Kathryn Lord Q&A

Back in 2009, I attended a conference on carnivores and among all the alpha male presenters was a quiet and scholarly young lady who spoke on wolves, dogs and their socialization. It was a fascinating lecture and afterwords I sought out the speaker, Kathryn Lord (which I’m sure was the highlight of her time in Denver :-P).  She was gracious and extremely nice. Fast forward to 2014 and a recent episode of Nova on PBS and there was Dr. Lord again. So what else was there to do but invite her to do a Q&A?? I mean, really, once you’ve been on national television, what else is there but swjags? :-O Anyway, thanks, Kathryn for this fascinating Q&A!!


Source: Getty Images

Source: Getty Images










  1. Please tell us about your background and education.

I received my Bachelors degree at Hampshire College and did my graduate work (M.S. and Ph.D.) at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology. My Dissertation focused on the development and evolution of behavior in dogs and wolves.


  1. How did you become interested in dogs, their domestication and wolves?

I started to become interested in animal behavior after taking a course my first semester first year at Hampshire with Raymond Coppinger. This was also my first introduction to the evolution of dogs, but it wasn’t until my final year at Hampshire that I actually started working with dogs. In the intervening years I spent a summer as an intern at the New England Wildlife Center, a wildlife hospital on the south shore of Massachusetts. There I became fascinated with the idea of enriching captive environments. This lead me to do my Div. III at Hampshire (the equivalent of a year long senior thesis) on enrichment for pups being raises as guide dogs. After I graduated I turned the thesis into a grant proposal and spent a year and half working at a guide dog facility investigating techniques to improve the success of guide dogs by enriching their early environment. This led to grad school and it was while at grad school that I got the opportunity to go to a Zoo in Quebec and raise my first litter of wolves. That was when I added in the wolf element and became interested in investigating changes in the timing of development as a mechanism for the evolution of behavior.


  1. What is your opinion of the method and timing of dog domestication?

The best evidence suggests that dogs evolved during the Neolithic period when humans began to form permanent settlements around 10,000-8,000 BP (Before Present) via natural selection. This idea was originally proposed by Dr. Raymond Coppinger. The basic idea being that when humans began to create permanent settlements during the Neolithic period (~ 10,000BP) we also created a lot of waste. Since we were no longer moving around to hunt and gather, our waste collected in predictable locations. These locations became fantastic feeding grounds for other animals to scavenge (and still are to this day). Under this hypothesis dogs are the result of natural selection and are adapted to survive off human refuse.


  1. Many people have heard of the breeding of foxes for tractability on a Siberian fur farm & the subsequent appearance of dog-like traits (soliciting human contact, floppy ears, etc.). Do you think this is merely an interesting experiment or does it have important ramifications for how dogs were domesticated?

This experiment lends strong support to the idea of dogs being naturally selected. Basically Belyaev selected for reduced flight distance in these Siberian foxes. Flight distance is how close you allow novelty to approach before fleeing and how far you run before you stop. When he selected for a shorter flight distance he got a bunch of other changes he wasn’t expecting, namely the dog-like traits you mentioned. A reduced flight distance would be the main adaptation necessary to survive in the dump. If you run away (out of the dump) every time a person brings garbage to the dump then you are a) missing out on the best food and b) using up all of the energy you do get out of the dump running away from people. Dogs have a very short flight distance. Free-living dogs are a lot like pigeons, when someone comes with food they move over a bit and keep eating. What the fox data suggests is that if the ancestor of the dog was selected for a reduced flight distance as an adaptation to the garbage dump this one adaptation could have lead to the other traits that separate dogs from wolves (floppy ears, spotted coat etc.). No artificial selection required.








  1. Your 2013 study (featured in a recent episode of NOVA on PBS in the US) showed how wolves’ critical period (when they are open to novel experiences) starts two weeks earlier than dogs’ and leads to “significant alteration of how these subspecies experience their environment.” What exactly do you think this means to the differences between wolves and dogs?

The biggest difference is in their perception of novelty. In other words what they view as familiar and what they view as novel.   It is not just the change in the timing of the critical period, but the interaction of the critical period and the development of the senses. I found that wolves are blind and deaf when they start to explore the world at two weeks. In contrast, we have long known that dogs can see, hear and smell when they start to explore the world at four weeks. This means that wolves develop a more limited view of what is familiar. In other words they find more things to be novel and frightening even in comparison to a dog raised in the same environment. It also means that it is harder to socialize wolves with other species. Dogs on the other hand, are very easy to socialize with other species. Flight distance is also based on the fear of novelty. So if you put this information together with Belyaev’s experiment, it is reasonable to hypothesize that selection for a two week delay in the critical period of socialization could have caused the domestication of dogs.


  1. Do you think the above differences are important in understanding the relationships between wild wolves and humans?

Absolutely, normally wolves are very skittish of novelty. This should include people. If we maintain a healthy distance so will they. Healthy wild wolves do not usually become dangerous until we habituate them (i.e. get them to associate humans with food) or threaten them. There is also the possibility as humans permeate more wild places that some of the smells or even sounds and sights associated with humans could become familiar during early development, which could lead to further conflict particularly predation on livestock, which is currently avoided largely through techniques that play on wolves’ fear of novelty.















  1. Aside from the scientific data you were measuring, what can you say in general about the differences in raising wolf puppies and dog puppies?

 If dog pups behaved like wolf pups you would be very worried about the dog you were raising. Wolf pups often guard their food, toys, anything they find value in, they get into real intense fights at a relatively early age. Often dog pups never get into fights of the same intensity as wolves. You never take good things away from wolf pups, you always trade up (give them something better). You don’t want to have a relationship of conflict. You want to be the bearer of good things. I want to be outside of any contests over resources. It was not uncommon for a pup to have a big fight with a sibling over a resource like a bunny head and then offer it to me as a prize, or settle in on my lap with their prize for a good chew.

If you want a wolf socialized with humans, you have to raise wolves by hand from 10 days of age. You have to spend 24 hours a day with them until they are between 4-6 weeks at which point they start biting you in your sleep and you spend every waking hour with them until they are around 16 weeks. Then they can live with the adult wolves, but still require daily human contact to maintain socialization with humans. Obviously you don’t need anything this extreme to socialize a dog with people.


  1. Can you tell us about your research into barking in dogs?

Dog barks sound different in different situations. There have been a number of papers suggesting that across dogs, barks are specific to different contexts. If this is true then dog barks can be used to refer to those particular contexts (i.e. stranger approaching the door). It has even been suggested that dogs bark more than wolves to communicate with humans. My co-authors and I wrote a paper that put forth the alternative hypothesis that barking in dogs is the result of internal conflict.

 We found that many other species bark, not just dogs and wolves. Coyotes, jackals, a number of primates, rodents, ungulates and birds also bark. All of these other species bark when conflicted, usually this is associated with a behavior called mobbing. Mobbing usually occurs when an animal is at a nest or den site and is approached by a potential predator. Normally they would just run away, but if they run away from the den/nest they leave their young exposed. This is very conflicting.

The bark itself is a conflicted signal. In birds and mammals vocalizations that are affiliative tend to be high pitched and tonal, while aggressive vocalizations tend to be low pitched and noisy. This is known as Morton’s rule. Barks are both noisy and tonal at the same time and they change in pitch.   The interesting thing is that dogs are not just barking in the face of potential predators, but many conflicting situations. They bark differently in these different situations. So if they are conflicted about being left alone in the house, they have a higher more tonal bark, where as if something scary is on the other side of the door, they have a lower pitched more noisy bark. So the idea is that the sound of the bark is not based on the context, but how the dog feels about the context. If all dogs feel the same way about a particular context then this could still be referential, but some data I collected with my students at Gettysburg College suggests that this is not the case.

  1. What do you want to study next in canids (or other species)?

I have a lot of studies I would like to do. Which one I do is very dependent on the opportunities that present themselves. What gets funded, what resources are available etc. If I could do anything, I would definitely investigate critical periods further. I think we have just started to scratch the surface on this topic and the findings could have a lot of interesting applications.

  1. No doubt you get asked this a lot, but do you have a dog? Or are you a cat person at heart? 😉

I have a dog, a little mutt. I grew up with cats. I am an equal opportunist between cats and dogs.

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