Dogs are descended from wolves… it’s TRUE!
One thing is sure, our dogs of today are indeed descended from the grey wolf (Canis Lupus). Academics have long been arguing about the exact timeline and dates. Where and when did dogs split off from wolves? Some studies, all to do with studying genetic material, suggest that the split happened about 30,000 – 40,000 years ago; whilst others, suggest the split was much later, around 11,000 – 16,000 years ago. For our purposes here, we will just conclude it was many moons ago! Regardless of the exact history of the dog, it's likely that domestic dogs appeared simultaneously in various areas of the world. Each of these came from their own wolf-like ancestors that were genetically similar.
How did wolves become dogs?
The process of domestication of wolves first happened when populations of wolves moved to the outskirts of hunter- gatherer camps to scavenge for food. The adaptability of the wolf to live on scraps rather than having to hunt for its food, benefited both wolf and man. Wolf cleared up after man, and man learned to trust that the wolves that came close would not attack them. This mutual trust must have developed over time. Those wolves who were tamer and less aggressive were more successful at maintaining and developing this relationship. Man began to use these tame wolves to their advantage, so they adopted cubs into their tribes and started feeding them. A symbiotic relationship developed and this was the basis of that relationship we so cherish today with our much loved doggy companions.
While these wolves were gradually adapting to their environment, they were unknowingly genetically manipulating their own population. Over the generations, the original wild wolves had changed. They were now considered genetically different from the original wild stock that first lived alongside humans. These wolves were through natural selection, born tame. Presumably ‘tameness’ was the first ever trait selected by humans. It is from this point on that human intervention further shaped the nature of dogs as we know them.
How did we get so many different breeds?
As dogs became more domesticated, humans worked out that by trial and error in breeding dogs they could select for certain traits which would be beneficial to their lives. They could select shapes, sizes and traits that would perform specific tasks, such as protection, hunting, guarding livestock, retrieving, pulling sledges, amongst many others, and of course that of providing loyalty and companionship.
Today there are over 400 breeds of dog worldwide. They come in all shapes, colours and sizes, with an amazing diversity of appearances. Pedigree dog breeding is one of the amazing feats of human kind. All the different breeds have one common ancestor, but some are further down the evolutionary line than others.
It is only recently that the trend has changed from breeding dogs for a given purpose, to breeding them for their looks. This has led to some problems as we humans have unwittingly selected for traits not necessarily beneficial to the individual. However, manipulation of these traits should be relatively easily rectified given the amount of knowledge and science we have nowadays. We are already seeing authorities and organisations recognising problem areas, and becoming stricter about breeding and breed standards.
So the wolf in your sitting room today, is a far cry from his wild ancestors. Nevertheless, many of the behavioural traits for which we love our dogs today, have lasted down the millennia and can be traced back thousands of years to when dogs were originally domesticated.