Man’s best friend. For those of us who share our hearts and homes with our canine companions, the phrase could not ring more true. After all, who else greets us with unabashed joy and enthusiasm every time we walk through the door? Who else loves us as unconditionally and loyally as our dogs?
These days, our dogs live in our homes, travel with us and sleep in our beds--but it wasn’t always this way. Our unique bond with dogs spans thousands of years, slowly evolving over time. But how, when and where did it begin?
According to a recent study conducted by scientists at Oxford University, “today's domestic dogs are a mixture of two ancient and once separate descendants of wolves” and “have been a part of human civilization for at least 12,000 years”.
There are many theories about the origin of this symbiotic relationship, ranging from wolves feeding on garbage near human settlements to the idea of wolves and humans becoming acquainted while hunting large game.
The latter theory is quite fascinating and serves up a good amount of evidence. This theory is explored in this NPR commentary, in which host Ira Flatow Mark Derr, author of "How the Dog Became the Dog: From Wolves to Our Best Friends" and Greger Larson, an evolutionary biologist and research scientist at Durham University in England.
Derr explains, “I think that early humans and wolves got together from the time they first met on the trail of the big game they were hunting, and they like each other in many ways, and so from the beginning of that union, dogs—wolves and humans—were together. From some population of wolves, we're not quite sure which, we had some transformations that occurred that gave us a more doglike animal, and the rest is history.”
But what was that initial draw toward one another, especially given that humans and wolves were competing for the same game? According to Larson, while it may seem counterintuitive, it likely had to do with us sharing that very same purpose.
“There was a shared desire to seek out similar game, and as a result of that… it was certainly [led to] the first domesticated dog,” says Larson in the interview. “There was this relationship that built up between human camps on one side and sort of tame wolves on the other side that were able to tolerate the presence of humans and vice versa. And they partnered up and started hunting together.”
Of course, today’s dogs look very different from their ancestors. According to Larson, most of the breeding we now see only came about in the last 150 years. He says, “There were quite a few varieties [of dog] out, but nobody was really doing breeding with closed breeding lines up until the Victorians. And in fact, the first small pet dog was really only in Roman times, about 2,000 years ago…
So, before that, we had a good 10,000 years of domestication. I mean, dogs were always serving a purpose. They always had a job to do. And as soon as that job was fulfilled, or as soon as it was no longer required, then those dogs were eliminated right away. And it's only really in the last 150 years that we've gone absolutely mad with more of an aesthetic idea of what a dog should be.”
Such a fascinating history for our furry friends! To read more, visit the full NPR story here.