DNA evidence indicates that the dog, the modern gray wolf (above) and the now-extinct Taimyr wolf diverged from a now extinct wolf that once lived in Europe.  The history of the dog/human bond is vague, but we do have some clues.

We are not really sure where or when dogs began to be domesticated.  Our furry friends of today are part of the most numerous carnivore species in the world.  The closest relative today is the extant gray wolf, but they are not really related to the original domesticated wolf genetically.  While both species are canines, modern-day dogs are not related to current wild wolves.  There is archeological evidence of dogs buried with humans 14,200 years ago with some unconfirmed remains as old as 36,000 years back.  During the late Paleolithic era, two adults were found buried with the bones of a young canine; while the cause of death of the man and woman were not determined, it was found the young “dog” died of distemper.  Since the animal was too young to have been useful for hunting, it is thought the couple had a sentimental attachment to it. 

One theory of the history of the relationship between dogs/wolves and humans was a cooperation during hunting activities.  Some scientists propose that “dogs” became dogs before they were domesticated.  Domestication of dogs may also have taken place at different times in different parts of the world, and it is reasonable to assume that there are breeds of dogs that evolved and then became extinct.  In fact, the wolves from which dogs directly descended are themselves no longer in existence.  The indigenous people of North America, Siberia, Australia, and East Asia have traditions and stories passed down of a mutual cooperation with wolves living in the wild.  Pictographs of dogs have been found on the walls of caves.

Watercolor tracing made by archaeologist Henri Breuil from a cave painting of a wolf-like canid, Font-de-Gaume, France dated 19,000 years ago.

HUMANS AND DOGS EVOLVED TOGETHER

A study conducted in 2015 reported that a co-evolution may have taken place as specific environments impacted both canines and humans.  People were social animals that felt the need to join forces with another animal that is disposed to being around others to create a “super-group.”  Powerful emotions in both groups included the ability to love one another.  It resulted in a psychological convergence, a joining together of two types of animals.  It may in fact be that human beings and dogs domesticated each other!

According to naturalist Mark Derr, there are two ideas of how humans and domesticated wolves came together.  Wolves may have started to come close or into the villages of primitive man looking for easy food in the trash.  Human might also have started raising puppies, although that would have probably been with the idea of using them for hunting or protection. There is proof in China that primitive humans raised millet to feed their wolves/dogs in addition to scraps of meat when hunting had been scarce.  This showed that the animals were valued by their humans.   Derr speculates that each species recognized common hunting areas and began to work together.  There’s a possibility the two theories were woven together.

The wolf-dogs would protect their humans from predators and invaders by barking alarms.  Hunters with dogs captured more prey.  Even today, dogs are used to flush out prey for Nicaraguan hunters and when hunters for moose in alpine regions use dogs, they secure 56% more meat!   In the Congo, hunters are convinced they would starve if they did not have dogs to assist in the chase.

BUT HUMANS SAW WOLVES AS COMPETITON FOR MEAT!

But Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods wrote in an article in the National Geographic that wolves as hunting partners seems unlikely.  Derr’s idea is that humans domesticated wolves during a time period when humans were making a real effort to kill all the large carnivores, including giant hyenas and the saber-tooth tiger.   They did a fairly good job, because these species were pretty much wiped out.  Most of the meat-eating animals in the Ice Age became extinct.  So why would humans spare wolves, even bringing them into their homes?  Humans didn’t really need the help because they were pretty good hunters on their own and wolves eat A LOT of meat!  Wolves and humans both were not much into sharing prey.

As wolves began to evolve in the company of man, they started to physically change, states Derr.  Their skeletons became smaller and their jaw shorter.  The theory I like best is the one Woods presented: That man and wolf/dog came together because the canines were friendly.  Vicious wolves were probably killed while friendly ones were domesticated.  They developed the floppy ears, spotted coats, and wagging tails that endear them to people even today.  Since there was probably not a large number of domesticated wolves like there are dogs in today’s society, the wolves with the changes became inbred, which caused the changes to become more permanent.

THE BIGGEST CHANGES IN WOLVES WAS NOT THE WAY THEY LOOKED

As dog owners, we don’t think anything about pointing to a ball and having our pet fetch it.  Trained dogs react to hand signals for sit, stay, and lie down.  My old Lady is pretty much deaf from a lifetime of ear infections, and we’ve reached an understanding for going on a walk, time to eat, and scoot because I’m busy.  No other animal can interpret us as well as the dog.  Not even our closest genetic relatives, the chimpanzees, read us as well as our best boy.  This creates an amazing ability to communicate between us.  While I talk to my babies and I know they don’t understand what I say, if I’m upset, they find something outside to check out.  If I’m sad, they come to comfort me.  Some dogs can even read the eye directions of their owners.

DOGS HAVE BEEN BRED FOR MANY USES

The bottom line is that rather humans adapting dogs for our uses, dogs adopted us!  They became useful in order to be brought into the human environment with shelter and food.  They read our expressions to be closer to us.  In addition, they changed in order to do the work we needed.

As the only large carnivore to be domesticated, the dog have been bred over the last 200 years to fulfill certain functions in human society, leading to the many sizes, shapes, and types of hair on today’s canines.  A teacup poodle may weight only one pound, while a giant mastiff can tip the scales at 200 pounds.  As far as function, for instance, bulldogs were bred for short necks, strong jaws, thick bodies, and facial wrinkles to allow them to latch onto the neck of the bull and resist shaking to loosen them.  Smaller dogs were used to burrow after foxes and rabbits or simply to amuse the wealthy.  Regardless of how or why dogs became “man’s best friend”, they remain an important staple in present-day society and an important part in the lives of millions of dog owners. 

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