Neoteny – why dogs were bred to maintain puppy-like play & features - a19

..... Archie dog puppy

Why do we love our domestic dogs so much and how did our ancestors create breeds that more people would want to look after?

The simple answer is that anything that we visually consider as cute is more likely to survive its bonding with humans, as we go to extra lengths to protect them. Ironically this is probably the exact opposite of the reason why farmers originally took dogs in, as guard dogs!

Scientifically it goes a lot further than this. That is, it is claimed that the swift evolution of dogs from wolves into something that is almost unrecognizable as coming from the wolf is an example of neoteny or paedomorphism. Where neoteny is defined as the retention of juvenile features (looks and behaviour in the adult animal).

So why would humans originally breed wolves as juvenile versions of wolves (ie make domestic dogs), and how would this work?

Young wolves are much more social and less dominant than adult wolves. They are playful, lick each other’s faces, and experiment with subservient and dominant behaviors, rarely intentionally drawing blood. It is believed that humans selected adult wolves that were subservient and maintained many other neoteny behaviors. It is also believed that breeding these neoteny adult wolves together was likely to cause a retention of juvenile characteristics into adulthood of their offspring.

What dog characteristics are considered juvenile?

Juvenile characteristics in domestic dogs are such things as: soft fuzzy fur, round torsos, large heads and eyes, ears that hang down rather than stand erect (for the benefit of hunting prey) etc.

You may recognize some of these characteristics in your own dog breed. They also happen to be characteristics that are common to many juvenile mammals.

And here is the link between natural selection of these characteristics in mammal babies and humans breeding them into dogs. All of these features are aimed at creating some form of protective nurturing behavior cross species from most adult mammals. That is, other animals (that are not carnivore), including humans, are more likely to find the animals cute or appealing and less likely to want to harm or neglect them.

Now think about how this defining of some breeds, including the designer cross breed dogs of late, have purposely been exploited by humans for financial gain, as they breed new breeds of cuter dogs. When this leads to breeds with congenital issues or breeds that have no other discernable original dog or wolf characteristics, some people might consider this as going too far.

However regardless of how small or cute a dog breed may seem, they all retain some characteristics of the original wolves hunting technique. Another article on this site looked at how all breeds of dogs have taken on a subset of the full hunting process of the wolf. It is speculated that these subsets are in fact varying degrees of neoteny or paedomorphism.

An example that is often cited of how neoteny works in the dog population is that different dog breed specialties (sporting, working, herding etc) can be characterized also by their level of neoteny.

Some of these groups and their members are:

Herding dogs:  Border Collies, Belgian Malinois and German Shepherds have the controlled characteristics of hunting dogs but are also considered to be THE most juvenile of all dog groups (except perhaps toy and teacup). Members of this group, use the tactics of hunter and prey to intimidate and keep control of herds and flocks. Their natural instinct to bring down an animal under their control is muted by training, such as ball retrieving or actual herding of sheep several times a month.

Other members of the group, including Welsh Corgis, Canaan dogs, and Cattle dogs herd with a more aggressive action (such as biting and nipping at the heels of the animals). These dogs make use of their body design to elude the defenses (kicking or ramming) from their herds.

Scent hounds such as the Beagle, Bloodhound, Basset, Coonhound, Dachshund and Fox Hound are also considered to have an ‘intermediate degree’ of neoteny. These dogs are often considered as cute pets and have floppy ears, however their original purpose was to chase/ pursue the scent of the prey up until the point where they have it cornered. Here the action of neoteny comes into play where they vocalize that they have caught up to the prey by making a vocal summonsing of the pack leader (their human master) by what is called BAYING. Very rarely will they actually attack the prey.

Sporting Dogs (gun dogs) are breed types such as spaniels, retrievers: pointers, setters,  These include dogs that are used in hunting such as the American Water Spaniel; Cocker Spaniel; Curly Coated Retriever; English Setter; English Springer Spaniel; Flat Coated Retriever. They are said to all show an ‘intermediate degree’ of neoteny.

Consider that all these sporting dogs are involved in the hunt, but at a level that would be considered a support role (if they were running in a wolf pack). That is, the pointers will locate prey and point in the direction that the prey is running, but they will not chase and kill. Spaniels and retrievers are involved after the prey has been maimed and killed, but do not directly participate in the killing of the prey. In terms of the bird hunt for instance, human shooters take the place of the alpha wolves (killing the prey) and the spaniels and retriever only seize dead or wounded prey and bring it back to their master – not attempting to eat it unless instructed to do so.

Sight hounds such as the Afghan Hound, Pharaoh Hound, Greyhound and Whippet, have a relatively low level of neoteny (are more wolf like). Physically they have wolf like characteristics of narrow chest and lean bodies but they don’t always have erect ears. Behavior wise they are more related to the wolf (very low neoteny) since they have the instinct to not only have rapid pursuit, but also the instinct to attack and kill prey on sight.

TERRIERS surprisingly (for their general small size) are considered to have one of the lowest levels of neoteny. That is, while they often make good family pets and can be very visually appealing, when pursuing prey they usually have a similar adult aggression level to that of the wolf. They also show very little juvenile submission (even during play) and have adult physical features such as erect ears (for detecting prey).

MASTIFFS, Bulldogs, pit bulls. These breeds have been selectively bred with large chests, large bones and thick skulls to survive in war situations or human protection. While they are not the best dogs for detecting or retrieving prey, they do naturally have high aggression and dominance levels and can easily complete a kill.

The lowest neoteny class of domestic dogs are those that were bred to maintain a large size, be very alert for prey or danger and have the ability to run long distances and kill prey. These are the dogs that are the closest to having the full characteristics of the wolf. Husky and malamutes are considered in this class at least from a physical appearance. While they are cute as puppies, the adult versions are very unlike puppies, taking their tasks of pulling sleds or protecting their owners very seriously. It is said that the one breed that is the least paedomorphic is the African basenji. This is because they were bred to hunt on an equal level with their masters acting very autonomously with very little need for verbal instruction.


A great deal of research has been undertaken to understand the effects of neoteny on the bond between the domestic dog and humans. Domestic puppies even show considerable difference to wolf puppies. The domestic dog puppies spend more time sleeping, are often cleaner and have less coordination. This innocence or helplessness automatically sends signals to man’s nurturing instincts, which begins the bond. Domestic puppies thus receive more attention, more nutrition and training.

The evolution of the working dog breed is a perfect example of planned neoteny in action. Coppinger et al 1987, theorized that the working dogs (sled dogs, live stock guarding and herding dogs) evolution involved selecting breeding stock more on tameness and utilitarian functions than specific physical characteristics. In a ‘form follows function’ philosophy, only after a breed’s behavioral traits had been well established did attention turn to creating a consistent breed appearance. Neoteny traits that are associated with tameness (such as playfulness, dependency and care seeking) in adult domestic dogs are traits shown by juvenile and adolescent wolves.

It has been found that neoteny is greatly influenced by the age of sexual maturity. (Ref 1) There is a strong link between the precocious sexual maturity in domestic dogs and the retardation of adult wolf-like behavior patterns. The early sexual maturation of dogs (compared to wolves) is thought to be responsible for playful patterns of behavior that resist the formation of following the hardwired prey sequences in wolves. “It is precisely the loosely organized neotanic behavioral patterns (playfulness etc) that make domestic dogs much more receptive to training and socialization than are wolves.” Ref 1. The ability to play rather than turn into an alert hunter and the ability to be trained (rather than prefer the company of their own kind) are essentially the hallmarks of domestication.


Please consider Dog Walkers Melbourne (0402 262 875) for all your professional dog walker and pet sitting needs.

Article by Bruce Dwyer. If you wish to use any of this information please refer to the article as a reference and provide a link to


Reference 1

Handbook of applied dog behavior and training  - By Steven R. Lindsay


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