Where Do Dogs Come From?

The New York Times recently published a fascinating article on ongoing research into the origin of dogs.  By collecting and analyzing the DNA of current dogs and the remains of their long-dead forefathers, scientists are hoping to determine when man’s best friend first appeared on the scene, and where.

When people have thought about the origin of dogs at all, they’ve assumed that dogs are simply domesticated wolves, first developed long ago when hunters shared food with wolves and trained them to become reliant on, and loyal to, humans.  Scientists now believe that’s probably not what happened.  They note that, although dogs and wolves are so closely related they can interbreed, there are important differences in their physiology and especially their behavior.  Some scientists now hypothesize that dogs were, in effect, self-selected, and some variation of ancient wolf began to follow tribes of early human hunter-gatherers because scraps of food were readily available, and became tamer and tamer in their interactions with humans because the friendlier wolves were much more successful in getting food and breeding — which is the ultimate key to evolution.

IMG_0548But where did the domestication process happen, and when?  Most scientists believe it happened 15,000 years ago, and the process was so rapid that by 14,000 years ago people were burying dogs, sometimes along with humans.  Others believe that dogs are much older and that the domestication may have occurred as long as 30,000 years ago.  As for where dogs first developed, the candidates range from Europe to Africa to Siberia.  To try to answer some of the questions, scientists are collaborating on a vast world-wide DNA collection process and are hoping that, if they assemble enough data, they may be able to trace origins and find useful clues to answer these questions.

They are important questions, and not just for the dog lovers among us.  (In fact, one of the scientists involved in the project, far from being a warm and fuzzy dog fan, contends that the modern house dog “may have evolved into a parasite.”)  The period of human evolution from 30,000 to 15,000 years ago is shrouded in mystery, but clearly something was happening as humans progressed from roving bands of hunter-gatherers to multi-family tribes that formed settlements, built permanent structures, grew crops, and eventually created the first cities and organized civilizations.  It is not far-fetched to speculate that the training and domestication of dogs, and their assumption of their familiar roles of protector, fellow hunter, and treasured friend, may have been an important part of that settling down process.  Those of us who have and love dogs certainly can attest that there is a strong bond between humans and canines and that, in many respects, the bond makes dog owners better people.

Where did Kasey, and Penny, and Dusty and George before them, come from, and how did their distant ancestors affect the development of human culture?  I’d like to know.

The Canine Bond

From Alaska comes the story of Madera, a blind 11-year-old Labrador retriever who wandered away from her home and became lost during a cold snap, when temperatures reached 40 below zero.  Her owners searched for two weeks and had given up hope when Madera was found by a passerby, 14 pounds lighter but otherwise okay.

You can find examples of the extraordinary human-canine bond, like the search for the blind, aged Madera in dangerously cold temperatures, virtually every day.  We saw it in our neighborhood recently when we walked outside after a recent snowfall and saw a couple pulling an obviously hobbled and sickly white-muzzled dog down the street on a makeshift sled.  They explained that their dog loved the snow and they wanted to let him experience it, even if he couldn’t romp around like he used to.  So they created the carrier and were struggling to steer the dog down the snow-covered street, one pushing and one pulling.  It’s not exactly how most people would want to spend their Saturday, but it’s the kind of thing dog owners do.

In other instances, the bond is reflected in the expenses the owner is willing to endure for surgeries, complicated treatments, special foods, or drug therapies for sick dogs.  Last year, Americans spent almost $56 billion on their pets, which included more than $14 billion for veterinary care.  Options that weren’t even be considered in the past — like organ transplants, joints replacements and other high-end surgeries, pet health insurance, and even hospice care — are now commonplace and growing parts of the economy.  How many of your friends have told you recently about extraordinary steps they have taken to enjoy a few more years with their beloved dog?

DNA studies indicate that dogs became domesticated between 18,000 and 32,000 years ago — so recently that the genetic makeups of dogs and wolves are extremely similar.  Fossil evidence reveals that the first dogs were companions of hunter-gatherers — which probably explains why most dogs have a taste for human food scraps.  The human and canine species share a long common history, and that history has created a deep bond that seems to grow stronger with each passing year.