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— April 10, 2012 —

Where do dogs come from?
by Daniel McElroy Jr.

My dog is part wolf. So is yours. One of the most fascinating things about domesticated dogs is that they all come from wolves. I don’t want to get into a wholesale discussion on evolution, but even in documented human history, we see the effects of intelligent design when it comes to “pure bred” dogs. Dogs are not a completely natural phenomenon. In the truest sense, we have manipulated their genetic make up and “created” the dogs that we know today.

Here is a basic, although very much abbreviated, history of where we think modern dogs come from.

Many thousands of years ago, when our ancestors were living in caves, we humans were hunter-gatherers. We basically traveled around eating whatever we could get our hands on. That meant fruits and berries and also included animals (hence the hunter in hunter-gatherer). Animals contain parts that prehistoric humans couldn’t or wouldn’t eat called offal. Things like bones, organs and tough bits were tossed aside. Wild canids (wolves, and other dog-like creatures) would travel, loosely attached to humans to scavenge for food and would survive in part on this offal. Those items that were cast off just happen to be the things that these wild dog-like creatures liked to eat.

A symbiotic relationship developed. Dogs knew that humans provided them with a steady supply of food and eventually humans realized that the canids were good for a few things as well. The packs of wild canines provided an alarm system for humans, alerting them to the presence of danger. Also, unbeknownst to these early humans, the dogs that ate this cast off material reduced the spread of disease within the human population. Researchers have theorized that humans exist today, due in part to the fact that these early canines cleaned up after our prehistoric ancestors.

There is some disagreement on whether dogs come from wolves exclusively, or if there are other species like foxes and coyotes in the mix. What is known is that somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago, humans began inviting these pre-dogs into their camps. The friendlier pups had an advantage over their more aggressive siblings. They were closer to the food supply. They also became more and more closely bonded to the humans. This was the beginning of domestication. The most social animals from early breedings were kept as “pets” and the aggressive offspring was rejected. Over the centuries, human intervention swayed the course of genetics and the domesticated dog was born.

Of course, this is a nice story, but is there any sort of verification? Conveniently enough there is.

In the 1950’s in Russia, a geneticist named Dmitry Belyaev began a project that ran for over 40 years. (see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Domesticated_silver_fox) Descendants of the original foxes are still alive today. Essentially, Belyaev attempted to recreate the selective pressure that would have been demonstrated by early humans or their wild canine companions. Specifically, he bred the foxes that showed the least fear and aggression to humans. From those offspring, he selected and bred the most friendly offspring and so on. Since temperament and behavior is a product of biology, selecting the least fearful pups caused a literal shift in the neurochemistry of the offspring. Probably the most interesting part of the experiment is this. When the neurochemistry and biological response was manipulated, the physical appearance of the foxes changed as well. The domesticated foxes that were produced by the experiment began to look less foxlike and more doglike, with traits such as mottled coat color, floppy ears and a more puppy-like tail carriage.

So basically, dogs wouldn’t exist without us (and just maybe we wouldn’t exist without them). We know that they are good for us. They get us moving, reduce our stress and provide companionship. Maybe that’s their way of repaying the favor.

Next week I want to take this a step further and talk about how this whole notion of “pure breeds” came about.



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