How To Tame a Fox—And Build a Dog

The amaz­ing true story of how a pair of sci­en­tists con­densed the do­mes­ti­ca­tion process by thou­sands of years and made foxes ev­ery bit as loyal and tame as dogs


The amaz­ing true story of how a pair of sci­en­tists con­densed the do­mes­ti­ca­tion process by thou­sands of years and made foxes ev­ery bit as loyal and tame as dogs.

Sup­pose you wanted to build the per­fect dog from scratch. What would be the key in­gre­di­ents in the recipe? Loy­alty and smarts would be musts. Cute would be as well, per­haps with gen­tle eyes, and a curly, bushy tail that wags in joy just in an­tic­i­pa­tion of your ap­pear­ance. And you might toss in a mutt-like mot­tled fur that seems to scream out “I may not be beau­ti­ful, but you know that I love you and I need you.”

The thing is, you needn’t bother build­ing this. Lyudmila Trut and Dmitri Belyaev have al­ready built it for you. 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 sixty years, a blink of evo­lu­tion­ary time com­pared to the time it took our an­ces­tors to do­mes­ti­cate wolves to dogs. They built it in the of­ten un­bear­able mi­nus 40°F cold of Siberia, where Lyudmila and, be­fore her, Dmitri have been run­ning one of the long­est, most in­cred­i­ble ex­per­i­ments on be­hav­iour and evo­lu­tion ever de­vised. The re­sults are adorable tame foxes that would lick your face and melt your heart.

Many ar­ti­cles have been writ­ten about the fox do­mes­ti­ca­tion ex­per­i­ment, but a new book, How To Tame a Fox {and Build a Dog} (2017, Univer­sity of Chicago Press), from which this ar­ti­cle is adapted, is the first full telling of the story. The story of the lov­able foxes, the sci­en­tists, the care­tak­ers (of­ten poor lo­cals who de­voted them­selves to work they never fully un­der­stood, but would sac­ri­fice ev­ery­thing for), the ex­per­i­ments, the po­lit­i­cal in­trigue, the near tragedies and the tragedies, the love sto­ries, and the be­hind-the-scenes do­ings. They’re all in there.

It started back in the 1950s, and it con­tin­ues to this day, but for just a mo­ment travel back with us to 1974.

One clear, crisp spring morn­ing in that year, with the sun shin­ing on the not yet melted win­ter snow, Lyudmila moved into a tiny house on the edge of an ex­per­i­men­tal fox farm in Siberia with an ex­tra­or­di­nary lit­tle fox named Pushinka, Rus­sian for “tiny ball of fuzz.” Pushinka was a beau­ti­ful fe­male with pierc­ing black eyes, sil­ver-tipped black fur, and

Pushinka was so much like a dog that she came when her name was called and could be let out on the farm with­out a leash. She fol­lowed the work­ers around as they did their chores, and she loved go­ing for walks with Lyudmila along the quiet coun­try road.

a swatch of white run­ning along her left cheek. She had re­cently cel­e­brated her first birth­day, and her tame be­hav­iour and dog-like ways of show­ing af­fec­tion made her beloved by all at the fox farm. Lyudmila and her fel­low sci­en­tist and men­tor Dmitri Belyaev had de­cided that it was time to see whether Pushinka was so do­mes­ti­cated that she would be com­fort­able mak­ing the great leap to be­com­ing truly do­mes­tic. Could this lit­tle fox ac­tu­ally live with peo­ple in a home?

Dmitri Belyaev was a visionary sci­en­tist, a ge­neti­cist work­ing in Rus­sia’s vi­tally im­por­tant com­mer­cial fur in­dus­try. Re­search in ge­net­ics was strictly pro­hib­ited at the time Belyaev be­gan his ca­reer, and he had ac­cepted his post in fur breed­ing be­cause he could carry out stud­ies un­der the cover of that work. 22 years be­fore Pushinka was born, he had launched an ex­per­i­ment that was un­prece­dented in the study of an­i­mal be­hav­iour. He be­gan to breed tame foxes. He wanted to mimic the do­mes­ti­ca­tion of the wolf into the dog, us­ing the sil­ver fox, which is a close ge­netic cousin of the wolf, as a stand-in. If he could ba­si­cally turn a fox into a dog-like an­i­mal, he might solve the long-stand­ing rid­dle of how do­mes­ti­ca­tion comes about. Per­haps he would even dis­cover im­por­tant in­sights about hu­man evo­lu­tion; after all, we are, es­sen­tially, do­mes­ti­cated apes.

Belyaev’s plan for the ex­per­i­ment was au­da­cious. The do­mes­ti­ca­tion of a species was thought to hap­pen grad­u­ally, over thou­sands of years. How could he ex­pect any sig­nif­i­cant re­sults, even if the ex­per­i­ment ran for decades? And yet, here was a fox like Pushinka, who was so much like a dog that she came when her name was called and could be let out on the farm with­out a leash. She fol­lowed the work­ers around as they did their chores, and she loved go­ing for walks with Lyudmila along the quiet coun­try road that ran by the farm on the out­skirts of Novosi­birsk, Siberia. And Pushinka was just one of the hun­dreds of foxes they had bred for tame­ness.

By mov­ing into the house on the edge of the farm with Pushinka, Lyudmila was tak­ing the fox ex­per­i­ment into un­prece­dented ter­rain. Their 15 years of ge­netic se­lec­tion for tame­ness in the foxes had clearly paid off. Now, she and Belyaev wanted to dis­cover whether by liv­ing with Lyudmila, Pushinka would de­velop the spe­cial bond with her that dogs have with their hu­man com­pan­ions. Ex­cept for house pets, most do­mes­ti­cated an­i­mals do not form close re­la­tion­ships with hu­mans, and by far the most in­tense af­fec­tion and loy­alty forms be­tween peo­ple and their dogs. What made the dif­fer­ence? Had that deep hu­man-an­i­mal bond de­vel­oped over a long time? Or might this affin­ity for peo­ple be a change that could emerge quickly, as with so many other changes Lyudmila and Belyaev had seen in the foxes al­ready? Would liv­ing with a hu­man come nat­u­rally to a fox that was so do­mes­ti­cated?

Lyudmila had cho­sen Pushinka to be her com­pan­ion within mo­ments of first

set­ting eyes on her, when she was an adorable lit­tle three-week-old pup frol­ick­ing with her broth­ers and sis­ters. When Lyudmila looked into Pushinka’s eyes, she felt an in­tense sense of con­nec­tion, more than with any fox be­fore. Pushinka also showed a re­mark­able en­thu­si­asm for hu­man con­tact. She would wag her tail fu­ri­ously with ex­cite­ment when­ever Lyudmila or one of the farm work­ers came near her, whim­per­ing with glee and look­ing up ea­gerly at them with an un­mis­tak­able re­quest that they stop and pet her. No one could walk by her with­out do­ing so. Lyudmila had de­cided to move Pushinka into the house after she had turned one year old, mated, and was car­ry­ing a lit­ter of pups. That way, Lyudmila would be able to ob­serve not only how Pushinka ad­justed to liv­ing with her, but whether pups born in the com­pany of hu­mans might so­cial­ize dif­fer­ently than other pups born on the farm. On March 28, 1975, ten days be­fore she was due to de­liver, Pushinka was taken to her new home.

The 700–square-foot house had three rooms in ad­di­tion to a kitchen and bath­room. Lyudmila had moved a bed, a small couch, and a desk into one room to serve as her bed­room and of­fice com­bined, and she had built a den in an­other room for Pushinka. The third room was used as a com­mon area, fur­nished with a few chairs and a ta­ble, where Lyudmila ate her meals and where, on oc­ca­sion, re­search as­sis­tants or other visi­tors could gather. Pushinka would be free to roam through­out.

When Pushinka ar­rived early in the morn­ing of the first day, she be­gan rac­ing around the house, in and out of rooms, highly ag­i­tated. Nor­mally, preg­nant foxes so close to giv­ing birth spend most of their time ly­ing down in their dens, but Pushinka paced and paced from one room to the other. She’d scratch at the wood chips that lined her den floor and lie down briefly, but then she’d jump right back up again and make an­other cir­cuit of the house. Though she was com­fort­able with Lyudmila and came over to her of­ten for some pet­ting, Pushinka was clearly un­set­tled. These strange new sur­round­ings seemed to be caus­ing her ex­treme anx­i­ety. She wouldn’t eat any­thing all day ex­cept for a small piece of cheese and an ap­ple that Lyudmila had brought with her for her own snack.

That afternoon, Lyudmila was joined by her daugh­ter, Ma­rina, and Ma­rina’s friend, Olga. The girls wanted to be there for Pushinka’s big move-in day. At about 11:00 p.m., with Pushinka still pac­ing around the house, the three of them turned in for the night, the two girls ly­ing down on the floor un­der blan­kets next to Lyudmila’s bed. To their great sur­prise and Lyudmila’s re­lief, as they be­gan to drift off to sleep, Pushinka silently sneaked into their room and lay down right along­side the girls. Then, she, too, fi­nally re­laxed and went to sleep.

As Lyudmila would dis­cover over the course of many months with Pushinka, the lov­able lit­tle fox would not only be­come per­fectly com­fort­able liv­ing with her, she would be­come ev­ery bit as loyal as the most loyal of dogs.

Pushinka’s tale was only be­gin­ning. She and Lyudmila would live through much to­gether, as would many of the other foxes and many of the other re­searchers work­ing in Siberia, for this bold ex­per­i­ment in do­mes­ti­ca­tion was only just start­ing to re­veal all the won­ders it would serve up for science.

For more, see Lee Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut’s new book How To Tame a Fox {and Build A Dog}.

Ex­cerpt mod­i­fied from Lee Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut’s 2017 book How To Tame a Fox {and Build A Dog}, The Univer­sity of Chicago Press

Do­mes­ti­cated fox pup­pies play­ing. A do­mes­ti­cated fox re­lax­ing Au­thor Lee Alan Dugatkin An in­quis­i­tive do­mes­ti­cated fox peer­ing out from be­hind veg­e­ta­tion.

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