In fact, they even had similar-sized brains, indicating that they likely had a language. But one striking difference between the two species was that humans lived and worked alongside dogs, while Neanderthals had a much less subtle use for canines (i.e., dinner). The addition of dogs into a hunting party has been shown to increase food yield by 56 percent, giving early humans a huge advantage over the competition.
But they couldn't have just stolen young pups from their dens and trained them into domestication. It turns out that domesticating a wild wolf pup is incredibly difficult and time consuming, even for modern humans. People of the Mesolithic period had better things to do. Luckily, the wolves came to us -- when humans began to build settlements instead of living a nomadic life, one of the ultimate side effects was that waste accumulated. Wolves just loved eating themselves some garbage, since it was way easier than hunting.
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Then, as now, no dog could resist the allure of old pizza boxes and tampons.
As wolves ventured closer to human settlements for a taste of that sweet, sweet waste buffet, they evolved to become less afraid of humans. They also, amazingly, evolved the ability to read human gestures and follow the human gaze. If we point or look somewhere, a dog will focus in that direction as well (try that with your stupid cat). As these dogs bred, these traits were passed on to future canine generations and amplified, eventually ingraining their benefits into human culture forever.
At which point they began the transition from alpha predator to alpha sidekick.