Everyone knows that dogs are the descendants of wolves, but unless you’re unusually savvy about this subject, you may have questions about the very gradual development of the dog as we know him today. The answer in a nutshell is that wolves evolved in the wild over millions of years. Mankind created domestic dogs. Here’s how:
- Wolves are biologically classified as canis lupus, while dogs are classed as canis familiaris or canis lupus familiaris.
- Dogs were domesticated by early man by selecting and inbreeding wolves with desirable qualities like sociability, training ability and companionship.
- During the Earth’s Late Mesolithic and Early Neolithic periods, people were experimenting with breeding domesticated dogs as hunters, protectors, and companions.
- Early humans bred several kinds of prototype dogs, consistent in with their shapes, sizes, intelligence, value and abilities.
- Egyptian paintings depicted greyhound-type dogs as early as 2,200 BC.
- In early European times, mastiff-like dogs like the Rottweiler and the Bull Mastiff were used by the Romans and Celts as hunters, protectors and war dogs.
- In ancient China, smaller companion dogs were highly prized and were only allowed to be owned by the Emperor and noble families. Dogs like the Pekingese, Pug and Lhasa Apso pre-date the time of Confucius (551-479 BC).
Another good question is how dog types became dog breeds. In the Middle Ages, dogs of similar size, appearance and abilities began to be bred selectively until they all shared certain characteristics. Among these were bloodhounds, sighthounds, and wolfhounds, and then came the spaniels and the livestock-herding dogs. In cold climates, breeds like the Husky, Alaskan Malamute and Chow-Chow emerged.
Today, some types of dogs that are of very primitive wolf descent still exist virtually unchanged like Australia’s Dingo, the New Guinea Singing Dog, the Basenji, the Pariah Dog, and the African Wild Dog. Of these, only the Basenji is recognized by the AKC as a specific dog breed. The Dingo is not a domestic breed; they are the most ancient of the wild dogs.
Domestic dogs are different from wolves in that dogs have two breeding cycles per year, while the wolf has only one. The Dingo and Basenji still share this trait with their wild ancestor, canis lupus.
In centuries past, wolves were numerous in North America, Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean, Asia and semi-desert parts of the Middle East. Today they are in such dwindling numbers that the US placed them on the “endangered list.” Of most interest is the re-introduction of the Grey Wolf into Yellowstone National Park in parts of Wyoming and Montana. Still, the wolf’s future is uncertain; they have been nearly wiped out by ranchers and farmers who see them only as livestock predators.
The Cherokee tribe tells a story about dogs and their relationship with people: After creating humans and animals, the Great Spirit decided to separate people from the wild animals. He caused a huge chasm to split the ground in two: on one side were people and on the other side were animals. The chasm gradually widened, but at the very last moment the dog jumped across to stand at the side of mankind.