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How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog) – Dugatkin and Trut 2017

Dugatkin, Lee Alan and Lyudmila Trut. 2017. How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog). University of Chicago Press. 216 pp. Notes, Index, Color Photos. Cloth. $26.00 US.

I first heard of the spectacular work conducted by Soviet-era geneticists years ago while watching a PBS documentary on Decoding the Dog. This book describes that work begun in Stalinistic Soviet Union, Russia in 1952. It was the brain-child of Dmitri Belyaev who was curious:

“Because the fox is a close genetic cousin of the wolf, it seemed plausible … that whatever genes were involved in the evolution of wolves into dogs were shared by silver foxes raised on … farms all over the Soviet Union.” (p. 10)
Belyaev had to be careful; Stalin’s henchmen were suspicious of any genetics work that did not fit with their oppressive policies. He was able to sell the experimentation on the notion that fox fur-farming – a huge economic industry in the Soviet Union – might benefit from tests to create a tamer fox that would not bite the hands of caretakers.

No small feat. The Cold War was at its peak, and in those times the true nature of these scientists’ inquiries could not be revealed, under the possibility that reputations and, indeed, lives, could be threatened. The struggles these scientists survived to keep this project alive are truly herculean.

Much of the work conducted by staff affiliated with the institute of Cytology and Genetics in Novosibirsk, Siberia, was headed by co-author, Lyudmila Trut, whom Belyaev recruited in 1958. Now in her eighties, she still directs activities and somehow managed to maintain this incredible research program through the Soviet Union of the 1960’s through 1980’s, Perestroika, and Post-Perestroika Russia. How to Tame a Fox is also about the lines of inquiry that were tested, describes the development of methods they employed in this work, and ultimately the emerging awareness of this important work and ultimately support by Western biologists.

Today much research is being conducted on the origins of the dog. These involve many disciplines, including paleontology, archeology, ethologists and molecular genetics to name but a few. Great strides are being made in discovering when, where and how canid genomes have changed. But the underlying mechanisms of how these processes of domestication came about and succeeded remain largely hypothetical. The final chapter provides a wonderful synopsis of current understanding of the biological underpinnings of the process of domestication.

The entire book is written for lay audiences and scientific concepts are easily understood. It is well written, and in places reads like a thriller novel. I recommend it to all who have an interest in this aspect of wolves – how dogs came about through the process of domestication.

Richard P. Thiel