Understanding the origins of dogs can be a bit overwhelming, but a basic understanding of some of the domestication processes and how they occurred can be a valuable tool in understanding our dogs today. This will become more clear in future articles related to inter-family and pack behavior and communication. The facts are vital because this topic has been so skewed by popular culture and certain traditional and celebrity trainers who utilize “alpha” or “pack” theory.
The origin of the domestic dog has been shrouded in mystery and lost to time. Mainstream science has for the most part overlooked dogs’ behavior and their domestication until recently. Almost all research papers on this topic state that understanding the early domestication of dogs is important to understanding the origins and evolution of humans. Either way, this area of science is very dynamic, fluid, and constantly changing. This topic can be amazingly complicated, so I’ve tried to simplify it down to a page or two, from the hundreds of pages of abstracts, research, and documentation available online.
Until last year, most archaeological evidence placed the origin of dogs around 14-19,000 years ago, around the time of the last glacial maximum. In 2011, 2 skulls of domesticated dogs were dated to be over 30,000 years old, with the oldest dating back 33,000 years, these skulls supported the discovery of a 36,0000 year old dog skull in 2009. Initial genetic research placed the geographic origin to a single population in SE Asia; this is being strongly contested in favor of a multi-regional origin. Based on several 1997-2010 genetic studies the divergence more likely simultaneously came from Grey Wolves (sub species European wolf, Indian wolf, North American wolf, and Chinese wolf) at what they estimated to be 100,000 years ago. Pinpointing the exact genetic history of the dogs has been further complicated due to backcrossing with wolves, coyotes and jackals.
There are two prevailing theories as to how wolves were domesticated. The original theory involved a conscious effort on the humans’ part to domesticate the wolves, by taking wolf puppies from their den, feeding, training, and taming them.
The more recent, and in my mind practical theory: wolves tamed themselves. It is theorized that when food was scarce, less fearful wolves would follow and scavenge human left-overs, further habituating themselves to humans. Over generations, changes began and the wolves physically and mentally evolved into domesticated dogs in parallel with humans, and their evolving brains and developing social structures. Interestingly, as wolves became dogs, they began to exhibit paedomorphosis or the retention of juvenile, puppy-like characteristics as illustrated by the ongoing silver fox studies. The first dogs (or proto-dogs) were thought to work as opportunistic hunting dogs, capturing wounded animals that had been shot with arrows. Certain tribes still use jackals this way in modern times. Additional benefits to humans from the partnership with wolves could have been alerting humans to danger, and keeping the area clean by scavenging. Unintentional selection would most likely have started during this period, eliminating the more aggressive dogs and breeding for more desirable temperament traits. Eventually, the early dogs became more specialized through selective breeding and as human needs developed.
The one fact that seems to have been agreed upon through all of the research: dogs came from wolves. Knowing this is useful in understanding some behaviors, the social bonds we share, and the differences we have with our dogs. This is important in understanding the source of common issues and how dogs communicate and interact between each other. Scott (1950) illustrated the parallelism between dogs and wolves in his ethograms where he found wolves displayed 71 of the 90 postures and expressions that he had recorded domestics dogs displaying. Through evolution, many wolf characteristics have been tempered or lost due to humans selecting a more docile dog.
How smart are dogs?
Nova Science Now- Dec 2010
While domestic dogs and humans co-evolved in close symbiosis, there are some drastic differences. Patricia McConnell PhD, in her book The Other End of the Leash, goes into detail talking about the differences in communication between dogs and primates. This is a fundamental difference that humans (primates) often overlook when interacting with dogs and has led to many dog bites. Humans and other primates have a very frontal and exaggerated approach to verbal and nonverbal communication. McConnell and other scientists call this primate form of communication “ventral-ventral.” Compared to humans and primates, dogs and wolves have a subtle, curved and sideways approach. I call dog language a language of micro-gestures. Examples of this can be: averting eyes, blinks, head turns, tongue flicks, and freezes. Respecting or ignoring these signals can make the difference between a positive outcome or a world of hurt. Canine micro-gestures, gestures known as “calming signals” and how they relate to the pack and family communication and structure will be the topic of its own article in the near future.
A 33,000-Year-Old Incipient Dog from the Altai Mountains of Siberia: Evidence of the Earliest Domestication Disrupted by the Last Glacial Maximum.
ND Ovodov – PLoS ONE, 2011
Origin, genetic diversity, and genome structure of the domestic dog
RK Wayne, EA Ostrander – BioEssays – 1999
African Dog Genetics Suggest New View of Domestication Needed
AR Boyko, RH Boyko, CM Boyko… – PNAS – 2009
Agouti Sequence Polymorphisms in Coyotes, Wolves and Dogs Suggest Hybridization
SM Schmutz – J Hered – 2007
Animal evolution during domestication: the domesticated fox as a model
L Trut, I Oskina, and A Kharlamova - BioEssays - 2009
The social behavior of dogs and wolves: An illustration of sociobiological systematics.
Scott - Ann NY Acad Sci - 1950
Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training Vol. 1: Adaptation and Learning
SR Lindsay – Blackwell Publishing – 2000
Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training Vol. 2: Etiology and assessment of behavior problems
SR Lindsay – Blackwell Publishing – 2001