A complete history of dogs. (From their evolution from wolves to being domesticated today.)

Since the dawn of time, humans have established communities around the globe. But they didn’t do it alone - wherever you found humans you found canis lupis familaris - dogs.

As you sit in your living room with your dog at your feet, you might start to wonder why and how these beautiful creatures ended up here with us.

Theories on how dogs became our best friends abound, and in this article I’m going to shed some light on what the latest research tells us.

We'll cover:

  • Origin theories through evolution
  • How genetics played a part
  • Where in the world domestication took place
  • And finally seeing how breeds have changed over time will definitely surprise you.

Theories Surrounding Domestication

Darwin’s Unconscious Selection

When it comes to animals, it's hard not to think of Charles Darwin. Most of us know Darwin for his notes on natural selection. But his theory on unconscious selection is less commonly known. 

darwins selection vs human selection

It may help us discover more about the domestication of dogs.

Unconscious selection is non-intentional human selection, otherwise known as automatic selection. 

In the case of animals, unconscious selection happens when an animal is domesticated without the human intentionally doing anything. 

This is in contrast to artificial selection, which tames an animal intentionally.

Of course, unconscious selection can occur in the opposite direction as well. 

This means that they do not have to be tamed. The real significance is in the intention: that’s what determines if the selection is unconscious.

There is Conflicting Evidence of Dog’s Ancestor

Are Dog’s Ancestors Wolves?

Wolves and dogs have a complicated past together. Farmers didn’t simply adopt a few friendly wolves who settled down and became dogs through breeding. The earliest dogs may have lived among hunter-gatherers and adapted later on to the agricultural life. Even then, the line from wolf to dog certainly isn’t unbroken

dog approaching caveman

Studies have shown that there is no clear evidence that shows there was a single origin to all dogs from one breed of wolves. 

There's also no single region where all dogs have come from, because in Australia, where scientists studied the dingo, there wasn't ever a huge wolf population. 

Regardless, it's clear that the answer is more varied than most people think.

Do Wolves and Dogs Have a Common Ancestor?

Back before humans settled down into agricultural societies, somewhere between 9,000 and 34,000 years ago, there was one common ancestor between dogs and wolves. This is according to an analysis of dog and wolf genomes from areas of the world thought to be the centers of domestication.

Regardless of geographic origin though, dogs are more closely related to each other than they are to wolves. This means that dogs didn’t come straight from one group of wolves. There was a lot of interbreeding, even after dogs were domesticated.

Conflicting evidence of domestication

Make no mistake. There’s a lot of conflicting evidence on domestication.

It’s agreed that humans and dogs partnered up. This is perhaps due to mutual benefit where the dog received food and love while the human received help with hunting and herding.

But when did this happen?

The whole debate on when dogs became domesticated is even more complicated with recent studies using DNA. These studies suggest that wolves and dogs split into different species 100,000 years ago. However, domestication occurred somewhere between 40,000 and 20,000 years ago.

Still, researchers don't agree on these results. The period and location of the domestication are still up for debate. The genetic data for the history of the dog is just as intricate as the genetic data of the people they lived with, meaning one thing: conflicting domestication theories.

Dual domestication - Did Dogs Come From 2 Locations?

One theory of domestication has to do with dual domestication. This means that dogs were domesticated in two distinct locations: Eastern Eurasia and Western Eurasia. Two different locations and two species of wolves which led to the dog.

dogs domesticated 30000years ago

Basically: the population of wolves in Europe did give rise to modern dogs (North American wolves are out of the question), but the genetics aren't as clear as previously believed.

There were already dogs in Europe when there were wolves, and domestication didn't happen all at once. Dogs were domesticated twice in two separate locations and by two different groups of people across Europe. 

As different people encountered each other, dogs continued to mate with one another. The Western Eurasia original breed, counts for less than 10 percent of dogs today. 

Most of the dogs from the West have died off. 

The rest are from the Eastern Eurasia area. But do remember that there are still people questioning this dual domestication theory. Some people believe that dogs have come from one geographical origin.

Did Dogs Come from a Single geographic origin?

This theory, as the name suggests, is all about there being only one origin of all dogs. 

It states that all dogs came from one location, according to the DNA that has been analyzed in a study by a research team led by Krishna R. Veeramah, PhD, Assistant Professor of Ecology & Evolution in the College of Arts & Sciences at Stony Brook University. 

The findings suggest that there was one single event of domestication of modern dogs which came from grey wolves.

In contrast to the dual domestication theory, researchers found that many dogs from the same period were very similar to modern European dogs. 

This suggests that instead of dogs being domesticated twice, there might have been only one domestication event.

Of course, if you remember from earlier, that many dogs are from the East and many of the Western origin breeds have died off. It’s still possible that there could have been separate domestications based on location.

Dogs could have just come with humans who migrated though. When humans moved, their dogs moved with them, instead of dogs domesticating in two separate locations.

Ultimately, this theory of one geographic origin is still up for debate, along with the dual domestication theory. DNA studies and evidence have shown us a lot in recent years, and there may be even more data on the domestication of dogs in the years to come.

The origin of domesticated dogs can be traced back to wolves. Gray wolves to be exact. The two species went on separate evolutionary journeys from a shared common ancestor sometime between 15,000 and 40,000 years ago. 

The time range is long because not even scientists can agree upon a set evolutionary story for the domesticated dog. Fossil records show two Neolithic German dogs that are 7,000 and 4,700 years old. But there is more to the story than those two fossils. Modern European dogs shared many similarities with these ancient German dog fossils. 

This brings us to some controversy.

Controversies surround the science

There are some definite controversies in the theories surrounding the domestication of dogs. 

We once thought that humans were actively involved in selecting tame wolves to breed from.

However.

Latest reports suggest that humans are only passively involved in their early domestication process.

It is thought that animals approached humans in search of food. Likely at hunter-gatherer camps. Wolves that were less aggressive, without a pack and which had a calmer demeanor would have been more successful at these food searches. They’d breed with one another, and a tamer wolf-dog was born.

Despite common thought that evolution means the strongest, or fittest, survives, evolution rather depends on a species ability to adapt to their surroundings. 

Less aggressive wolves seeking out human camps for food, like a hungry park bear today, are perfect examples of demeanor being a key evolutionary factor.

wolf-dog approaching human

These were free-roaming village dogs, but not yet dogs as we know them today. 

The first dogs are said to have split about 20,000 years ago. Eastern and Western canines formed their individual species. This ending of the Stone Age period let to humans building more permanent locations, farming, and plant harvesting all while enjoying their new found wolf-like doggy company.

Which country did the first dog come from?

The quick answer? Germany.

The long answer is more complicated. There is a burial site in Germany called Bonn-Oberkassel. Dated about 14,000 years ago, remains of both dog and human have been found together at this location.

Like our village dogs mentioned earlier, the co-existence of dogs and humans dates back further than the domestication of dogs.

Paleolithic-dog-skull

Palaeolithic dog skull dated to 33,000-years ago of a dog-like canid found in the Altai Mountains. 

The first dogs

As you can see, dog and human life are intertwined. This dates far back in history. However, you cannot look at just one location to know the history of early domestication. 

Each country has its first dog and the domestication process varies between each location.

America

Carolina dogs and the Alaskan Malamute are the first domesticated dogs in America. The Carolina dog is medium sized with a reddish coat and pointy, upright ears. 

Thousands of years ago, these scrawny dogs are thought to be a relic of the first dogs to enter the southeast region. 


rock-painting-depicting-a-person-with-a-dog

Ancient rock art from Native Americans depicts dogs that resemble the Carolinas.

Predating modern breeds by thousands of years, the Malamute is a large dog with great strength and a husky-like coat.  

People and their dogs settled in the Arctic region about 4,500 years ago with the Paleo-Eskimo people and the Thule around 1,000 years ago.

Europe

Europe is strongly believed to play a major role in the domestication process of dogs. Migrants to Europe settled and began farms, which included domesticated animals, like sheep and cattle. 

In southern France, footprints of a young child walking beside a canine have been preserved in the earth of the Chauvet Cave, dating to 26,000 years ago. This Paleolithic dog most resembled a Siberian Husky.

Before their arrival, all dogs in Europe shared the same lineage. 

However, this group changed. This suggests that non-indigenous domestic dogs were introduced.

Africa

When most people think of Egypt, they think of cats. However, dogs have origins here as well and were also quite popular. In ancient Egypt, there is a tomb dated to 3500 BCE with art depicting a man walking a dog. Grave art and tombs give scientists evidence that people domesticated dogs in this region even before cattle and other farm animals.

Anubis-mask

Anubis mask. Anubis was an ancient Egyptian jackal headed god of the underworld.


Frequently depicted in these tombs is the Basenji. These dogs were a medium-sized, pointy-eared, and curly-tailed dog with origins in central Africa. It has genetic ancestry with the gray wolf but is directly descended from another common ancestor species.

carved dog rock art

A carved limestone mural of a dog from Giza, Egypt, dated to about 4 400 years ago. Again, the dog has the snout, ears, build and tail seen in today’s Africanis.

From Nubia, the name translates to “dog of the villagers.” The Sumerians first bred the Saluki breed. Very popular in Egypt, the breed is very clearly represented in early paintings.

Although Egypt is credited with the invention of the dog collar, it most likely developed in Sumer which today is Iraq and Kuwait.

african-rock-art-dogs

Rock art in Algeria’s Tassili n’Ajjer plateau has been dated at seven to 10 thousand years before present. The dog at the top right of this hunting scene shows typical Africanis traits – long snout, pointed ears, elegant build and curled-up tail.

kora khoekhoe pastroralis

An 1805 aquatint by Samuel Daniell shows Kora Khoekhoe pastoralists in the southern Cape region of South Africa, breaking camp to move to new pastures. Note the dog at lower left. 

Asia (Mesopotamia)

Speaking of dog collars, a golden pendant of a Saluki dog was found in the Sumerian city of Uruk, 3300 BCE. The dog on the pendant wears a wide collar, which is evidence of dogs wearing collars a long time ago. 

saluki anchient pendant

 A golden pendant of a dog that many believe to be a Saluki (albeit a very fat one) was found at the Sumerian city of Uruk and dated to 3300 BCE, while a cylinder seal from Nineveh (dated c. 3000 BCE) 

Several dog species have their origins in Asia. Siberian husky, Samoyed, Afghan Hound, Chow Chow, Chinese Shar-Pei, and Akita. The Akita originated in Japan in 1603. The dog is famously known in the film Hachi, and the original story is what helped boost this dog’s popularity.

The wrinkly hunting dogs known as Shar-Pei have their origins in China. They were bred to hunt, guard, and herd but are now great companion animals. East Asia brings us the Chow Chow. Breeders were focusing on them as much as 8,300 years ago, breeding them from indigenous Chinese dogs.

The long-haired Afghan Hound has its origins in Tazi in Afghanistan. Their slender frame was beneficial in the Middle East for hunting. 

White and fluffy, the Samoyed was bred to hunt reindeer and pull sleds. In the late 19th century, these dogs were brought out of Siberia to travel the Arctic and Antarctic regions.

The Siberian Husky is still a well-known and loved breed today. They originate from Russia in the 19th century and were originally sled dogs.

Australia

The dingo is a breed with an interesting tale. The domestication process was halted, and the dog reverted to being untamed and wild once introduced to Australia. 

Dingo behavior and history are often brought up when the question "where do dogs come from?" arises, and studies think they have the answer to domestication.

They make more eye contact with humans than wolves, but not as much as a domesticated dog. This behavior is important for dogs to establish trust and for getting food. It has been thousands of years, yet this behavior remains. 

Dingoes are a middle point for studying dog evolution and the history of domesticating dogs.

How Did Dogs Become Our Best Friend?

We’ve learnt is that the relationship between dogs and humans branch back quite a long time in history. The relationship steadily evolved into the domesticated companions that we know and love today. 

We now know that humans began keeping dogs as companions to herd and hunt other animals. Meanwhile, dogs became loyal to their owners due to the companionship, food, and shelter that we have offered to them.

dog sniffing track

From there, the relationship evolved to become what it is between humans and dogs today. 

There are a few theories as to how dogs started to become man's best friend: one of which is that dogs can understand humans and another which asks the important question of who domesticated who?

Dogs can understand humans

Throughout thousands of years, dogs have become increasingly more domesticated. Now, it’s to the point where dogs can understand human emotions and body language. As a recent study has found when dogs and humans gaze into each other’s eyes, they both release a positive chemical known as oxytocin.

petting dogs releases oxytocin

Oxytocin is heavily associated with feelings of love and protection. This can be a result of the mutual understanding and companionship that has formed between dogs and humans.

Survival of the friendliest

Many people pose the question of who domesticated who in the relationship between dogs and humans. Humans and wolves of ancient times were common enemies, fighting each other to be at the top of the food chain. 

However, we know now that the wolves were the first to approach humans, instead of the other way around. It was done so they could provide them with food and shelter.

This is where the "survival of the friendliest" theory comes into action. Wolves became domesticated and evolved into dogs over some time to maintain the companionship between them and humans.

It’s hypothesized that humans killed the more aggressive wolves and the friendlier ones were kept alive to hunt and protect, causing the wolves to undergo changes that caused them to become the dogs of the current day.

dog protecting humans castle

Puppy Eyes

Everyone knows about how our special friends can make themselves look more innocent and loveable by giving us their famous "puppy dog eyes". Another study now suggests that dogs evolved this puppy dog eye muscle through decades of evolution. This is likely a feature that dogs have been bred and conditioned to do through domestication. It’s assumed to be their way to communicate their emotions with humans, or just to make our hearts melt when they lift their eye brow in that heart meltingly cute way.

It’s a good thing too, us humans tend to pay attention to facial expressions, so puppy dog eyes are a significant way of conveying themselves emotionally in a way that humans can understand.

It has been proven that wolves are either incapable of making puppy dog eyes or if they can, it’s at a much lower capacity than dogs can.

The levator anguli oculi medialis or LAOM muscle has developed significantly in most dog breeds and is essentially what makes puppy dog eyes possible. 

Another muscle, called the retractor anguli oculi lateralis or RAOM, which pulls the eyelids toward the ears, was well developed in all the dogs except the husky, a breed with an ancient lineage. 

It was also less prevalent in the wolves. Its development has given dogs the ability to become more expressive and child-like, which when dogs look at you, you bond with it, the same way a mother bonds with her infant child.

How Humans Have Influenced How Dogs Have Changed

Along with the evolution of dogs through domestication, in more recent times, humans have also had a significant hand in how dogs have changed to be the way they are today. 

Through breeding, conditioning, and training, humans have helped dogs evolve in a way that is mutually beneficial to both of them for the most part. However, some forms of domestication have also caused noticeable harmful changes within some dog breeds either through selective genetic breeding or simple domestication.

Genetic Inbreeding

Humans have developed ways of creating new dog breeds and “decoded” the DNA of dogs through the manner of genetic inbreeding. Some forms of this along with domestication can be potentially harmful to some dog breeds.

Genetic inbreeding

For example, some breeds can suffer from breathing complications, have legs too short for running, or be prone to spinal injuries depending on how their DNA causes them to form. Humans have created more than 350 dog breeds through genetic inbreeding, and many of them deal with genetic complications that make their lives much more difficult.

Humans have used genetic inbreeding to make dogs exactly what they needed them for. Some are made for security, some for herding, and some are made just for aesthetic purposes. Over 100 years, the shapes and sizes of dog breeds have made significant changes. 

For example, Boxers have shorter and more upturned faces in contrast to how they looked back then. The changes within genetics, mostly due to genetic inbreeding, have caused the rise of genetic diseases, some of which are unavoidable.

Dog Training

Another way that we have changed dog’s behavior is by putting them through some form of training. Some owners choose to train their dogs in their way, and some put their dogs through special training courses, typically to fulfill different purposes. 

One of the best-known types of training was discovered through Ivan Pavlov's dogs. He conditioned his dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, regardless of what breed he trained. Whenever Pavlov rang a bell, that means that the dogs were about to get a treat.

The bell represented the stimulus of dog treats and caused an automatic psychological reaction of excitement and drooling. The conditioned response to the stimulus would diminish if the dog didn’t get a treat.

Another type of training, that’s starting to become less popular is Type 1 Alpha training. The premise is that dogs have a pack mentality and this type of training helps them distinguish that their owners are the alpha dog and therefore make them more submissive to obey their owner's orders. 

However, positive reinforcement training focuses on rewarding dogs for their good behavior, ignoring the bad. Their rewards can be a good scratch on their ears or their favorite treats. This training method typically uses hand gestures, toys, and body and sound cues to help them learn new tricks and act against bad behavior to be rewarded.

What’s this got to do with dog domestication then?

The domestication of dogs most likely took place way back in the days when men needed help with herding and hunting. 

Some dogs were better at it than others, and they were better at receiving training. We selected those to breed from, and voila, you’ve got a herding, hunting, scent or guarding dog.

History also tells us that we’ve loved our dogs since the dawn of time.

In some regions of Siberia, it was found that some ancient dogs may have treated equally to humans or as members of families. It was discovered that some of these dogs were even buried similarly to humans.

Must be something to do with those eyes!

How Breeders Breed Dogs

Like many things, breeding dogs has most of its origins in science. One could even say that the breeding of dogs is a science experiment of some sort. 

victorian dog breeding

In a collaborative project among UCLA, Cornell University, and the National Institute of Health, it was discovered that body size, fur type, hair length, ear positioning, nose shape, coat color and other features that are the defining points of a breed’s appearance are controlled by about 50 genetic switches. 

What this means is that by altering just a few genetic switches in dogs, it is possible to completely alter the breed of dog that you create

Breeding began taking place around the time dogs were believed to be domesticated. We discovered that we could breed traits in or out quite easily. 

Border Collies, Cockapoos, Spaniels, all very lovely and wonderful dog breeds, but unfortunately it’s also led to some unfortunate changes to ancient dog breeds, and some changes not for the better.

Breed Specific Changes

Bull Terriers

At one time, bull terriers looked quite different. Along the way, its appearance has changed from a strong and athletic look to a strange-looking skull, short legs, and a thick abdomen.

bullterrier-100-years

Today these dogs have a very differently shaped skull — the face has become shorter, and the jaws have become larger. The bodies are lower and stockier now, in general.

German Shepherds

German shepherds are another dog whose appearance and athleticism has been altered by the way it has been bred. In 1915, the German shepherd weighed about 55 pounds and was medium-sized.

german-shepherd-100years

The German Shepherds have become larger, and their fur has become longer and thicker. The skeleton has changed as well: now the сroup is lower, and the chest is wider.

However, today's German shepherd weighs about 30 more pounds, and that’s meant that it’s hind legs are much shorter than needed to support its body, causing all sorts of hip and joint issues.

Pugs

The way pugs are bred has left their DNA ruined and mangled beyond repair. As time went on, pugs developed several health defects which make their lives very difficult. For example, they have breathing problems which cause their throats to collapse. It is also impossible for them to breed without help from the vet. 

Boxers

The breeding of Boxers has mutated them in ways that do not benefit their health. Originally, Boxers already had short muzzles, however, they have been bred to have even shorter muzzles. This leads to them having difficulty breathing. 

boxers-100-years

The Boxers have shorter and upturned faces now. The proportions of the body have slightly changed too.

Boxers also have difficulty regulating their body temperatures. This causes them to have extreme limitations on the number of physical activities they can do and that has severely limited their life span.

Saluki

Today, Salukis are very unique looking dogs. However, in the past, they were very normal looking.

saluki-100-years

The Salukis have become a lot taller and thinner. Now they have long and very thin legs, as well as longer ears.

They have been bred to have exaggeratedly long legs and very wide bodies. The changes that they have undergone due to their breeding has caused them to be prone to heart disease.

Dachshund

When you see a Dachshund dog today, you will instantly notice its extremely short legs and long necks. However, there was a time where Dachshunds had legs and necks that fit their bodies and made sense for their size. 

dachshund 100 years

Today these dogs have a longer face and body, a slightly wider chest, and much shorter hind legs.

Breeders focused on causing the dogs to have long backs, necks and chests that are high and jutted out. They also have legs that have shrunk so small that it makes it difficult for them to walk without their stomachs touching the floor. 

West Highland Terrier

Long ago, the white terrier was an agile and athletic dog. However, now it is recognized as a dog that is not prone to physical activity. Breeding has completely changed the character of these dogs. 

west highland white terrier 100 years

Spot the seven differences! The fur might have become a bit longer and thicker.

Bearded Collie

The bearded collies that we have today possess exaggerated facial features. While they are a very smart breed of dogs, they also suffer from small cranial capacity due to the small size of their heads. 

Saint Bernards

Saint Bernards were once known as strong working dogs. However, its breeding has caused it to become oversized with a squashed face. It also now has excessive skin. 

Because of the amount of skin that they have, they overheat very quickly. You will not see these dogs working anymore. 

Basset Hound

Before human breeding practices, the basset hound had shorter ears, a less sleepy and droopy looking face, and a curve in its back. Today, the Basset hound’s small, curved legs are due to an extra copy of a specific gene. 

basset-hound over 100 years

The body of the Basset Hound has become lower, the hind legs are shorter, and the ears are a lot longer now. The face, as the legs, has become shorter, and the skin has more folds now.

This gene produces growth protein. They now also have bellies that are much lower to the ground than they originally were. They are prone to vertebra issues and they have droopy eyes that are constantly suffering from entropion and ectropion

English Bulldog

The level of breeding the English Bulldog has undergone pushed it past the point of no return. The dog’s structure has been altered so heavily that it is now in a potentially dangerous state. 

bulldogd changes over 100 years

This dog has become more massive and stockier. The chest has become wider, the legs have become shorter, and the face is more flattened now.

These dogs have been engineered to look a certain way. However, this was done without taking into consideration the numerous health issues that come along with its appearance. Bulldogs are prone to develop heart issues, hip problems, breathing issues, and many other health troubles. Sadly, English bulldogs rarely live longer than 6 human years.

Conclusion

The topic of domestication is a complex one that has intrigued scientists for decades. We hope our detailed guide has helped to give you a deeper insight of how dogs came to become man’s best friend. Even though the dogs of today are significantly different from the first dogs, they are nonetheless still as well loved as man’s trusty helpers and companions.

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