You may have heard that man’s best friend descended from wolves. Dogs have been around for thousands of years. They have a very interesting history that has resulted in many breeds of dogs, including the ones we know and love today.
Evolution of dogs
Dogs are descendants of wolves. It is believed that the current lineage of dogs occurred about 15,000 years ago, while remains found in Belgium and Siberia suggest that the evolution process may have occurred 33,000 years ago. Some DNA studies point to an evolutionary split more than 100,000 years ago. Although it was once believed that dogs originated in East Asia, new research shows it is more likely that dogs descended from wolves somewhere in the Middle East.
DNA studies also suggest that dogs are more closely related to wolves than jackals or coyotes. In other words, there are more differences between dogs and jackals and coyotes than what separates dogs and wolves.
Because coyotes and foxes can interbreed with dogs and wolves, those four types of animals created the dog breeds that we have today. More than 230 breeds of dogs have been identified. It is believed that most dog breeds are around 150 years old, with older ones no more than 500 years old. Dogs show more variations in size and behavior than any other land animal.
Even though the exact time of evolution is unknown, dogs are believed to be the first domesticated animal. There were originally used for working and hunting, but some took on purely pet roles even before livestock and other animals were domesticated.
There is speculation that domestication occurred when wolf pups were orphaned by their mothers. The pups were found and cared for by humans. It is even believed by some that wolf pups were tamed when they were nursed alongside human babies. However the first contacts happened, over time, those animals that were most receptive to humans gained more from what people offered, and dogs that were highly social towards humans eventually emerged.
Research shows that the promise of food was a factor in domesticating wolves. Wolves would eat food left at human campsites. The most social wolves were not scared of the presence of humans. This is called flight distance and is a trait that is passed down from one generation to the next. This trait would be amplified as the tamer animals would get more food, making them more likely to survive and breed. Gradually, each generation more comfortable around humans.
How dogs shaped human evolution
It is believed that dogs and other animals helped shape us into the humans we are today. More than two million years, humans evolved from the hunted to the hunter. Language and conversation developed, and a lot of the conversation revolved around animals, particularly dogs.
Our connection with dogs taught people to care for animals instead of just eating them, which is unlike any other animal species. Humans learned to keep dogs as useful tools instead of food. For example, with the excellent sense of smell dogs have, people were better at hunting as well as avoiding danger, which often made the difference between life and death.
The common thread linking all humankind’s early achievement is dogs. They were a type of biological machinery that worked for people the way modern machines do today. There is even speculation that dogs may have changed people physically. With dogs acting as their noses, the human sense of smell declined to what it is today (very weak in comparison to primates).
Our connection with dogs continues on in modern society. There are more households with pets than those with children. Even people who are homeless or struggling financially manage to have pets. Dogs are shown to have a special ability to understand people that researchers believe is evolved and not learned.
The history of working dogs
Dogs proved their value early on. Back then, they performed many valuable roles and duties for people, such as herding, hunting, protection and pulling carts and heavy loads. In modern times, dogs are used in the military and police departments and can also assist those who are handicapped. Skeletons show that dog breeds such as mastiffs, pointing dogs, sheep herding dogs and wolf-like dogs existed at around 4,500 B.C. In fact, even cave paintings show dogs alongside their owners.
Dogs were used frequently in early Greece. Some used them as guards or for hunting. They were even used in medicine. Dogs could tell is someone was alive or in a coma by just a wag of their tail.
The Romans took their dogs with them throughout Europe when they fought wars. The dogs bred with local dogs and created sporting lines throughout the continent. Breeding was very important at that time.
However, after the fall of the Roman Empire, war and food took priority over dog breeding. The dogs were abandoned, and they ran loose through the towns. Peasants were scared of the dogs, and they made up many superstitions and myths about dogs. However, the rich – the monarchs and the nobility – were in love dogs’ ability to hunt. They looked to bring back lost breeds. Monasteries turned to breeding to earn money.
Dogs as companions
By the 1800s, dogs became less used for working and hunting and more for companionship. Dogs became a status symbol, as nobody could afford them except the rich. Therefore, many new breeds were created at this time. Spaniels, Braques and Griffons were popular. These and similar dogs were bred, creating new bloodlines in the European regions. Many dog owners wanted dogs for specific traits. Some people wanted dogs for retrieving, hunting and ratting and were mixing bloodlines to create dogs with the desired characteristics.
Many specialty breeds were created. For example, some dog breeds were created solely to hunt specific types of animals, such as bears and gazelles. After the French Revolution, even more breeds emerged, as peasants were given the right to hunt. Gun dogs came popular during this time.
Dogs became more refined later in the century. Dog shows were formed in 1859, assuring that the most popular breeds would continue on in the breeding and evolution process.
Many dog lovers are still customizing the breeding process to their liking. For example, some breed golden retrievers or Labrador retrievers with poodles to create Golden Doodles and Labradoodles, resulting in family-friendly dogs that do not shed. Smaller toy breeds are bred with similar breeds to create unique characteristics. Although dog lovers are creating dogs that meet their needs, it comes at a price. Cross-breeding can alter the DNA, which can lead to genetic mutations. These can cause serious and even deadly diseases.
Some less-popular breeds of dogs are still being researched, while others have traits that are no longer used and have therefore become close to extinction. In any case, the dog breeding process is constantly being refined to take into consideration the physical and behavioral traits that various segments of the human population are looking for as a working dog or companion.