Why are Russian Domestics so Special?

Belyaev’s domestic foxes are remarkably different from their wild counterparts, and a crucial component of their behaviour lies in their early social development. Domestic foxes have a delay in the development of their fear response to foreign stimuli in comparison to wild foxes. The increase in this critical interval in domestic foxes makes them much easier to socialize, as one might a dog (Trut, 1999).

This delayed fear response is not present in populations of foxes outside of the Russian domestics. Regarding their behaviour towards humans, foxes found on fur farms (ranched foxes) are more similar to their wild cousins than to their truly domestic ones. This relates back to what I mentioned earlier regarding the distinction between a domestic animal and a companion animal. Though ranched foxes are technically domesticated, they have been selected for their fur rather than their behaviour. A great example of the behavioural differences between ranched and domestic foxes can be seen in the following video:

This video was taken at the Russian Institute of Cytology and Genetics, the site of Belyaev’s experiment. The first fox is from a strain purposefully bred for aggression, which is plain from its fearful reaction to the human in front of its cage. The second fox, however, is completely docile, showing no signs of fear. This is a fox from the domestic strain. In a study observing vocal activity in ranched foxes, the strain of foxes unselected for any particular kind of behaviour acted in an aggressive and fearful manner towards unfamiliar humans approaching their cages, making similar vocalizations as the ‘aggressive’ strain of foxes. Therefore, the reaction we see in the second fox appears to be unique only to the domestic strain (Gogoleva, 2011).

Even without extensive socialization, Russian domestic foxes still stand out as marvels of behavioural transformation. In another video from the Russian Institute of Cytology and Genetics, we can see a researcher holding one of the domestic foxes:

Though the fox seems a bit frantic, it allows itself to be held without struggling to escape, making no attempt to harm the researcher. The researcher is even able to kiss its face! There is absolutely no way the same could be said had she attempted to hold a wild, or even ranched fox.
So what does this mean? It demonstrates that Belyaev’s domestic foxes are fundamentally different from both their wild and ranched cousins, and although Belyaev’s and ranched foxes are both technically domesticated, behaviourally they hold humans in very different regards.