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We know dogs evolved from wolves, and researchers and geneticists have extensively studied canines to try and pin down the exact moment in history when the first dog walked the Earth.
Archaeological evidence and DNA analysis make the Bonn-Oberkassel dog the first undisputed example of a dog. The remains, a right mandible (jaw), were discovered during basalt quarrying in Oberkassel, Germany in 1914. First mistakenly classified as a wolf, the Bonn-Oberkassel dog was buried with two humans around 14,220 years ago.
However, there are other theories that suggest dogs may in fact be older. For example, many experts agree that dogs started to separate from wolves starting around 16,000 years before present in Southeastern Asia. The progenitors of the dogs we know and love today may have first appeared in the regions of modern-day Nepal and Mongolia at a time when humans were still hunter-gatherers.
Additional evidence suggests that around 15,000 years ago, early dogs moved out of Southern and Central Asia and dispersed around the world, following humans as they migrated.
Hunting camps in Europe are also thought to be home to canines known as Paleolithic dogs. These canines first appeared some 12,000 years ago and had different morphological and genetic features than the wolves found in Europe at the time. In fact, a quantitative analysis of these canine fossils found that the dogs had skulls similar in shape to that of the Central Asian Shepherd Dog.
Overall, while the Bonn-Oberkassel dog is the first dog we can all agree was in fact a dog, it’s possible dogs are much older. But until we uncover more evidence, it will be difficult to know for sure exactly when dogs completely separated from their wolf ancestors.
There’s even more dispute about the timeline of the history of dogs and humans. What most scientists and canine geneticists agree on is that dogs were first tamed by hunter-gatherers between 9,000 and 34,000 years ago, which is such a wide timeframe that it’s hardly useful.
More recent studies suggest humans may have first domesticated dogs some 6,400-14,000 years ago when an initial wolf population split into East and West Eurasian wolves, which were domesticated independently of each other and gave birth to 2 distinct dog populations before going extinct.
This separate domestication of wolf groups supports the theory that there were 2 domestication incidents for dogs.
Dogs that stayed in East Eurasia may have been first tamed by Paleolithic humans in Southern China, while other dogs followed human tribes further west to European lands. Genetic studies have found that the mitochondrial genomes of all modern dogs are most closely related to the canids of Europe.
Studies have also reported that the dog’s domestication was heavily influenced by the dawn of agriculture. Evidence for this can be found in the fact that modern dogs, unlike wolves, have genes that allow them to breakdown starch.
The bond between humans and dogs have been extensively studied due to its unique nature. This special relationship can be traced all the way back to when humans first started living in groups.
An early domestication theory suggests that the symbiotic, mutualistic relationship between the two species started when humans moved into colder Eurasian regions.
Paleolithic dogs first began to appear at the same time, developing shorter skulls and wider braincases and snouts compared to their wolf ancestors. The shorter snout eventually led to fewer teeth, which may have been the result of humans’ attempts to breed aggression out of dogs.
Ancestors of the modern dog enjoyed plenty of benefits from living around humans, including improved safety, a steady supply of food, and more chances to breed. Humans, with their upright gait and better color vision, also helped in spotting predators and prey over a larger range.
It has been hypothesized that humans in the early Holocene era, around 10,000 years ago, would have chosen wolf puppies for behaviors like tameness and friendliness towards people.
These puppies grew to be hunting companions, tracking and and retrieving wounded game as their human packs settled in Europe and Asia during the last Ice Age. The dog’s heightened sense of smell greatly assisted in the hunt, too.
Aside from helping humans hunt, dogs would have proved useful around the camp by cleaning up leftover food and huddling with humans to provide warmth. Australian Aborigines may have even used expressions such as “three dog night”, which was used to describe a night so cold that three dogs would be needed to keep a person from freezing.
These early dogs were valued members of forager societies. Considered superior to other types of dogs back then, they were often given proper names and considered part of the family.
Dogs were often used as pack animals, too. Some studies suggest that domesticated dogs in what is now Siberia were selectively bred as sled dogs as early as 9,000 years ago, helping humans migrate to North America.
The weight standard for these dogs, 20 to 25 kg for optimum thermo-regulation, is found in the modern breed standard for the Siberian Husky.
While it may seem like humans valued dogs in a merely utilitarian sense, studies suggest that humans have formed emotional bonds with their canine companions since the late Pleistocene era (c. 12,000 years ago)..
This is evident in the Bonn-Oberkassel dog, which was buried with humans even though humans had no practical use for dogs in that particular period.
The Bonn-Oberkassel dog would have also required intensive care for survival, as pathology studies hypothesize that it suffered from canine distemper as a puppy. All these suggest the presence of symbolic or emotional ties between this dog and the humans with which it was buried.
No matter the exact history of dogs’ domestication, dogs have learned to adjust to human needs. Dogs became more respectful of social hierarchies, recognized humans as pack leaders, became more obedient compared to wolves, and developed skills to effectively inhibit their impulses. These animals even adjusted their barking to communicate with humans more efficiently.
Divine Companions and Protectors: Dogs in Ancient Times
Dogs remained valued companions even as ancient civilizations rose around the world. Aside from being faithful companions, dogs became important cultural figures.
In Europe, the Middle East, and North America, walls, tombs, and scrolls bore depictions of dogs hunting game. Dogs were buried with their masters as early as 14,000 years ago, and statues of the canines stood guard at crypts.
The Chinese have always placed great importance on dogs, the first animals they domesticated. As gifts from heaven, dogs were thought to have sacred blood, so canine blood was essential in oaths and allegiances. Dogs were also sacrificed to prevent bad luck and keep disease at bay. Furthermore, dog amulets were carved from jade and worn for personal protection. (6)
Dog collars and pendants depicting dogs were also found in Ancient Sumer as well as Ancient Egypt, where they were considered companions to the gods. Allowed to roam freely in these societies, dogs also protected their masters’ herds and property. (6)
Amulets of the canines were carried for protection, and dog figurines made of clay were buried under buildings as well. The Sumerians also thought dog saliva was a medicinal substance that promoted healing.
In Ancient Greece, dogs were highly regarded as protectors and hunters as well. The Greeks invented the spiked collar to protect their dogs’ necks from predators (6). The ancient Greek school of philosophy Cynicism derives its name from kunikos, which means ‘dog-like’ in Greek. (7)
Four types of dog can be distinguished from Greek writings and art: the Laconian (a hound used for hunting deer and hares), Molossian, the Cretan (most likely a cross between the Laconian and Molossian), and the Melitan, a small, long-haired lap dog.
Furthermore, Ancient Roman law mentions dogs as guardians of the home and flock, and it prized canines over other pets such as cats. Dogs were also thought to provide protection against supernatural threats; a dog barking at thin air is said to be warning its owners of the presence of spirits. (6)
Like in China and Greece, the Mayans and Aztecs also associated dogs with divinity, and they used canines in religious rituals and ceremonies. For these cultures, dogs served as guides for deceased souls in the afterlife and deserved to be respected in the same way as elders.
Norse culture also has strong connections with dogs. Norse burial sites have turned up more dog remains than any other culture in the world, and dogs pulled the goddess Frigg’s chariot and served as protectors for their masters even in the afterlife. After death, warriors were reunited with their loyal dogs in Valhalla.
Throughout history, dogs have always been portrayed as loyal protectors and companions for humans, fit to be associated with gods.
Humans have been selectively breeding dogs to emphasize favorable characteristics like size, herding abilities, and strong scent detection for many years. Hunter-gatherers, for instance, chose wolf puppies that displayed reduced aggression towards people. With the dawn of agriculture came herding and guard dogs who were bred to protect farms and flocks and capable of digesting a starchy diet. (1)
Distinct dog breeds don’t appear to have been identified until 3,000 to 4,000 years ago, but the majority of the dog types we have today had been established by the Roman period. Understandably, the oldest dogs were most likely working dogs that used to hunt, herd, and guard. Dogs were interbred to enhance speed and strength and enhance senses like sight and hearing. (8)
Sight hounds like the Saluki had heightened hearing or sharper sight that allowed them to track down and chase prey. Mastiff-type dogs were valued for their large, muscular bodies, which made them better hunters and guardians.
Artificial selection throughout millenia greatly diversified the world’s population of dogs and resulted in the development of various dog breeds, with each breed sharing uniform observable traits such as size and behavior.
The Fédération Cynologique Internationale, or World Canine Organization, currently recognizes over 300 distinct, registered dog breeds and classifies these breeds into 10 groups, such as sheepdogs and cattle dogs, terriers, and companion and toy dogs.
Various canine breeds are also considered as landraces, or dogs that have been bred without consideration of breed standards. Landrace dogs have a greater diversity in appearance compared to standardized dog breeds, related or otherwise. Landrace breeds include the Scotch Collie, Welsh Sheepdog, and Indian pariah dog.
Dogs and humans continue to share a unique bond today. Dogs have evolved, like they always do, to meet humans’ specific needs and fill an indispensable role in society. Here are some of the more common uses for dogs today:
Assistance dogs have proved for centuries that dogs are good for more than hunting and protecting property. In the 1750s, dogs started to undergo instruction as guides for the visually impaired in a Paris hospital for the blind.
German Shepherds were also used during World War I as ambulance and messenger dogs. When thousands of soldiers came home blinded from mustard gas, dogs were trained en masse to serve as guides for the veterans. The use of guide dogs for veterans soon spread to the United States.
Today, guide dogs are just one type of assistance dogs used all over the world. Many of these canines help the deaf and hard of hearing, while others are seizure response dogs that will get help if their owners experience an epileptic seizure.
Psychiatric dogs can also be trained to provide emotional comfort for people with mental disabilities such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety.
Dogs assist police forces around the world. Known as “K9” dogs, they help in searching for explosives and drugs, finding evidence at crime scenes, and locating missing people.
Due to the highly specific skills required by these tasks, only a few breeds are generally used, such as the Beagle, Belgian Malinois, German Shepherd, and Labrador Retriever.
Search and rescue dogs have been widely used at mass casualty events, like the September 11 attacks. Even in snow and water, dogs trained for tracking human scent can find and follow people who are lost or on the run.
Designer dogs became popular in the late 20th century when the Poodle was crossed with other purebred dogs. This introduced the poodle’s non-shedding coat and intelligence to the resulting crossbreed.
One of the best-known results of these interbreeding efforts is the Labradoodle, which originated in Australia in the 1970s. Bred from a Labrador Retriever and a Poodle, this designer dog was developed to assist disabled people who were also allergic to dander.
Usually kept as companions and pets, designer dogs can come from a wide variety of purebred parents. Breeds are often crossed to get puppies that have the best characteristics of their parents.
The resulting puppies are often called a portmanteau of the parents’ breed names: the Shepsky, for instance, is a cross of the German Shepherd and Siberian Husky.
Dogs have certainly come a long way from scavenging around early human tribes, and dogs’ natural history is something that continues to be extensively studied by scholars around the world.
Recent genetic studies presume the dog’s direct ancestors to be extinct, making it more difficult to draw definitive conclusions about the origin of the canine species. Many theories also exist about the history of the dog’s domestication, with one popular theory being that two groups of dog-like animals were domesticated in separate places at different times.
Furthermore, dogs have evolved to be more than just hunting companions. Throughout history, dogs have protected flocks and homes and provided loyal companionship. Nowadays, they even assist the disabled and help police forces keep communities safe. Dogs have definitely proven time and again that they are indeed ‘man’s best friend’.