At this point, it’s common knowledge that all dogs, even the small shaky Chihuahua, all come from some curious grey wolves. But how did a 20,000 plus year journey give us over 300 breeds of dog?
While the exact origins of the dog and dog breeds are shrouded in mystery, new clues are being discovered nearly every day.
The Domestication of Wolves
Most researchers believe that wolves were tamed by accident. Ancient wolves are believed to have closely followed nomadic hunters and feast off their scraps. The more adventurous and inquisitive wolves would have then ventured into humans’ campsites to sniff around for more food.
It is believed that the more docile wolves would have been given extra food and allowed to stick around campsites. These friendly wolves would have a more significant opportunity to survive the harsh wilderness and thus a better chance of passing on their docile genes.
Over generations, the offspring of these original wolves would eventually produce some wolves that would feel right at home hunting, eating, and sleeping alongside humans. Seeing the usefulness of animals that were all but made for the hunt, early humans would treat the wolves that helped bring in more food to some extra scraps. Those extra scraps, like before, helped the better hunters, who were most likely more obedient and more willing partners, pass down their genes.
One Domestication or Two?
The most significant rift in the canine scientific community would be whether or not wolves were domesticated once or twice.
Evidence has been shared that would support both theories, but the community is still divided.
In 2016, researchers from Oxford published a paper that supported the two domestication theory. They claimed that a 5,000-year-old Irish fossil had signs of a very complex evolution involving the domestication of two separate populations, one from Europe and one from Asia.
Unfortunately, when this test was recreated later by another group of researchers, they couldn’t replicate those results. So the new group, from Stony Brook University, disputes that dogs were domesticated twice.
However, this new group did find evidence that supports a single domestication event. They pulled DNA from two 7,000-year-old fossils and found that a unique group of dogs were domesticated between 20,000 and 40,000 years ago.
What’s the conclusion? Well, it’s still up in the air. Some believe a singular event to be true, some are claiming a two domestication event, and others are claiming that ancient European dogs died out before they could contribute anything worthwhile to modern dog gene pools.
The origins and domestication of dogs have puzzled scientists for what seems like forever. So much so that in 2005 a group of Russian researchers published what is now a famous case of domestication in foxes.
The experiment ran much how the domestication of wolves is said to have gone. Foxes were selectively bred for their acceptance of humans, but researchers also found that these foxes were better at picking up social cues than the ones not chosen.
This acceptance of human interaction and picking up on small social cues led to Duke’s Canine Cognition Center Director, Brian Hare, claiming “we did not domesticate dogs, dogs domesticate themselves.”
How Have Dogs Changed
Some studies suggest that the strong bond between humans and dogs has hindered dogs natural ability to work together. The pack companionship seen in wolves differs from that seen in domestic dogs. This is because dogs now rely on humans for a majority of their needs, as opposed to their wild ancestors, who very rarely need human intervention.
To test out this theory, researchers pitted dogs and wolves against each other in solving some rather hard puzzles. This experiment found that wolves were very good at using trial and error, whereas dogs would give up trying and look to their human for help.
“This work hints that dogs may have lost some of their physical problem-solving abilities in favor of more social strategies, ones that rely on the unique sort of cooperation domesticated dogs have with humans. This also matches the work showing that dogs are especially good at using human social cues.” - Lori Stanos, Yale University
While breeds have changed over the years, there are a few “ancient breeds” that give us a glimpse into what early dogs may have looked like.
Asian spitz breeds, like the Akita or the Chow Chow, have had their DNA studied and have been shown to be some of the most ancient breeds still in existence. These spitz breeds were used to help with hunting small to medium-sized game.
Breeds like the Basenji, originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, were beneficial to the people of Zaire as trackers and flushers. Basenjis are known for their excellent eyesight and scenting abilities, which are great for tracking game.
Where Do We Go
If you couldn’t tell, much of the history of dogs is still shrouded in mystery. Scientists are still trying to decode the dog’s genome. After all, the science behind the human genome decoding is still relatively new. Because of the closeness between dogs and humans, geneticists think that figuring out more about dogs would help us understand more about ourselves.
Hopefully, in a few years, we will have a better picture of the dogs that helped us tame the wild and establish ourselves and our societies.