, pgs. 623-627.

Co-Evolution of Humans and Canids: An Alternative View of Dog Domestication. Schleidt, Wolfgang M. and Shatler, Michael D. Evolution and Cognition. 2003. Volume 9, No. 1. Pages 57-72

Two Key Steps in the Evolution of Human Cooperation: The Interdependence Hypothesis. Tomasello, Michael. Melis, Alicia P. Tennie, Claudio. Wyman, Emily and Hermann, Esther. Current Anthropology, Volume 53, No. 6. December 2012.

Five rules for the evolution of cooperation. Nowak, Martin A., Science. December 8, 2006. Volume 314(5805). Pgs 1560-1563.

Do The Eyes Have It? Dog domestication may have helped humans thrive while Neanderthals declined. Pat Shipman. May-June 2012 Issue, Volume 100, Number 3. Pg. 198.

More Than a Furry Companion: The Ripple Effect of Companion Animals on Neighborhood Interactions and Sense of Community. Wood, Lisa J. Giles-Corti, Billie. Bulsara, Max K. Bosch, Darcy A. Society & Animals (Journal of Human-Animal Studies). 2007. Volume 15. Pgs 43-56.

8 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page