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Yap History

by Don Pinnock / Images by Samora Chapman / 27.01.2014

If the yapping of your neighbour’s dog is driving you crazy consider this: there’s a good chance that you’re alive today because of barking dogs. Here’s why.

All dogs today are genetic descendants of the grey wolf. Exactly when domestication began is unknown, but there’s evidence that some human societies had dogs 15 000 years ago. By that time dogs were being buried the same way as humans – and sometimes with humans.

Their main uses would have been for hunting and possibly fighting, but also as an alarm system against human and animal intruders, particularly at night. But here’s the puzzle: grey wolves don’t bark and are generally extremely silent animals, whereas dog are notable barkers.


Yuval Harari of Jerusalem University, who specialises in Stone Age societies, suggests an answer. If a human band had five puppies and four of them hardly barked at all, they would favour the pup that yapped. It would be given more care, more food and it would have greater chance to thrive and breed.

‘Over thousands of years, ‘ he says, ‘this would have created a huge difference between wolves that don’t bark and dogs that do. So barking is a relic of the ancient role – and in many cases modern role – of dogs. They defended our ancestors against danger.’

But the favour didn’t go only one way. Over generations mutual bonds of understanding developed and both species co-evolved to communicate with each other. Dogs became adept at understanding human commands and emotions. And they also developed skills in manipulating humans to their own advantage.

They were adorable, listened attentively, responded to commands and were demanding of food. So cute, manipulative barking dogs  were the ones that survived 15 000 years of human association.


This survival tactic has been spectacularly successful. There are estimated to be more than half a billion dogs on earth, 148 million in Africa and nine million in South Africa. By comparison there are only about 150 000 grey wolves, 500 Ethiopian wolves and 250 red wolves.  There’s a lesson in this: being useful to humans is a smart genetic survival strategy. So when dogs yap, cut them some slack.


All images ©Samora Chapman

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