In the UK, there are estimated to be over 9 million pet dogs. That equates to 25% of all households owning a dog and dogs are often cited as “man’s best friend“. But how did this species become one of our most important companions? And how did we come to tame one of our natural enemies? Scientists have argued for years over the domestication of the dog. Dr. Robert K. Wayne, molecular geneticist and canid biologist, has identified through DNA research that the dog is closely related to Canis lupus, the Grey Wolf. In fact, so closely related are they that the two animals could breed and produce a healthy litter. Remains of dogs as we know them have been discovered that are up to 15,000 years old, however scientists say that wolves could have first domesticated up to 32,000 years ago. One thing scientists are not sure of is exactly how and why wolves were domesticated in the first place. The general presumption is that wolf cubs were either found or stolen and raised by or amongst the humans, using their skills to aid hunting or as protection.
Domesticated dogs are related to the Grey Wolf. Photo courtesy of The Guardian
The process which has changed the wolf and brought us to today’s modern canine is selective breeding. In the beginning, selective breeding may not have been purposeful but may have been an accident. Certain wolf cubs may have had attributes that others did not or they may have been more willing to domesticate. Those who did not fulfil their purpose or displayed aggression or reluctance may have been killed. If tribes in different areas all had wolves, their requirements would have also been different. Breeding may have been encouraged or allowed from those wolves with the desired attributes; better stamina, bigger, more or less aggressive, colouring, better able cope with varying temperatures etc, and as tribes bred for their personal needs, the wolves would have evolved differently and this may explain the beginnings of the varieties in breeds we see today. Some scientists argue that our domesticated dogs didn’t evolve from wolves at all, but from another, common ancestor. They claim that genome testing has revealed that both dogs and wolves evolved from a different species that became extinct many years ago and that potentially there were other lineages of canine species which have also become extinct. This theory is relatively new and is still being investigated.
Dogs have always served a purpose. Today’s dog is more likely to be used for companionship, but some still serve other purposes, as they have done throughout history. Across the world, humans use dogs for sport, entertainment, fur, hunting, as travel, for food, for protection and much more. Since we first harnessed their hunting power, dogs have served us and selective breeding has led to traits which meet our needs. Retrievers live up to their name so we take them out hunting, asking them to pick up our catch, Huskies are fast, powerful dogs that cope well in cold areas which makes them perfect for pulling laden sleds across snow, Beagles, Bloodhounds and Basset hounds have an excellent sense of smell making them perfect for detection work for use with police forces and bomb disposal, Staffordshire Bull Terriers are often said to have been bred as ‘nanny’ dogs, however cross breeding has led to Pitbull breeds which are now often used for the horrific “sport” of dog fighting. Whilst today we largely revere dog fighting, it has a long history. The Vikings, the Romans, the Tudors, they all used dogs for this sort of entertainment. Dogs would fight each other or larger species such as bears. Humans would harness the dogs’ aggression and attack skills for their own entertainment. Today, we still do this. Fox hunting, which is currently being widely debated, and dog racing are still forms of humans harnessing dogs natural skills for entertainment.
Dogs are raced for human entertainment. Photo courtesy of 813 Magazine
We can use dogs in these ways because despite thousands of years of domestication and an insane amount of breeding, dogs still retain many of their natural traits and desires. Whilst lots of dogs like to sleep in comfortable beds, not go out in the rain and are frightened of their own tails, most dogs still have natural hunting abilities such as strong sense of smell or hearing, still have the ability to cover a lot of ground and still have strong defence and attack skills. Selective breeding has meant that we can choose these skills to develop a breed of dog which is perfect for the role we require it for. We can breed height, weight, nose, ear and tail length, lung size, muscle development, hair type…the list is endless. However selective breeding also has a lot of negative sides to it and many ‘pedigree’ (dogs which have been bred from a lineage of the same breed, so all grandparents and parents are Pugs producing a pedigree pug puppy) dogs have a lots of problems. Mongrels (a mixture of other breeds) tend to live longer, healthier lives with less issues. Today, some are trying to breed out those attributes which cause problems. One breeder has produced a boxer dog without breathing problems due to reducing the Brachycephalia traits – the flat, wide head which causes a flat nose and short skull causing obstruction in their airways.
One scientist, a Russian geneticist named Dmitry Konstantinovich Belyaev, tested the domestication experiment using foxes. He spent decades breeding wild silver foxes, Vulpes vulpes, domesticating them overtime and showing the effects that human domestication can have on animals. The experiment has aided the research into animal genetics and domestication as the foxes behaviour was altered during their time with Belyaev. The foxes took on dog tendencies. They took walks on leads, wagged their tails and obeyed their master’s commands. After a few decades, the foxes succumbed to what is known as the “domestication phenotype”. Some developed shorter tails, some, shorter legs. Some even began to show fear upon meeting wild foxes. They changed colouration and males’ heads grew narrower. In fact, after 40 generations the foxes “displayed behavioural, physiological, and anatomical characteristics that were not found in the wild population, or were found in wild foxes but with much lower frequency….Many of the domesticated foxes had floppy ears, short or curly tails, extended reproductive seasons, changes in fur colouration, and changes in the shape of their skulls, jaws, and teeth. They also lost their ‘musky fox smell“. Their behaviour was similar to that of the domesticated dog as well, enjoying affection and doing tricks in ways that our domesticated dogs do. This experiment has been hailed as being of huge importance to our understanding of animal domestication and despite Belyaev’s death in 1985, work on the project continues.
As humans evolve and age, our dogs do as well. With their changing roles, comes their changing body shapes and characteristics, evolving with the needs and desires that humans project onto them. Hopefully as our understanding of animals develops and we become more sympathetic to their feelings, the way we breed them will be more to their advantage and less to our own, however one thing is for sure; whatever the future holds for man, dogs will be right by his side.
Lexus enjoying the woods. Photo by Alex Pearce
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