If you’ve ever watched wolves on television or seen them at the zoo, it might be hard to imagine how our cuddly four-legged friends derived from them.
There was a point thousands of years ago where the descendant of today’s dog split off from its wolf predecessors.
But how does an animal go from being a wolf to a dog? Let’s look at some of the ideas and theories about the evolution of the dog.
Evolution of the Dog
The evolution of the dog is a process that has been shrouded in mystery. There have been a lot of research into finding the very first dog ancestor. The problem is that studies have conflicted each other. Some scientists believe that dogs began in one region, whereas other groups feel differently.
What is agreed upon is that the dog came about by a long process of give and take between wolves and humans.
Dog’s Earliest Ancestors
All dogs, from Great Danes to Chihuahuas evolved from a common ancestor. Scientists are unable to say exactly where the domestication of the dog took place. Many believe that Europe, Asia or even the Middle East are possibilities. In reality, any successful group of humans likely had large predators nearby that they had to protect themselves from.
The divergence that occurred between wolves and dogs occurred about twenty to forty thousand years ago. To put that into perspective, consider this. About thirty thousand years ago, the earliest ovens were found. In the same period the earliest pottery, rope, and huts were developed.
It’s no coincidence that the earliest human homes were found from the same period of the wolf and dog divergence. For the most part, humans and dogs have had a reciprocal relationship. Today, we care for one another. Humans provide shelter and sustenance for dogs, and they give us companionship. Many people keep dogs to help protect their land or alert them to intruders.
For the most part, scientists believe this was the driving force of the divergence between dogs and wolves.
There were likely wolves who would follow a group or groups of humans. These wolves would pick off what they could find. They might find discarded food that was inedible for humans but perfectly fine for wolves. Humans could have hunted big game and left the unusable bits. It’s certain that in order for a wolf to evolve into a dog, some form of domestication would have to take place.
As wolves relies partially on humans, even if it was just to pick up their scraps, something else would have to take place for these animals to become domesticated. If we are to believe the theory of evolution, the dogs earliest ancestors had to have a trait that allowed them to thrive alongside humans.
Most scientists believe this trait was friendliness. If you’ve ever seen a wolf, you know they are not very friendly toward people. They are either fearful or aggressive toward people. For the dog to come about, some ancestor had to develop a certain amount of friendliness toward people. And people had to start trusting this wild animal.
This early relationship must have been a kind of dance with one group feeling out the other group. Early man would possibly throw some food for a friendly wolf, the wolf might fend off another predator. However, how it really happened, we’re not certain. But there was a give and take that forged a relationship between these wolves and humans.
This process is known as self-domestication. It’s extremely unlikely that some hunter nursed an injured wolf back to health and created the dog’s first ancestor. It’s equally unlikely that a hunter raised some wolf cubs to create this ancestor. Those scenarios imply that people actively sought out and domesticated wolves.
What’s far more likely is that some wolves were more friendly than others. This trait gave the friendly wolf an advantage over other wolves and allowed them to spread their genes. As they successfully spread their genes, a feedback loop started, and their offspring become more friendly to the point that people eventually welcomed this “new” animal into their homes.
Well, maybe not quite that quickly, but early man would have been helping these early dogs in some way.
The First Dogs
And that’s how it starts. Today’s dog is not the result of man’s domination of an animal but rather our symbiotic reliance on each other. As the relationship between dog and man grew, other traits developed in dogs as well. They gained the splotchy coats, curly tails and floppy ears that we see in present day dogs. Dogs also were given jobs to do. They would be used for guarding their humans or even to transport goods.
But as dogs have become great at bonding with humans, they have become worse at bonding with their own kind. They may have also become worse at problem solving than their feral counterparts.
When a dog looks back to their master for help rather than tackling the problem, it shows that they have developed a different set of skills. The dog doesn’t need to rely on itself to fix problems because they have grown to understand that people can help. They can rely on their companions, whereas a wolf would be… a “lone wolf.”
While the evolution of the dog is somewhat a mystery, one thing is certain: people owe a great debt to the relationship that has developed between people and dogs. We have so much gratitude for our furry friends!