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A fascinating fox breeding experiment

Dmitri Belyaev conducted an experiment to breed tamer foxes for the fox fur trade in the early 1950's as they were difficult to keep in captivity. This was his sole purpose in the breeding experiment, but the results were unexpected and shed a lot of light on the relationship between phyical characteristics and nature in dogs. The breeding experiment has run for over 50 years giving a huge wealth of data in many areas.

a silver fox as was used in breeding experiment for breeding tame foxes that resulted in incredible behaviour changes

The criteria he used for his selection was for a 'low flight distance'. All animals (and people actually) have an area surrounding them that will cause them alarm if it is encroached upon. If you enter that zone the animal moves away - specifically if you only just enter the edge of this zone, the animal may just move a short distance away, and if you continue to pursue entering the zone again, and further, the animal will move further away. If you persist the animal is likely to flee altogether. The size of this zone depends upon the 'tameness' of the animal, and scientists use measurements of this zone when studying animal behaviour.

As the generations of breeding progressed, the physical changes that were not being selected for began to become predominant when the selection for breeding was purely how tame the resulting foxes were. These changes included:

  • Coat colour - the coat began to change from sliver to pie-bald. The fox in the picture on right displays a marked pie-bald coat.
  • Ears - the pricked fox ears began to enlarge and droop to become floppy ears.
  • Tails - shortening and they began to change position and roll up over the back.
  • Barking - the foxes began to change from the fox sounds to dog-like barking.
  • Oestrus - the tame foxes began to cycle every six months like a dog rather than annually like a fox.
a pie-bald fox that was the result of the breeding experiment to obtain tame foxes that turned out to behave like dogs

Of course, not only were they not selecting for these traits, but the traits were not even desirable for the most part - there was no market for pie-bald fox furs and the tails were worth a lot of money as long straight tails.

However the importance that can be derived from this is that:

selective breeding for physical characteristics can cause behaviour changes that are genetically programmed into the dog


selective breeding for behaviour charactistics can cause physical changes in the dogs displaying the desired behaviour

This is one reason that can easily explain why livestock guarding dogs are generally large dogs, with floppy ears, board skulls, heavy bone and low set tails. Whilst there are certainly differences in the appearance of the livestock guarding dog breeds around the world, there are also differences in the changes to the predator motor pattern that each particular breed possesses

Interesting to watch the difference in the fox behaviour in this video from the Belyaev farm

This article is broken into topics for you convenience:


male maremma playing with his pups displaying the loving nature of these livestock guardian dogs

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