I’m quite hopeful you, as you read this, have a best friend.
If you don’t, however, you can pick up a best friend from a shelter not too far away: you can get a dog.
Dogs, called “man’s best friend” in a cliché and somewhat sexist statement, hold that special status in our hearts for a reason. Whereas horses can understand and work with humans, and while cats can see us as food and attention sources, dogs are starved for love and want to dole it out in equal – well, let’s admit it, greater – measure. But how did we get to this point? And why the heck are there so many breeds?
Let’s find out by delving into a pre-history that, with modern technology, is only now being discovered.*
This peer-reviewed gene analysis paper shows how researchers analyzed dog genomes of many breeds to determine that the well-beloved race all descended from gray wolves. Yes, that’s right, your beloved Butter Butt is 100%, genuine wolf.
In fact, the genetic clades (clades represent similarities in genomes, and the closer the clade the more similar the genes) show how closely related dogs and wolves really are. In one of the article’s images, the one that describes the haplotypes (or genetic groups) of dogs and wolves, several groups of dogs and wolves are about equally related to one another. Dogs and wolves are also capable of interbreeding.
This interbreeding seems to have been important during the domestication of the dog, as analysis of the mitochondrial DNA indicates multiple back-breeding events (i.e., when domesticated dogs interbred with wolves) added genetic diversity. It may also indicate multiple domestication events. Multiple events makes it really hard to pin down when dogs were domesticated, and even where! The paper I linked above seems to indicate the primary event happening in east Asia, but others (as summarized in this The Atlantic article) claim with what seems to be equal validity, that the event occurred in any number of places. There is a lot of evidence, however, favoring east Asia over other places.
While genetics has shown us what changed to cause the wolf ancestor to split into wolves and dogs, scientists still argue as to how or why those changes were implemented.
What does it take for domestication occur? This review article from Cell (trust me, it’s a high-level scientific journal) says there’s nothing certain about what makes an animal domesticated, and studied traits vary by species, breed, and situation. The sheer number of dog breeds with highly varying traits also leave us wondering what were the things ancient humans did that changed a wolf into a dog.
There’s only one thing we can be sure of: we absolutely needed friends. Humans gave dogs protection, food, and comfort in a harsh and ancient world even before the first agricultural revolution.
And, as you dog owners know, they gave all of that back ten-fold.
Though dog domestication happened something on the order of 15,000 to 30,000 years ago, the divisions of dogs into breeds happened much later.
And it’s the biggest genetic experiment to have ever happened.
From Mastiffs to Chihuahuas, from Shiba Inu to Australian Shepherds, they’re all dogs. Most breeds also didn’t exist until about 150 years ago, when it became a popular hobby in England to breed the perfect pup.
In fact, look at this map where the landmasses are adjusted for size based on the number of breeds from the area:
CRAZY FRIKKIN’ ENGLAND IS BIGGER THAN AFRICA, AUSTRALIA, and ASIA COMBINED. Also, sorry the map’s not zoomed in to see things well, but I couldn’t find a better image (I saw it for the first time at my dog trainer’s place).
In the late 19th century, the English – and, later, much of Europe – got into the whole idea that dogs were pets and could be bred. Now, I don’t want to be too presumptive, but Darwin published his Origin of Species in 1859, otherwise known as “pretty much at the beginning of the dog-breeding craze.” Was this scientific work influential in dog breeding? Did it inspire the middle-class hobbyists to begin creating dogs that had specific traits other than what were needed to do their jobs? There’s no proof, and it’s literally just something I’ve had in my head for a while, but I think it’s fairly coincidental that all of this happened at once.
But, as selective pressures brought about the differentiation between dog and wolf, human-enforced breeding measures brought about the breeds. We can see this still ongoing today as breed regulations change and new traits come into favor. For instance, when you look at the below picture of two chihuahuas, which one do you think is the correct by breed standard?
The answer is both are ok. Both the deer-headed (B) and apple-headed (A) Chihuahua are up to code, but the apple-headed dogs are more popular and more “desirable” (especially if you want more health problems). I take issue with this specific consumer choice due to those associated health issues, but whatever.
As dog breeding continues, issues associated with inbreeding have cropped up. If you choose to get a purebred dog, do your homework. Look up the lineages of the dog you’re considering, and maybe don’t get one descended from the top showdog (for AKC Pomeranians, it’s hard to get away from Prince Charming in your lineage, but I tried to keep greater diversity when I got my dog).
And, every time you pet your friend, remember that someone, thousands of years ago, was brave enough to pet a wolf.
About the Author: H.R.R. Gorman is a PhD chemical engineer with expertise in biotechnology and making drugs. Following science, Dr. G’s greatest passions are writing and history. Dr. G has a vicious attack Pomeranian named Hector, who is a spoiled and dearly loved dog. If you want to know more about this white-trash-turned-excessively-bourgeois maniac, you can go to https://hrrgorman.wordpress.com/.
*If you believe in the young earth theories or disbelieve evolution, I hope this article was interesting to you without being offensive. With or without evolution, it’s clear: dogs were designed to be our friends. 🙂
I don’t have, and never have had, and have no intention of ever having, a dog. However, I found this article fascinating. It makes me wonder, if all dogs have wolves in their ancestors, why there are so many breeds. I understand how they can interbreed now. But how did the first changes occur?
The fact that I’ve never owned a dog means that both my children were deprived of dogs as children. However, they both have dogs now. My daughter has two rescue dogs. One has only three legs. The fourth had to be amputed as a result of poor treatment before being rescued. Sadly, it was a front leg and he had/has lots of problems with his other leg. Her other rescue dog is very anxious due to maltreatment in previous days. Fortunately my daughter and her partner have provided them with a very loving home and, as you say, that love is returned many-fold. My son and his family have recently acquired a designer labradoodle, a breed which is very popular here at the moment. Their choices are at almost opposite ends of the spectrum. I’m happy for them to have their dog families but have no desire for one of my own.
Haha, I’m very glad your children have dogs. I’m personally a fan, but I understand they’re a lifestyle decision as well as a large commitment. I’m glad your kids also chose a dog they wanted – that’s more important than any specific breed or lack thereof.
Breeds came about for pretty much the same reason dogs came about: humans wanted them.
As far as I’m aware, the original dogs were something like a dingo or a Carolina dog and looked like what we would consider “mutts”. At some point, someone decided they wanted a dog that could take down a boar, so they chose dogs who were best at the job to breed. After several generations – which was quick because the dog lifespan and breed rate is so much shorter than a human’s – you’d start to get physical traits showing up in those lines.
Border collies are one of the most well-known and distinctive breeds by appearance, but they were initially bred for herding. A shepherd saw one dog had fair herding instinct (which separates herding dogs from others), and they decided to breed that dog and others with some level of herding instinct. Over time, they split them into different types of herders, and border collies were chosen for their staring ability, intelligence, and weird gait. Their coats were selected by the AKC – and, because coat and body quality is what the AKC breeds for, their useful, herding traits have suffered. Other communities, such as the American Border Collie Association, breed collies for working capabilities.
I could go on and on about the principles of dog breeding, but it’s really just a very broad experiment in evolution. Dogs have incredible gene plasticity which allows them to interbreed while displaying an enormous variety of traits.
Thanks for the rant. It’s all fascinating. I wouldn’t have sought out the information for myself – wouldn’t have thought to do so – but am happy to learn. Thank you.
I wonder if there’s a wolf out there, Norah who can weasle into your heart. My daughter and SIL have to rescuesand they are showing their age. Not sure they will go that route again, but I think they would with smaller (medium-sized) dogs.
I wonder. I’m enjoying reading about the relationship between early humans and wolves in Jacqui Murray’s Crossroads trilogy.
Definitely a cat-sized-dog sort of person, myself. 🙂
If I had a pet dog it would be a wolf, or the closest thing I could get to it. Not a fan of small dogs.
How do you feel about the Tamaskan vs. the Vallhund?
(Tamaskan is a wolf-appearing husky and the Vallhund is affectionately known as the “wolf corgi”)
Vallhund! A wolf corgi is what a ranch needs.
It’s simple: give the wolf a bone, and he’s suddenly domesticated. He’ll then attack Creepers for you.
I think that’s pretty much it.
Dog is my co-pilot.
I liked this article so much I read it aloud to my cat. (Excuse me, I have to wash and wrap my scratches.) But I have traveled in my truck with dog and cat (separately) and dogs are superior; they smile more and their ears are more fun. Dogs usually make their humans better people. My neighbor is kind enough to loan me their dog…
Loaned dogs are often the best! You get all the love and none of the vet bills!
Expressions are made by the ears. I love those looks from dogs. You have a very dog-like cat and a nice time-share in Blue.
Dogs! Meant to get one when I retired. Never happened. I have written about borrowing dogs…dogs that tolerate not-their-people, sort of an act of charity by generous pooches. Anyways, excellent article…
I love dogs. Not getting a dog is a valid choice, as they do require a lot of attention (if you do it well). And besides, don’t the neighbors’ dogs deserve love too? 😉
Borrowing dogs is great, Bill.
H., I can see how Hector rules the roost — that face! I’d love to imagine how that first domestication occurred. Did humans find chipmunks less endearing? Bears too dangerous? Birds too flighty? Wolves must possess the capacity for affection. Wow — Victorian England got carried away with breeds. Such an interesting article and I appreciate the science links!
If I remember correctly, many people theorize that domestication in early eras happened not just because the animal was endearing so much as they helped with survival. A domestic cow, for instance, provides milk and beef, but a domestic chipmunk wouldn’t provide that many benefits to survival. If humans wouldn’t donate food or protection to the animal even if the individual showed traits good for domestication, then it wouldn’t happen.
I’ve read a few things that say squirrels may be domesticated at some point because kids on college campuses like feeding them.
Excellent read. I grew up with a dog by my side. In my opinion, there is no better companion, caregiver, and all-around best friend. Sadly, I now choose to be without a faithful pet, but the memories of Sooner, Susie, Dusty, Teeko, and Kylie are solidly embedded in my memory bank, old picture albums, and children’s books I write.
Everyone who can remember a good dog feels better for the fact that they have those memories. There’s always *that one* dog who completely steals your heart, too, and that no future dog can ever replace.
Nope, not getting a dog! And your map shows clearly how crazy the English are. What about the recent breeds created for supposed aesthetics but leave the animal with breathing difficulties etc? Interesting article – please don’t worry about offending creationists when science deniers could drive our species to extinction.
I’m personally not a fan of 1) aesthetic breeds with terrible health or, actually, 2) specific crossbreeding, such as labradoodle (as sometimes unexpected combinations can bring about health issues in puppies that aren’t “desirable” for presenting the right cross-breed traits). Sometimes I even wonder if toy dogs, such as my own, is cruel – but they’re able to enjoy life (except pugs), so I decided it was ok.
I’ve mostly had mixed bread or shelter dogs. I’m petless now. But I’ve got family that I can go to for that animal connection.
I’ve loved dogs. But now I just feed the birds. There may arrive a time when I’m done traveling that I’ll take on another ‘best’ friend.
Cheers and thanks for an interesting article.
Thank you for your kind words! Though I wish everyone could have a dog, I totally understand when there’s not space, time, bandwidth, or health enough to give a dog a good life. It’s up to you to decide when and if!
This is very interesting, H. I have never thought about when dog breeding began and the Darwin link is intriguing. I did lose a bit of respect for Darwin when I realised that he pinched his thoughts on evolution from his brilliant grandfather, Erasmus Darwin.
Huh, interesting. Science is full of stealing ideas, and I guess you just kind of got to figure out what has been done sketchily the hard way! And I guess there’s something to be said for being the first to popularize and formalize an idea, but there should be recognition for the first researcher as well.
Dogs can really enrich our lives. Although they are not for everyone, I really think our home is not a home without a dog. Thanks for the fab article!
You’re welcome! As a big dog fan myself, I’m glad you have a best friend to go pet. 🙂
This is absolutely fascinating! As a dog lover and science enthusiast. I have shared it to my Twitter and followed you. I hope you take a look over at my blog, as I think a lot of my quirky historical and animal stuff may be of interest. Have a good weekend 🙂
Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed it. You have a good weekend too!
You are very funny to read hehe, love the pic of your dearest doggie and ‘nameless fluff bucket’ nickname. They are so endlessly adorable aren’t they. I really wish I could get one but right now we rent and are not allowed, so instead I have to run after pups on the street for a quick pat like some kind of junkie hehe
My dog is more than just my friend, she is part of my family. Great piece.
Thank you! Dogs are so much for us. My mom and my mother in law call my dog their “grandpup” and it’s so sweet. I’m glad you have a family-dog too!