Where did dogs come from?
When I was little, the first dog I ever had was a Blue Merle Great Dane named Pearl. I remember that she was a lot bigger than my grandmother’s Doberman Pinscher, Gretel. I also remember that in Sunday school I was taught that God made dogs different, but then in regular school, I learned that dogs evolved from wolves through means of both natural and artificial selection. Moreover, this happened at different times for different kinds of dogs. That is to say, Pearl came from a canine lineage that is centuries, if not millennia old. In contrast to this, Gretel’s pinscher ancestry only dated back to 1834. The reality is that about 80% of all modern breeds are only a few centuries old. Still, the big history of dogs began about 12 million years ago when foxes and canines first split off from each other. Then, within a few million years after that, the coyote-like Eucyon davisi had successfully invaded much of Eurasia. In North America, this gave rise to early Canis which first appeared about 6 million years ago. Soon, canines became the dominant predator across the Holarctic. They never migrated below the equator, but that didn’t stop them from circling the globe. As part of this, the large wolf-sized Canis appeared 3 million years ago in China. This was followed by an explosion of the genus across Eurasia less than 2 million years ago, during what is commonly referred to as the “wolf event”. At that time, the coyote and the wolf diverged from a common ancestor, about 1.5 million years ago. Thus Canis lupus emerged. Then, wolves worked their way up the Ice Age food chain to become the major apex predators of the Northen Hemisphere. Finally, about five thousand generations into the canine past, the line of dogs split from that of wolves. Thus, Canis lupus familiaris was born. To date, the oldest known domestic dog fossil is from around 36,000 years ago. The skull was found in the Goyet Caves of Belgium and it belonged to what I would call a pygmy wolf. Similarly, a small child and their dog both left a number of very distinct 26,000-year-old footprints in Chauvet Cave in France. It would seem that man’s best friend is also his oldest.
Timberwolves, in particular, have a continuous presence for at least the last 300,000 years. So, when our Paleolithic ancestors first settled Eurasia, wolves became one of their main rivals. This move put ancient humans in direct competition with canines. However, the least aggressive wolves eventually went from the fringes of our communities all the way into our homes, becoming humanity’s first domesticated animals, nearly 40,000 years ago. The gray wolves of Switzerland became tame all the way back when cave-painting archaic humans still lived among the Neanderthals and other now-extinct hominans. Simply put, the relatively modern advent of civilization offered new opportunities to all the desperate lone wolves that were living on the fringe of society. More to the point, those proto-dogs loved humans, but they hated wolves, having been shunned by the packs in the recent past. Thus, the canines who showed the least aggression towards humans could come closer and closer to feed on more and more of our leftovers. Of course, at that point, dogs were still very much wolf-like, resembling Huskies and Malamutes. As time went on, the most docile scavengers among them outlasted their aggressive brethren, so their genetic traits were passed on, gradually giving rise to more and more submissive pets in the areas nearest human populations. To make it happen, prehistoric people would typically just keep the runt of the litter and kill the rest of the puppies. So, where dogs were concerned, the survival of the fittest meant the survival of the friendliest. Thus, our coevolution began with a covenant to never bite the hand that feeds. In line with this, the first dogs were primarily distinguished from wolves by their smaller size and gracile features, including a shorter snout with smaller teeth. On top of that, dogs have a very similar social structure to people, which allowed them to easily integrate with civilized human families millennia ago. Simply put, dogs view us as part of their pack, which makes them incredibly loyal. Their ancestors even learned how to understand our ancestors’ spoken commands. Moreover, the dogs with the lowest adrenaline levels had the most destabilized genetic makeup. This allowed for variations in coat color, fur type, leg length, body size, and skull shape. Even barking is the result of selecting for tameness. This all gave rise to more and more diversity in the gene pool of more and more dogs over time. Plus, with each new generation, they produced lower levels of stress hormones until the modern baseline was finally reached. Thus, the most adorable puppies became the first pets in prehistory.
Soon, their days of eating out of the trash led to dogs getting their very own meals. Over time humans found more and more ways to make use of their new allies. This included hunting, tracking, spotting, fishing, chasing, hauling, sniffing, guarding, pointing, babysitting, digging, fighting, playing, retrieving, and more. People didn’t domesticate livestock, dogs did. The sheepdog gave rise to the shepherd, not the other way around. As part of this, humans and dogs are in an emotional feedback loop with each other. When people and their pets interact physically, a hormone associated with feelings of love and protectiveness is released in our brains as well as theirs. So, in a way, every dog is a therapy animal. Regardless, over the millennia “man’s best friend” evolved into four different clades, with different dogs being better at different kinds of tasks. For instance, the Ancient Egyptians used Salukis as hunting dogs. Over time, these gave rise to other sighthounds like the Afgan and Borzoi, as well. To understand how this works, think about a dachshund compared to a greyhound. Some dogs are just more suited for burrowing than sprinting, and vice versa. That’s why, particularly with the emergence of kennel clubs and dog shows during England’s Victorian era, different dog types were finally standardized into breeds. In line with this, centuries ago lapdogs became fashionable among high society because they would draw the fleas off of their owners. To this very day, toy breeds are still used as status symbols among certain wealthy elites. The problem is that standard champion show dogs are severely inbred through eugenics. Sadly, many of their most sought after characteristics have come with severe congenital health problems, such as difficulty breathing or being prone to spinal injuries. That’s why the practice of artificial selection needs to end. Mutts are the original underdog and they need us to rescue them, in every sense of the word. Pedigrees are a big problem. The thing to understand is that, the more a dog is shaped like a wolf, the healthier it will be. Simply put, German Shepherds have fewer medical problems than Great Danes and Chihuahuas. So, by breeding dogs that are the most physically fit, not just aesthetically pleasing, and more importantly, by raising them to be caring companions, both people and their pets will be able to lead much better lives in the generations to come.