For anyone who loves their pets, the origin of the dog can be a little bit of a challenge to grasp. Depending on where you read or who you listen to, the origin can change entirely. Since dogs are such a diverse and extensive range of animals, it’s very hard to lock down a clear point of origin as to what the ‘first’ dog was. Let’s take a look, though, at what we know about the origin of the world’s favorite pet.
As part of the Canis lupus familarias grouping, it’s hard to pinpoint just what exactly a dog really is. Today, though, all we know is that the happy, fluffy, friendly dogs that we call our companions and best friends tend to be something completely different from the wolves that they have evolved from generations ago. In fact, no dogs that we could realistically have around the home still have the majority characteristics of a typical wolf. Thousands of generations removed from what they once were; the domestic dog is a man-made creation.
Indeed, the dog was the first animal and the only carnivore in history to be turned into a domesticated animal – a pet, if you were. However, we have no real way to trace back with 100% certainty the history and the life of the dog. While scientists work endlessly to try and finally solve a major natural mystery, the answers that we seek likely lie within the DNA of a dog.
What We Know
For years, the answers were nothing more than the opinion and the hopes of excited scientists. True answers and facts about such a diverse and challenge question were thin on the ground, near-impossible to garner any kind of proof on. However, recent genetic works and studies have begun to work towards a certain theory – that the origin of the dog could go back as far as 38,000 years!
Since dogs have had a connection to humans, they have been doing tasks that we need their aid for such as hunting, shepherding, pulling equipment and even acting as guards. It’s hard to motivate, say, a cat, to do the jobs that a dog does for us. Therefore, as people moved around the world, they would have taken their dog with them – a valuable source of assistance as much as comfort.
As you might imagine, then, dogs began to travel worldwide as people moved from one part of the world to the next. Their beloved dogs would fornicate with the local populace of dogs and even wolves, creating an exceptional diversity of animal. This is both a modern and a distant phenomenon, and has been behind the creation of just about any kind of modern, domesticated animal.
Today, we have what we know as ‘purebred’ dogs; dogs which have been bred in specific patterns and styles for generations, with artificial selection. This is partly why understanding their fascinating history can be so tough: when breeding started, we do not know, but it vastly skewed our understanding of how dogs came to be. It’s hard to follow the natural path when human intervention sped it up so.
It’s estimated, though, that free-breeding dogs are far more like what they once came from. Given that three quarters of the dogs in the world are free-breeding, then, this much broader and more specific genetic path is going to play a vital role in helping us understand the dog better.
What we also know is that the wolves of today are not the wolves which led to the creation of the dog – it’s not that simple. While science digs deeper into the history of our world and stops only comparing modern animals, we can start to get a closer look at what the origins of the dog might be.
The Modern Finding
In June 2016, the Science journal produced an exciting finding: that dogs were domesticated twice in history, on opposite ends of Eurasia. This happened over 15,000 years ago, if not much longer, and is the first major breakthrough that we’ve been able to see in some time. This is because people found that as ancient European populations were replaced by Asian populations over time, that even the dogs followed the same route. According to the same journal, every single dog walking the Earth today stems from the Asian kind, not the European form.
This is the first time that the theory of multiple origins has had any kind of concrete evidence worth pursuing. Still, though, it leaves us with very little means of understanding the true origin of the dog in the first place.
The succeeding belief for year was that before agriculture, we had no need for domestication. That, though, is quickly being disproven by various researchers in the field. While domestication and agriculture work perfectly for other species of animal, the dog is the outlier: it’s origins lie far before agriculture.
Indeed, the dog now appears to have been around since our hunter-gatherer existences far off in the distant past. In fact, many modern findings point to the importance of the breeds of dog that were introduced into China in the 1500s – referred to as ‘toy’ dogs: the kind, cuddly little critters that we love so much.
By the 1800s, these were being brought into the UK and US, where breeding clubs started to breed based on things like location, physical style and their skills such as capability for herding and hunting. For the last three centuries, we’ve concentrated more on the aesthetic style and characteristics, creating breeds that conform to our desires for a dog. While a little malign, it’s become commonplace within dog breeding.
Indeed, as this Cell Reports article notes, “The flock guards use their size to defeat animal predators, while the mastiffs use their size to keep human predators at bay, often through fierce countenance rather than action. The phylogenetic placement of these breeds and lack of recent admixture suggests that giant size developed independently in the different clades and that it may have been one of the earliest traits by which breeds were segregated thousands of years ago.”
So, we used to really look to develop dogs based on their ability to carry out certain tasks – while today we look to “create” dos that conform to our physical wants and needs.
The Diversity of Dog
Now, with the new evidence showing that the diversity and complexity of the dog exceeds what we once thought, the origins will remain a discussion for decades to come. What we do know, however, is that dogs look so different from the wolf today for various reasons. With over 400 breeds of dog today ranging from a husky to a Chihuahua, the challenge is in understanding how this happened.
As wolves have evolved genetically to handle adapting to new environments and challenges, they left a new footprint for the dogs of today. As humans intervened and began to pick and choose which wolves to mate with which, we created a selective form of mating that led to the genetic diversity we know so little of today.
Dogs were then being bred for certain traits, like being better hunters or being impressively strong and with great stamina – even tracking became a popular choice of breeding ‘skill’. This desire for specific dogs for specific jobs has led to the creation of the huge selections that we see today.
With dogs having three kinds of skull alone – dolichocephalic, mesocephalic and brachycephalic – it shows the huge diversity that human intervention has created. While our knowledge on the domesticated dog is still very opinionated and built on theory, the one thing we can confirm is that we were the beginners of the creation of so many breeds of dog.
In our desire to create everything from the loyal friend to the excellent hunter, we’ve taken dogs from the noble wolf to the comical pug.