Dogs are considered to be either Canis familiaris or Canis lupus familiaris. As such, while they are descended from wolves, it should be clear that they aren’t 100 percent the same as wolves in a genetic sense. Having said that, dogs didn’t just stop changing as soon as they were domesticated. Instead, they continued to be bred for particular characteristics, with an excellent example being their friendliness towards humans. For those who are curious, researchers at Azabu University conducted a study about the ability of dogs to communicate with humans. It revealed that dogs from ancient dog breeds were less inclined to look at humans than their counterparts from newer dog breeds when puzzle-solving. This suggests that the genetic change responsible for this happened at some point after the initial domestication of the dog. Something that makes it clear that our canine companions have been the entire time.
How Did Dogs Get Domesticated Anyway?
The domestication of the dog had a huge impact on humans. However, it is one of those things that happened so long ago that we have very little understanding of what went on. For context, the domestication of the dog happened sometime between 27,000 and 40,000 years ago. Meanwhile, writing might have emerged not one, not two, not three, but four separate times. First, it emerged in Mesopotamia between 3400 and 3100 BC. Second, it emerged in Egypt around 3250 BC. Third, it emerged in China around 1200 BC. Fourth, it emerged in Mesoamerica by 500 BC. Even then, the invention of writing didn’t guarantee a decent understanding of what went on. After all, most people weren’t writing for posterity, meaning that there is a great deal of information that was never written down because it was so obvious that it wouldn’t have occurred to most people to write it down. Moreover, what we have is no more than the remnant of a remnant. This isn’t speculation. Instead, this is something that we know very well because we know a lot of works that existed but failed to survive the passage of time. To name an example, the ancient Greeks had eight epic poems about the Trojan War. We have just two of them – the Iliad and the Odyssey – while we have very minimal summaries of the rest. Unsurprisingly, periods that weren’t well-documented become that much more difficult for us to figure out, particularly when we are separated from them by tens of thousands of years.
Still, difficult for us to figure out is quite different from 100 percent impossible to figure out. For instance, we know that dogs separated from wolves sometime between 27,000 and 40,000 years ago. Furthermore, we know that people were burying dogs with them at least 14,200 years ago, meaning that they were presumably well-established as our canine companions by that point in time. As such, dogs were domesticated before humans started settling in place as farmers around 11,500 years ago. In other words, the people who domesticated dogs were hunter-gatherers, meaning that they were living a very different lifestyle when compared with the overwhelming majority of humans living in modern times. Of course, it isn’t clear why people started domesticating dogs, which is perhaps unsurprising when we aren’t even 100 percent sure how many times dogs were domesticated. One suggestion is that people domesticated dogs for hunting purposes. Another suggestion is that wolves started hanging around human camps because of the chance to scavenge our garbage, with the result that they became friendlier and friendlier towards humans over the generations. In fact, it is interesting to note that there is speculation that humans had too much lean meat during the Ice Age. This is an issue because there are limits to how much protein we can eat, as shown by how it is possible for people to die of malnutrition by eating rabbit meat and nothing but rabbit meat because it is too lean. As a result, it is possible that humans used the excess of lean meat to feed wolf pups for fun rather than for more long-term purposes. Something that a wide range of people from a wide range of times and places have been known to do. The speculation is that the grown wolves worked surprisingly well with their humans, thus kicking off a process that would lead to their domestication.
How Does the Domestication of Dogs Compare With the Domestication of Other Species?
There is much that can be said about the domestication of other species when compared with the domestication of dogs. For instance, most other domesticated species were domesticated much later than dogs, so much so that we actually have historical documentation of how some of them have changed over time. To name an example, horses were domesticated around 6,000 years ago on the steppe. Subsequently, they proved to be useful, so much so that they proceeded to spread throughout Eurasia and beyond. However, the horses that were first introduced to agrarian civilizations were quite different from the horses of latter periods. We know this because there was a time when elites rode around on chariots rather than on horses. Something that was necessary because their horses weren’t powerful enough to support their weight. Eventually, horses became bigger, with the result that chariots were rendered obsolete for practical use in preference for cavalry.
Similarly, the fact that dogs were domesticated before the switch from hunter-gatherers to farmers means that they predate the domestication of many, many, many plant species that we use for food, which have undergone significant changes in their own right. For example, the overwhelming majority of the almonds that we eat come from almond trees descended from a genetic mutant. Said mutation causes these trees to produce much less bitter drupes, which is important because that bitterness is caused by the presence of a chemical that breaks down into cyanide. The original almonds are still around, but they are very rare for the simple reason that eating too many of them can kill the eaters. Likewise, there are a lot of other plants that have undergone dramatic changes as well. Maize is a classic example. However, another can be found in the fact that cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and kohlrabi aren’t different species but rather different cultivars of the same species called Brassica oleracea. These changes are excellent reminders of how much we have changed the species around us as well as much how we have been changed by them in turn. Dogs are just one of the most noticeable as well as one of the most fortuitous of these species.